Women in Astronomy: The Astronauts

Nuwanthika Fernando is an astronomy guide at Sydney Observatory. She recently completed her PhD at the University of Sydney studying the dynamics of satellite galaxy planes. To celebrate International Women’s Day Nuwanthika looks at female astronauts and the roles they have played and will play in the future.

‘All those years of anticipation will be surpassed when the solid rocket boosters ignite and you will literally roar into space.’ – Peggy Whitson

The timeless urge to explore has driven humankind beyond the comfort of our own atmosphere. Today’s post will look at some female astronauts (and cosmonauts) who have broken through the boundaries of the Earth and society.

Valentina Tereshkova (USSR/Russia, 1937– )

Valentina Tereshkova and Aleksey Leonov
Valentina Tereshkova and Aleksey Leonov
At the Cosmonautics Museum in Moscow, former Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova (left), the first woman to fly in space and former Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov, the first human to walk in space, greet each other April 11, 2011 during ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the launch of Yuri Gagarin as the first human in space.
Image Credit: NASA

Selected from over 400 applicants, Valentina Nikolayeva Tereshkova was the first woman in space. Following the successful launch of Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet Union commenced the female cosmonaut program, consisting of 5 women, including Tereshkova. Shrouded in the secrecy of the Cold War, Tereshkova’s flight on the Vostok 6 blasted off from Baikonur in May 1963. She orbited the Earth 48 times, photographing the atmosphere and communicating with fellow cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky (who passed her by on the Vostok 5). Her love for skydiving became useful when the Vostok 6 capsule landed a bit harder than expected, but she had logged more time in space (71 hours) than the combined time of all previous American astronauts till that day. She went on to earn her doctorate in engineering and work as a statesman, with a crater on the Moon named in her honour. It would be 19 more years before the next woman, Svetlana Savitskaya, would go into space.

Peggy Whitson (United States of America, 1960–)

Peggy Whitson in the cupola
View of Expedition 50 Flight Engineer Peggy Whitson in the cupola.
Image Credit: NASA Johnson

Holding the record for the longest time spent in space by a woman (and an American), Peggy Whitson is a veteran of 5 expeditions to the International Space Station, over 3 space flights. Armed with a PhD in biochemistry, Whitson was the project scientist for NASA’s Shuttle-Mir program. After her first 3-month trip to the ISS for Expedition 15 in 2002, she spent fourteen days, twenty metres under water, commanding the NEEMO 5 underwater laboratory. She was the commander of the ISS Expeditions 16 and 51, becoming the first women to do so, not once, but twice. Including the durations of Expeditions 50 and 52 (Expeditions 50/ 51/ 52 were conducted on her third trip to the ISS), Whitson’s cumulative space-time logs at nearly 666 days, with ten Extra Vehicular Activities (EVA or spacewalks) during her prolific career. She also served as Chief of the NASA Astronaut Office from 2009–2012.


New Class of NASA Astronaut Candidates (2017)

The 2017 NASA Astronaut Class
The 2017 NASA Astronaut Class (left to right): Zena Cardman, Jasmin Moghbeli, Jonny Kim, Frank Rubio, Matthew Dominick, Warren Hoburg, Robb Kulin, Kayla Barron, Bob Hines, Raja Chari, Loral O’ Hara and Jessica Watkins.
Image Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz


NASA’s most recent class of Astronaut Candidates includes 5 women in its 12-member group. Chosen from over 180,000 candidates, they include a Navy engineer, a geologist, a microbiologist, a Marine helicopter pilot, and a research engineer. However, this is just the beginning of their journey, as candidates face a two year training and evaluation period. They will have to complete military water survival training, be flight-ready, become scuba-qualified for spacewalks, train to the systems of the ISS, learn Russian, and be ready for living and working in zero-gravity before they qualify to launch into space. But with the prospects of longer space missions in new launch vehicles and habitats, and possible missions to the Moon and Mars looming ahead, the future of these women will be very exciting indeed.

The danger and excitement of space has been experienced by over sixty women so far, and just like the heroes of ancient stories, the stories and work of these explorers will continue to inspire the future generations. Our next post will look at contemporary astrophysicists.

Return to 2018 Women in Astronomy: Introduction

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