The space race, the battle to develop the technology to permit us to explore the unknown that surrounds our tiny planet, began in the 1950s. It wasn’t until the 60s that those advancements progressed to the stage when we could actually send explorers up there. It was 1961 when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. In 1963, his fellow Soviet Valentina Tereshkova set another record: the first woman in space.
Far from setting out to have a career in space travel, Tereshkova was actually a worker in a textile factory. It was her position as an amateur skydiver (making her first parachute jump at age 22) that earned her the chance to train as a cosmonaut. Of the 400 women inducted into the Female Cosmonaut Core, only 5 were picked for
consideration. They undertook rigorous training in engineering, weightless flight and piloting aircraft before it was finally decided that Tereshkova would be the one to launch a solo mission into space. This she did (at age 26), on 16 June 1963. She spent nearly 3 days in space, orbiting the earth 48 times. She remains the only woman to have undertaken a solo space mission.
Despite the success of Tereshkova’s mission, it took 19 years for another woman to be sent to space. Svetlana Savitskaya (another keen skydiver who worked as a test pilot and flew in aerobatic displays) launched in 1982, later becoming the first woman to make two missions to space and the first to undertake a spacewalk. It wouldn’t be until a year later that a nation other than the USSR would send a female astronaut on a mission.
That woman was Dr Sally Ride, the 3rd woman in space and the first from the USA. Ride dedicated herself to physics, completing a bachelors (with English), a masters and PHD in the subject by the age of 29. She joined NASA in 1978, after responding to a recruitment advertisement (1 of 8000 people to do so). Prior to her flight on 8th June 1983, she faced patronising and demeaning questions from the media surrounding her gender but was reportedly undeterred, regarding herself as an astronaut and only that. She completed subsequent missions to space, as well as serving NASA in other vital capacities, until her retirement in 1987. She was the first known LGBT Astronaut.
These women laid the groundwork for those who would follow them. A total of 60 women have travelled to space with countless others contributing to space travel in other capacities. From the early years when only the USSR succeeded in sending women to space, 10 nations have now done so.
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