“All adventures, especially into new territory, are scary.”
That’s a quote from Sally Ride, the first American woman (and third woman overall) to travel to space in 1983. Six years before her historic flight, Sally was a student when she answered an ad for female astronauts from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA. (Read: NASA’s fascinating images taken on the day of these local idols’ birthdays)
As a member of the team aboard the space shuttle Challenger, Sally worked the robotic arm that helped put satellites into space. She flew to space again in 1984, and when she left NASA in 1987, taught at the University of California in San Diego, and wrote children’s books that encouraged kids to take an interest in science.
Sally, who died of complications from pancreatic cancer in 2012, was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2003.
In honor of this groundbreaking lady (who would have turned 69 on her birthday on May 26), we remember other equally accomplished female astronauts who, like Sally, paved the way for women to dream big and reach for the stars.
She was the first and the youngest
In the early 1960s, upon learning that the US was keen on sending women into space, the Soviet Union responded by training its women to be cosmonauts. Valentina, who worked in a textile mill and parachuted as a hobby, was one of five women to qualify for the program.
On June 16, 1963, 26-year-old Valentina traveled to space on the Vostok 6. (Male cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky took off at the same time on the Vostok 5.) She orbited Earth 48 times. “If women can be railroad workers in Russia, why can’t they fly in space?” she said.
Christina KochNASA astronaut and Expedition 61 Flight Engineer Christina Koch handles science hardware stowed inside a cargo transfer bag on board the International Space Station in December 2019. (Photo from © NASA / Space.com)
She stayed in space the longest
Imagine living away from Earth for nearly a year. That’s what Christina did when she spent 328 days (from March 14, 2019 to February 6, 2020) working as a flight engineer on Expedition 59, 60, and 61 on the International Space Station. She traveled 139 million miles—that’s like going to the Moon and back 291 times!
Prior to that, Christina was part of another historic achievement: she and fellow NASA astronaut Jessica Meir made the first all-female spacewalk on October 18, 2019. “Most kids probably dream of becoming an astronaut,” she said. “I was just the one that never grew out of it.”
Peggy WhitsonNASA astronaut Peggy Whitson is set to extend her mission with an additional three months at the International Space Station. (Photo from NASA)
She commanded the International Space Station—twice!
Before Christina’s recording-breaking stay in space, it was Peggy who held the record for longest stay: 289 consecutive days. Many of those days were spent at the International Space Station, which she helmed from October 10, 2007 to April 9, 2008 and from April 10 to June 2, 2017.
When Peggy retired from NASA in 2018, the oldest female astronaut (57 years old) and most experienced female spacewalker (10 spacewalks) had spent more time in space than any American or female astronaut: an accumulated total of 665 days. “I honestly do think that it is critical that we are continuously breaking records because that represents us moving forward in exploration,” she said.