Of the more than 600 people who have traveled to space, fewer than 100 of them were women. Nevertheless, female astronauts have made significant achievements in space. Early female astro-and-cosmo-nauts pioneered the way for future female space travelers and broke several all-gender records, despite their numerical disadvantage.
Here are 10 women who have made significant contributions to space history. Continue reading to discover who they are and their incredible accomplishments.
1. Valentina Tereshkova
In June of 1963, Valentina Terehskova became the first woman in space. Aboard the USSR's Vostok 6 spacecraft, Tereshkova's solo mission took her around the Earth 48 times over about three days.
Tereshkova logged more hours in space on that flight than all U.S. Mercury astronauts who had flown to that date combined. To this day, Valentina Tereshkova remains the first and youngest woman in space and the only woman in history who has completed a solo space mission.
2. Sally Ride
Sally Ride was the first American woman in space. While studying physics at Stanford University in 1977, Ride saw a newspaper ad inviting women to apply to NASA's astronaut program. She applied and was one of six women accepted. On June 18th, 1983, Ride made her trip into space, where she was responsible for maneuvering the robotic arm to help put satellites into space.
Tragically, Sally Ride passed away in 2012 due to complications of pancreatic cancer. She was 61. Upon her death, Ride also made it public that she had spent the last 27 years with a female partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy. This made her the first LGBTQ+ person to travel to space. Her contributions paved the way for women and members of the LGBTQ+ community to become part of spaceflight.
3. Christina Koch
In March 2019, Christina Koch departed on her first-ever trip to space; she didn't return until February 2020. Koch was in space for a staggering 328 days straight, the longest time spent on a single trip to space by any woman. While there, she also completed the first all-female spacewalk with fellow NASA astronaut Jessica Meir.
4. Peggy Whitson
Peggy Whitson's first journey to space came in 2002 and lasted nearly 185 days. On her second trip, aboard the Soyuz-TMA 11 in 2007, Whitson became the first woman to commandeer the International Space Station. This journey took place over six months. Her final trip to the ISS in 2016 lasted 289 days. At the time, she set the record for a woman's most extended individual trip to space, which has since been surpassed.
However, Whitson still holds the record for the U.S. woman who has spent the longest cumulative time in space, at nearly 666 days total. Her extended time in space has made her one of the most experienced astronauts of all time, enabling her to conduct many experiments which made important contributions to scientific knowledge.
5. Christa McAuliffe
In 1984, President Ronald Raegan and NASA announced the Teacher in Space Project, which would bring teachers to space to teach specialized lessons that would be televised back to the United States. Christa McAuliffe was an extraordinary teacher with a passion for all things space-related, who was selected out of 11,000 other contestants to be the first American civilian to venture to space.
On January 28th, 1986, the Challenger space shuttle exploded less than two minutes after takeoff. Christa McAuliffe and the six other crew members aboard the shuttle all passed away that day. This tragic event was televised all over America, and viewers included McAuliffe's children and her students. The ultimate sacrifice McAuliffe made to astronautic history will never be forgotten.
6. Dr. Mae Jemison
Dr. Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman in space while serving as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992. Before her work as an astronaut, Dr. Jemison was a physician who attended Cornell Medical School and served as a medical officer in the Peace Corps from 1983 to 1985. During her time in space, Dr. Jemison used her medical background to conduct experiments that helped shape our understanding of the effect of gravity on living organisms.
Dr. Jemison cited Nichelle Nichols, Lieutenant Uhura of Star Trek, as her inspiration for going to space. In 1993, due to her accomplishments, Dr. Jemison herself appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation!
7. Wally Funk
Wally Funk is an experienced and highly–skilled professional aviator whose lifelong dream of joining NASA was crushed when she was invited to go to space as part of the Mercury 13 program, only for the trip to be canceled. Despite numerous setbacks, Funk persisted until she made it to space.
In 2021, Wally funk traveled to space on the first New Shepard flight with passengers. Jeff Bezos, his brother, and an 18-year-old boy from the Netherlands were the only three other people aboard. At the time of the flight, Funk was 82. This makes her the oldest person to ever travel to space!
8. Anna Lee Fisher
In 1978, Anna Lee Fisher was selected as one of six women to be some of the first female astronauts in history. A few years later, Fisher was finally chosen for her first mission, although there was one problem: she was pregnant! After the birth of her daughter, Fisher worked tirelessly to become space-ready, and in 1984 she became the first-ever mother in space.
"I wasn't about to say no," she famously said in an interview with the Washington Post.
9. Svetlana Savitaskaya
Svetlana Savitaskaya's space career started when the Soviet Union opened a recruitment drive for female cosmonauts in 1979. Nineteen years after Valentina Tereshkova, Savitaskaya became the second woman in space. On her second trip outside the stratosphere, Savitaskaya became the first woman to spacewalk, and on that same journey, she also became the first woman to go to space twice.
10. Dr. Kathleen "Kate" Rubins
In 2009, NASA selected Dr. Kate Rubins to be part of Expedition 48/49, and while on that mission, she became the first person to sequence DNA while in orbit. Dr. Rubins holds a Bachelor of Science in Molecular Biology from the University of California and a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology from Stanford University Medical School Biochemistry Department and Microbiology and Immunology Department.
During her time in space, Dr. Rubins took part in 275 different scientific experiments, including molecular and cellular biology, human physiology, and combustion physics research.
Featured photo: NASA / Unsplash