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Many Firsts for Women in NASA's Space Shuttle Program

By July 8, 2011

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If the Trekkies hadn't already embraced it as a catchphrase, "Space: the final frontier" might have been a rallying cry for the women's movement in the 1970s as the United States' space exploration program opened doors to women in science that had long been shut.

As the anticipated final launch of the Atlantis closes the book on this most recent chapter of America in space, it's important to reflect on how the space shuttle program helped shrink the gender gap in the US.

Most of us who were around in the 1960s thought only men could go into space. This truth was communicated to us through the evening news as we saw film clips of all-male astronaut teams. Even silly sitcoms like I Dream of Jeannie, with Barbara Eden's midriff-baring outfit and pre-Dallas Larry Hagman as astronaut Tony Nelson, showed us that a woman's place was in a decked-out "Arabian Nights fantasy" bedroom-in-a-bottle, not inside a rocket aimed at the stars.

Many women over the years changed our perceptions, and the space shuttle program offered them that opportunity.

The first was Sally Ride, NASA's first American woman in space. Ride has just finished her Ph.D. in Astrophysics at Stanford when she was one of 1,000 women who applied to NASA after the agency announced it wanted scientists and technicians for its space shuttle program. Out of a total pool of 8,000 applicants, Ride was one of six women chosen in 1978 as a part of a 35-member astronaut training program. Twenty-two years after the US launched its first manned space flight, Sally Ride went into space in 1983 on the 6-day Challenger mission -- the seventh space shuttle flight. Ride was also the youngest American in history to enter space.

While Ride worked as a mission specialist on her first flight, Eileen Collins was the first woman to pilot a spacecraft.  She was at the controls of the shuttle Discovery on its 8-day mission in February 1995 which included the first space rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir. Four years later, Collins scored another historic first for women as the first female space shuttle commander when she helmed the Columbia in 1999.

Other firsts:

  • Kathryn Sullivan as the first American woman to walk in space aboard the Challenger on the 13th space shuttle flight
  • Christa McAuliffe was America's first "teacher in space" and a civilian astronaut scheduled to teach two lessons from space when she died in the space shuttle Challenger explosion seconds after take-off in January 1986.
  • Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Stephanie Wilson, Naoko Yamazaki and Tracy Caldwell Dyson set the record for most women in space at a single time when the shuttle Discovery docked at the International Space Station in April 2010.

What's especially powerful about the the impact of women in the space shuttle program is their visibility. For the first time we saw female forms suited up in those ubiquitous training jumpsuits and iconic white astronaut suits. Their presence in a male-dominated field encouraged other women to dream big, aim high and shoot for the stars.

Even women who'd hit the glass ceiling again and again, like astrophysicist and space scientist Candy Torres, kept their eyes on the prize. As one of the first women to work in aerospace, Torres' story as told to CNN reminds us of the institutionalized sexism that once prevailed and how inroads made by Ride and others enabled women to walk an easier path in their pursuit of a career in space science.

Although the space shuttle program is over, its influence continues to be felt by girls and young women who grew up seeing that a woman's place can be in space...or any place in or out of this world that she wants to be.

More on women in space -- including a timeline of women space pioneers -- is available at the About.com Women's History site.


July 9, 2011 at 9:52 am
(1) whiteknyght says:

Ah, Linda, you mixed your 60s iconography metaphors. Trekkies and an image of Barbara Eden? As any quick scan of the interviews of NASA’s female astronauts will reveal, the image they often point to as inspiration that they could attain their dream was Nichelle Nichols as Lt Uhura. The first space shuttle rolled out for testing was, after all, called Enterprise.

July 9, 2011 at 12:03 pm
(2) womensissues says:

Ah, but whiteknyght, Barbara Eden represents the image of what mainstream TV shows were feeding women. It’s universally agreed that Star Trek was an anomaly and rare in its depiction of equality among the genders and the races.

I don’t know about female astronauts, but for me, “the dream” was represented on TV by Diahann Carroll; she was TV’s first prominent black woman who was not a domestic worker. As a single mom and nurse, she was the title character of Julia, and I always saw her as the epitome of strength, grace, beauty, and self-sufficiency.

July 10, 2011 at 11:49 am
(3) Doug Miller says:

Actually, the first woman to walk in space was Svetlana Savitskaya, a cosmonaut whose July 1984 spacewalk was presented in the U.S. media as a Soviet attempt to upstage the upcoming spacewalk by a Kathryn Sullivan, which occurred the following October.

July 11, 2011 at 8:08 am
(4) womensissues says:

Thank you Doug for that clarification. I should have added “American” to “first woman to walk in space” as the space shuttle program included many firsts for American women but not global firsts for women. The Soviets were responsible for a number of those historic firsts including putting a woman into space two decades before Sally Ride — Valentina Tereshkova in 1963.

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