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Women in Space: From Sally Ride to Peggy Whitson

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, was born on May 26, 1951. To honor her memory, we celebrate her trailblazing achievements and the many contributions of her fellow women in space.

On June 18, 1983, Dr. Sally K. Ride (May 26, 1951 – July 23, 2012) became the first American woman in space as a Mission Specialist aboard STS-7, which launched from Kennedy Space Center, Florida. But she was not the first female to complete a successful flight into space. Miss Baker (1957 – November 29, 1984), a 1-pound squirrel monkey, flew into space on May 28, 1959, aboard the JUPITER AM-18 and became the first monkey to survive the stresses of spaceflight. 

First Women in Space

As of July 2016, of the 537 total space travelers in the world, 60 have been women. Nearly all (49) of these women flew/fly in the NASA program and the rest were/are in the Soviet/Russian and Chinese space programs. In fact, the first woman in space was cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova (born March, 6 1937) who entered space aboard Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963, just two years after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (March 9, 1934 – March 27, 1968) became the first human in space on April 12, 1961 aboard the Vostok 1. 

Across the globe, women space travelers have represented their home countries well. Dr. Helen Patricia Sharman (born May 30, 1963) was the first British astronaut and the first Briton to travel into space in 1991. Roberta Bondar (born December 4, 1945) is Canada’s first female astronaut and the first Canadian woman and first neurologist to travel into space in 1992. Mae Carol Jemison (born October 17, 1956) became the first African-American woman to travel in space in 1992. In 1993, Ellen Ochoa (born May 10, 1958) was the first Hispanic woman in space. Japan’s first woman in space was Chiaki Mukai (born May 6, 1952) during STS-65 in 1994 (she was also the first Japanese citizen to complete two spaceflights). Claudie Haigneré (born May 13, 1957) was the first French woman in space in 1996. The first Indian-American in space was Kalpana Chawla (1961–2003) in 1997. On September 18, 2006, Anousheh Ansari (born September 12, 1966) became the first female Muslim in space and the first Iranian in space. In 2008, Yi So-yeon (born June 2, 1978) was the first South Korean in space. Major Liu Yang (born October 6, 1978) became the first Chinese woman in space aboard the Shenzhou 9 on June 16, 2012. The first Italian woman in space, Samantha Cristoforetti (born April 26, 1977), is also known for being the first person to brew an espresso coffee in space in 2014.

NASA Women Leaders in Space Travel

In the past few decades, NASA has supported dozens of women in leadership positions. In fact, women have been “firsts” in numerous capacities since Sally Ride’s first trip into space in 1983. The first American woman to participate in an Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA) (i.e. activity outside a spacecraft in space) was Kathryn (Kathy) Sullivan during STS 41-G on October 11, 1984. Eileen Collins was the first woman pilot during STS-63 from February 3-11, 1995 and she was also the first woman space shuttle commander during STS-93 from July 23-27, 1999. The first woman Space Station Expedition crew member was Susan Helms during Expedition 2 from March 2001 – August 2001. Peggy Whitson was the first woman to command the International Space Station (ISS) during Expedition 16 in April 2008 and she also holds records for the most time spent in space by any American (more than 534 days), the most spacewalks of any woman astronaut (9 career spacewalks), the oldest woman to travel into space (at the age of 56) and the oldest woman spacewalker (at the age of 57). Whitson is also the first woman astronaut to command the International Space Station twice (2008 and 2017) and the first woman to serve as Chief Astronaut of the NASA Office (2009).

The Women of NASA Space Shuttle Missions

Women have also been significant members of numerous space shuttle missions into space. In fact, more than 30 of NASA’s space shuttle missions in the past few decades have included more than one woman:

STS 41-G Kathryn D. Sullivan, Sally K. Ride 


STS 51-L Judith A. Resnik, Sharon Christa McAuliffe 

STS-34 Shannon W. Lucid, Ellen S. Baker 


STS-32 Bonnie J. Dunbar, Marsha S. Ivins 


STS-40 Tamara E. Jernigan, M. Rhea Seddon, Millie Hughes-Fulford 


STS-50 Bonnie J. Dunbar, Ellen S. Baker 


STS-47 N. Jan Davis, Mae C. Jemison 


STS-57 Nancy J. Sherlock, Janice E. Voss 


STS-58 M. Rhea Seddon, Shannon W. Lucid 


STS-63 Eileen M. Collins, Janice E. Voss 


STS-67 Tamara E. Jernigan, Wendy B. Lawrence 


STS-71 Ellen S. Baker, Bonnie J. Dunbar 


STS-70 Nancy Jane Currie, Mary Ellen Weber 


STS-73 Kathryn C. Thornton, Catherine G. Coleman 


STS-76 Shannon W. Lucid, Linda M. Godwin 
STS-83 Susan L. Still, Janice E. Voss 


STS-84 Eileen M. Collins, Elena V. Kondakova 


STS-94 Susan L. Still, Janice E. Voss 


STS-91 Wendy B. Lawrence, Janet L. Kavandi 


STS-96 Ellen Ochoa, Tamara E. Jernigan, Julie Payette 


STS-93 Eileen M. Collins, Catherine G. Coleman 


STS-99 Janet L. Kavandi, Janice E. Voss 


STS-101 Mary Ellen Weber, Susan J. Helms 


STS-112 Pamela Melroy, Sandra Magnus 


STS-107 Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark


STS-114 Eileen M. Collins, Wendy Lawrence


STS-121 Stephanie D. Wilson, Lisa M. Nowak


STS-116 Sunita Williams, Joan Higginbotham


STS-118 Barbara R. Morgan, Tracy E. Caldwell Dyson 


STS-120 Pamela A. Melroy, Stephanie D. Wilson


STS-126 Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper, Sandra H. Magnus


STS-131 Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Stephanie Wilson, Naoko Yamazaki, Tracy Caldwell Dyson (This flight set the record for the most women in space at the same time).

The Legacy of Sally Ride

Sally Ride was a pioneer in space travel and set the tone for the inclusion of women in space at NASA. After completing her final space flight on the Orbiter Challenger, she left NASA in 1987. She then worked as a Professor of Physics at the University of California San Diego and as Director of the University of California’s California Space Institute. During this time, she heavily promoted children’s education by publishing science books for kids including To Space and Back (1986), Voyager (1992), The Third Planet (1994), The Mystery of Mars (1999), and Exploring Our Solar System (2003). In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science to pursue her dream of helping inspire young people, especially girls and racial/ethnic minorities, in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). The nonprofit organization designs science programs and publications for K-12 students to promote STEM literacy including the acclaimed book series, Cool Careers in STEM, which profiles real women and men working in STEM professions, and Key Concepts in Science, which focuses on physical sciences. In 2015, the non-profit became Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego. In 2016, the Sally Ride Science Junior Academy was created and offers hands-on workshops for 6th-12th-graders.

Women Trailblazers in Space

From Sally Ride to Peggy Whitson, women in space have served as role models for girls around the world. They have burst through the glass ceiling of NASA and they have burst through the Kármán line into outer space. They have all set the tone for the inclusion of women in science, technology, engineering, math, and space travel. Their lives have been celebrated in numerous ways, including Dr. Ride’s induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame, Dr. Whitson’s NASA Space Flight Medals and the Russian Medal of Merit for Space, and Miss Baker’s Certificate of Merit for Distinguished Service to Science from the ASPCA. After attaining the record for oldest living squirrel monkey, Miss Baker died in 1984 and was buried on the grounds of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center where her tombstone often has one or more bananas on top. Sally Ride lost her 17-month battle to pancreatic cancer on July 23, 2012 but her legacy lives on. While Miss Baker and Sally Ride are no longer with us, we remember their lives as trailblazers in space. Peggy Whitson remains an active in-flight NASA astronaut and is expected to return to Earth in September 2017. She is still breaking records.