When many of us think of space travel and astronauts, we go to towering figures like Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin; but what many people fail to realize is the importance of women in space. Women have played an important role in space exploration since the US and Soviet Russia began their space programs in the 1960s; advancing both our understanding of space and women's rights. Among the dozens of women who have become space pioneers these are the most important women in space and some of the most famous female astronauts.
Dr. Valentina Tereshkova
A pioneer of the early Soviet Union's space program, Dr. Tereshkova is number one on our list because not only was she the first women in space she is also one of the youngest female astronauts in history. At twenty-six years old, Tereshkova was 10 years younger than the youngest of America's Mercury program. She would also spend more time in space than every member of the Mercury program combined, spending a staggering three days in her small capsule orbiting the Earth 48 times. Her time in space would inspire her to continue her education engineering, becoming a major part of Russia's space program the rest of her career.
Dr. Sally Ride
A major pioneer for women in space, Sally Ride was the first American woman to go into space, making her one of the most famous female astronauts. She is also recognized for holding the distinction of being the youngest American astronaut. She acted as the capsule communicator for the second and third shuttle flights in NASA's history. She is world renowned for her work in developing the space shuttles robotic arm; the same robotic arm that she used to retrieve a satellite, thus becoming the first person to use it for retrieval and the first woman to use the arm in space. She continued her pioneering work at NASA headquarters where she founded the Office of Exploration.
Dr. Mae Jemison
Inspired by the pioneering efforts of Sally Ride, Mae Jemison went from being a doctor in the Peace Corps to applying for the Astronaut Corps., joining NASA in 1987. Jemison stands out as one of the most famous female astronauts because she was the first African American woman to ever fly in space. She acted as one of the lead scientists on a bone cell research project and mission specialist on STS-37. Jemison later found an international science camp, while also working on the 100-Year Starship program. Her work with NASA helped to spring board her own company that would work towards better satellite based communication technologies, as well as sustainable energy projects.
Another female space pioneer inspired by Sally Ride, Judith Resnik was the second American woman to make into space. She would also serve as one of the first crew members of the Space Shuttle Discovery, working as a mission specialist in 1984. Resnik graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, and went on to obtain a Ph.D in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland, she logged 145 hours in orbit around the Earth. Tragically she died during the mission STS-51-L when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, cutting her otherwise exemplary career short and landing her a spot as one of the most famous female astronauts. Following the accident, The IEEE Judith Resnik Award for space engineering was named in honor of her.
A Soviet Russia cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya was the second woman ever to go into space aboard the Soyuz T-7 in 1982 and was also the first woman ever to go into space twice. Her greatest accomplishment, and the reason she's on our list of famous female astronauts, was that she was the first women to ever perform a space walk. Savitskaya spent over three hours outside of the Salyut 7 space station. She would remain the only women of 57 cosmonauts to perform a spacewalk from 1982 through 2010. This pioneering space woman also set 18 world records while flying MiG fighter planes and three additional records in team parachuting.
Another famous female astronaut, Collins would first make her mark on the world in the US Air Force, reaching the rank of Colonel as a test pilot. When she later joined NASA she became the first woman in history to pilot a space shuttle and was also the first woman to command a space shuttle mission. She took command of the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1995. Following this historic achievement, she made another mark on history as the second in command for the US mission to rendezvous with the Mir space station. Collins would make her final space flight as the commander of Discovery on a mission to the International Space Station. During this mission she would become the first to ever take the station through a 360-degree pitch maneuver.
Dr. Kalpana Chawla
Not only is Dr. Chawla a major name among women in space she is also a major name in Indian history. Chawla is the second person from India to ever travel into space and the first Indian-born woman to walk among the stars, going into space in 1994 on the Space Shuttle Columbia. Earning degrees in both engineering and aerospace engineering in India, she then moved to the United States to continue her studies and started her work for NASA. In 2003, Chawla tragically lost her life along with the rest of the crew of the Columbia. Following her death she received the the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, the NASA Space Flight Medal, and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
Born in Iran, Anousheh Ansari has been a major contributor to opening up space travel to private businesses along with her family and is one of the most famous female astronauts. Anousheh and her family have made massive donations to private space agencies including the X Prize Foundation, who helped her to become the first Muslim woman in space and the fourth self-funded space tourist. Although, Anousheh insists that she is not a space tourist, but instead a serious investor in space technology to help others share in her experience. In the year since her flight to the space station, she has received multiple honorary doctorates from US universities, as well as awards for entrepreneurial work in pushing for private space agencies.
Dr. Roberta Bondar
Canada's first and one of the most famous female astronauts, Dr. Bondar is a great pioneer of women in both space and medicine. She was the first neurologist to make it into space and spent over a decade as NASA's head of space medicine. Bondar made huge advancements in our understanding of space travel's effects on the human body during the course of her career and after. She received a long list of awards and honors including: the NASA Space Medal, Order of Canada, Order of Ontario, a space in the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, and over 22 separate honorary degrees. She has since become a consultant for a wide range of agencies in the medical and scientific realms.
Dr. Shannon Lucid
A famous female astronaut from America and Ph.D in chemistry, Dr. Lucid flew on five separate missions into space throughout her career at NASA. During her career, she set the record for the longest time spent in space by an American astronaut and the longest time in space by a woman. She spent 188 days in space during her fifth time in space in 1996. She set another record during her career as the only woman to ever serve aboard the Russian space station Mir, working on the station for 179 days. The work she did on the space station Mir earned her the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, she was the tenth person to ever receive the award and the first woman.
Dr. Chiaki Mukai
Dr. Mukai was both the first Japanese woman in space and the first Japanese citizen to be a part of two different space flights, on the Space Shuttles Columbia and Discovery, where she stayed in space for 23 days. Mukai also stands out as one of the most award winning astronauts to ever go into space receiving medals and awards from the French, Japanese, and US governments. She has been granted such special honors as the Legion of Honor, Special Congressional Recognition, the Prime Minister's Special Citation for Contributions to Gender Equality, and the Prime Minister's Special Citation. She would continue her promising medical career after leaving the space program, being credited with sixty publications since 1979.
Despite how famous male astronauts like Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and many others we cannot underestimate the importance of women in space travel. Women like Sally Ride and Svetlana Tereshkova made their mark on the world by demonstrating how much women could add to our understanding of space travel. The women on the list were not only pioneers of space travel but also road builders for the generations of young girls that would follow them. Many of the women on this list helped to create the STEM field programs that are encouraging young girls to go into science so they too can make great strides in science. The accomplishments they made during their careers and the years that followed are what makes them great women in space.