When asked about famous astronauts, children can usually name the big hitters such as the humble Neil Armstrong and his co-lunar lander Buzz Aldrin. Some can even throw in for good measure the third member of Apollo 11, Michael Collins and some can even surprise me by mentioning the awe inspiring, modern day astronaut Chris Hadfield thanks to his social media exposure. But, through no fault of their own, other astronauts and cosmonauts can live in the massive shadows of these big names, never to be truly known by the world and seen as just another person in a space suit. In particular it is quite sad to know that when most children, and let’s face it, adults too, are asked about famous female astronauts and cosmonauts, they can never quite remember their names. So with this article I want to really find out the place of some of the female astronauts and cosmonauts that have pioneered their way through testosterone filled waters and left a legacy to be proud of, and also take a look at those who are still doing it today. A task that is so difficult to choose between I have to resort to play ground tactics of blindly choosing from a list, otherwise I fear I could never choose!
First up, who better to start with than the ‘first lady of space’; Valentina Tereshkova. This remarkable woman was born in the Yaroslavi region of Russia in 1937 and came from a modest working family. Her father was a tractor driver and her mother made her living in a textile plant. She began school at the age of 8 and left at 16 to work as a textile-factory assembly worker but kept her education up by completing correspondence courses. But from an early age she had a passion, and it was this passion that helped her become a cosmonaut! She loved to parachute and it was when she was working in the textile factory and practising as an amateur parachutist that she was recruited into the cosmonaut program in Russia. So under the direction of Nikita Khrushchev, Tereshkova and three other women where trained under the Russian ‘Women in Space’ program but only Tereshkova would make it off Earth!
On 16 June 1963 Vostok 6 launched into space faultlessly and the world had the first woman in space! While in orbit she recorded data about the female body’s reaction to space flight and maintained a steady flow of data including flight logs and photographs. There was a hitch with the spacecraft’s navigational systems that was revealed only in 2007, but Tereshkova showed her worth by fixing it once receiving the proper data from Earth. She landed on 19 June, but due to a violent wind, she landed a bit further off than the intended landing site in Bayevo. But to commemorate her historic mission there is a gleaming statue of the woman herself to commemorate her achievement of orbiting the Earth 48 times and spending nearly three days in space.
Valentina Tereshkova went on to marry in November of the same year, fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev and they went on to have the first child that had both parents go to space, Elena Nikolayev. They divorced some years later but the marriage was always plagued by rumours that it was arranged as a propaganda move, rumours that have never been proven. Tereshkova gained a string of awards and recognitions and spent much of her life as a communist politician but she never went back to space. It would be 18 years before Svetlana Savitskaya would follow her pioneering example and another woman would see the Earth as she did.
A female astronaut who made space a dream that everyone could dare to reach for was the teacher Barbara Morgan. Although her story is tinged with sadness she strived for her dream citing “I want to get some stardust on me”. Morgan was part of the ‘Teacher in Space’ program after thousands of applicants she was selected as backup for the teacher Christa McAuliffe. Both trained together alongside the Space Shuttle Challenger crew for a year before the ill-fated Challenger disaster on 28 January 1986 when McAuliffe and six other astronauts lost their lives after the shuttle’s External Tank exploded 73 seconds into the flight. The world was emotionally devastated by this shocking tragedy and the Teacher in Space program was cancelled. However it didn’t stop this elementary school teacher from keeping her dream alive. She returned to teaching science but also worked with NASA’s education division and also she aptly served on the National Science Foundation’s Federal Task Force for Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering!
It would be 13 years before we would see her get her ‘stardust’ after being chosen in 1998 to become a mission specialist for a flight on Columbia, the 2003 Columbia Disaster! Despite two near misses for the gutsy teacher, she boarded her taxi to the stars as a mission specialist for the STS-118 Endeavour mission in 2007, four years after Columbia‘s destruction. She spent 13 days in space where she operated the robotic arm to move a platform to the ISS as well as being in charge of payloads and even finding time to do what McAuliffe had wanted to do on her mission, answer questions from students via satellite.
In 2008 after fulfilling her dream, Morgan announced her retirement from NASA and took up a post at Boise State University as a Distinguished Educator in Residence where she can still be found. After receiving many awards for her work, in August 2008 she even had a school named after her, Barbara R. Morgan Elementary School in her home town of McCall, Idaho !
Moving over to China, not to be left out have also produced some fine astronauts, but up until 2012 only male Chinese astronauts had been to space. This was to change when the cool-headed pilot and astronaut Liu Yang joined them in space. Born in 1978 in Zhengzhou, Henan she was to become a very accomplished woman in a field more commonly dominated by men, the army! She graduated from People’s Liberation Army Air Force College of Changchun, officially joining the PLAAF in 1997 as a qualified pilot, reaching the rank of Major and becoming deputy head of a flight unit! She became a veteran pilot logging 1680 hours of flying with some heroic stories to accompany her impressive pilot career, including being able to land a plane safely and calmly after it being struck by 18 pigeons! She is fondly referred to on China’s Tencent QQ messaging service as “Little Flying Knight”.
She was recruited by China’s space programme in 2010 and from day one she excelled greatly and after two years of training she was selected for the first manned mission to the Chinese space station Tiangong 1 as part of the crew of Shenzhou 9. The mission launched on 16 June 2012, 49 years to the day when the first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova pioneered the way. During her 13 days in space she performed various experiments in space medicine before returning safely to earth.
Although this was a definite step in the right direction for China in allowing more women into such a male dominated field an odd requirement for Liu Yang to become a successful astronaut candidate was that she was married. A news agency in China reported that it was a requirement for female astronauts to be married as a “married woman would be more physically and psychologically mature.” Although the Chinese Space Agency has denied this as an essential requirement, they do say it is desirable! Despite this bit of controversy Liu Yang is fiercely patriotic (unsurprising from her military background) and has been known to make some very intense patriotic speeches.
When it comes to female astronauts I could write an encyclopaedia, the amount of female astronauts and cosmonauts that have done so much for space exploration and creating a more equal world for females in this field in the past and present is exhausting and I cannot begin to even choose who would top the list, if they even could because every person, man or woman, who has bravely gone where few have ventured and expanded our knowledge of space and science deserves our upmost admiration and gratitude. I for one am so excited for what the future holds in space exploration with a whole universe of first that lies before us, from the first woman on the moon to the first man and woman on Mars!
(Article by Kerry Scullion, Education Support Officer)