Last week marked the anniversary of two significant events in the history of space exploration–the flight of Valentina Tereshkova 50 years ago on June 16 and of Sally Ride 30 years ago on June 18. With the exception of the single flight by Tereshkova, human spaceflight during the early years of the space race was the province of men only. Women demonstrated their ability to withstand the rigors of space missions, and indeed a hardy group of American women pilots passed the same medical tests as the Mercury 7 with excellent scores. However, NASA policy at the time required qualification as a military test pilot. The policy, originally established by President Eisenhower in December 1958, stood until the mid-1960s when the first scientist-astronauts were selected. Although the Eisenhower selection policy did not specifically discriminate on the basis of gender, the fact that there were no women military pilots (never mind test pilots) made it clear that women would not become U.S. astronauts at that time. For its part, the Soviet Union decided to send a woman into space in order to score propaganda points against the U.S. In April 1962, five women were chosen for the program. Among them only the 25-year-old Valentina Tereshkova ever flew in space. Nineteen years later, after the U.S. had recruited women into the astronaut corps the Soviet Union trained Svetlana Savitskaya and launched her on a mission to the Salyut 7 space station in the summer of 1982; thus making sure that the first two women in space were Soviet citizens. (Savitskaya flew a second time in 1984 and became the first woman to do a space walk, but only one other Russian woman has flown since that time.)One of six women selected in NASA’s 1978 astronaut class, Sally Ride was the first of them to fly. When she rode aboard the space shuttle Challenger as it lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on June 18, 1983, she became the first American woman in space and captured the nation’s attention and imagination as a symbol of the ability of women to break barriers. As one of the three mission specialists on the STS-7 mission, she played a vital role in helping the crew deploy communications satellites, conduct experiments and make use of the first Shuttle Pallet Satellite. Her pioneering voyage and remarkable life helped, as President Barack Obama said soon after her death last summer, “inspire generations of young girls to reach for the stars” for she “showed us that there are no limits to what we can achieve.”
Sally Ride was born in Los Angeles, California, on May 26, 1951. Fascinated by science from a young age, she pursued the study of physics, along with English, in school. As she was graduating from Stanford University with a Ph.D. in physics, having done research in astrophysics and free electron laser physics, Ride noticed a newspaper ad for NASA astronauts. She turned in an application, along with 8,000 other people, and was one of only 35 chosen to join the astronaut corps. Joining NASA in 1978, she served as the ground-based capsule communicator, or capcom, for the second and third space shuttle missions (STS- 2 and STS-3) and helped with development of the space shuttle’s robotic arm.
After her selection for the crew of STS-7, and thereby becoming the first American woman in space, Ride faced intense media attention. But, Ride had no time for many of the questions the press asked her; questions like “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” She saw herself first and foremost as an astronaut and a scientist, and felt that “one thing I probably share with everyone else in the astronaut office is composure.” Talking about her fellow astronauts in the class of 1978, she said, “We’re all people who are dedicated to the space program and who really want to fly in the space shuttle. That’s a common characteristic that we all have that transcends the different backgrounds.” (It is worth noting that the astronaut class of 1978 also included the first three African-Americans and the first Asian-American to serve in the astronaut corps.) Her commander on STS-7, Bob Crippen, agreed that Sally was more than capable of flying in space, saying, “I wanted a competent engineer who was cool under stress. Sally had demonstrated that talent.”Ride continued her career with NASA after her historic flight, flying on a second shuttle mission (STS-41G) in October 1984. She later served on the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger accident and led NASA’s strategic planning effort in the mid-1980s. Retiring from NASA in 1987, she became a science fellow at the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University and, in 1989, joined the University of California-San Diego as a professor of physics and director of the California Space Institute. In 2001, she founded her own company, Sally Ride Science, to pursue her passion for motivating girls and boys to study the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math. The company creates innovative classroom materials, programs and professional development training for teachers. In 2003 she also served on the presidential commission investigating the Columbia accident (the only person to serve on both commissions). In addition to this work, she wrote a number of science books for children, including The Third Planet, which won the American Institute of Physics Children’s Science Writing Award in 1995. Following a 17-month long battle with pancreatic cancer, Sally Ride died on June 23, 2012, leaving behind a heroic legacy.
Almost exactly 20 years prior to Sally Ride’s first Shuttle mission, on the morning of June 16, 1963, Vostok 6 blasted off on a mission of 48 orbits around the Earth. While orbiting the Earth for almost three days, Valentina Tereshkova conducted a number of experiments, took photographs and recorded flight notes. Although she would never fly again, her role in the historic flight was a significant public relations coup for the Soviet Union and her moving life story and accomplishments were held up as an example for others to follow. Her voyage, like Sally Ride’s, inspired women around the world to reach for their dreams and shoot for the stars.
Born on March 6, 1937, in the Yaroslavl Oblast in central Russia, Tereshkova’s father had been killed during the Second World War and after school she found employment as a textile worker in a local factory. Interested in parachuting from a young age, it was during this time that she became an experienced parachutist. She also became a member of the local Young Communist League, and later joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Her parachuting expertise and party affiliation helped win her selection to, and made her a leading candidate in, the woman cosmonaut program. Major General Nikolai Kamanin, the official in charge of cosmonaut training, felt that Tereshkova should fly first, noting in his diary that “she is active in society, is especially pleasing in appearance, makes use of her great authority among everyone who she knows…. We must first send Tereshkova into space.”
Following her flight, Tereshkova was swept into Soviet politics, serving as a member of the Supreme Soviet, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and the Central Committee of the Communist Party. She also became a well-known representative of the Soviet Union abroad, acting as the Soviet representative to the UN Conference for the International Women’s Year in 1975 and leading the Soviet delegation to the World Conference on Women in Copenhagen. She was awarded the Joliot-Curie Gold Medal of Peace for her work with the World Peace Council.
Sally Ride and Valentina Tereshkova, as the first women from their respective countries to fly in space, helped to usher in an era of equality in human spaceflight. On the anniversary of the missions which launched them off the Earth, the legacies of their historic flights remind us of the hard work, passion and dedication of the women who have worked on the ground and in space to pave the way for 55 more women (and counting) who have since journeyed into space.