The Pioneers: Firsts for Women and Women Who Were First

women in space

Humans have been flying in space since 1961. Up to the month of March 2021, 65 women have navigated in space, along with cosmonauts, astronauts, payload specialists, and space station participants. Here’s a look back at a number of such legendary women who achieved major “firsts” in space exploration.

Women: In Space For the First Time

A First for all Women: Valentina Tereshkova

A bird cannot fly with one wing only. Human spaceflight cannot develop any further without the active participation of women.

Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova

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With Valentina Tereshkova of the Soviet Union becoming the first woman to travel into space, a new phase of space history was inaugurated to be penned. Born on March 6, 1937, in the village of Maslennikovo, Russia, Tereshkova volunteered for the Soviet cosmonaut program after Yuri Gagarin made the record as the first man to fly in space on April 12, 1961. She was not a pilot but was an accomplished amateur parachutist who had extensive parachuting experience, with 126 jumps under her belt. After 18 months of training, at just 26, she was selected from more than 400 candidates to launch on the Vostok 6 mission on June 16, 1963. In the course of her three-day mission, she orbited the Earth 48 times and landed on June 19. Later, Tereshkova was named a Hero of the Soviet Union and was twice awarded the Order of Lenin.

Sally Ride: The First American Woman to Reach the Cosmos

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Sally Ride became the first American woman to rocket into orbit aboard Challenger for the STS-7 mission on June 18, 1983. She joined NASA in 1978 and was selected out of a pool of 8,000 applicants and skilled for five years before the mission, STS-7. The flight in space lasted six days. There, the astronauts conducted experiments and deployed two communications satellites.

I didn’t really think about it that much at the time – but I came to appreciate what an honor it was to be selected to be the first to get a chance to go into space.

Astronaut Sally Ride

In 1988, she was added to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and in 2003, she was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. She passed away in 2012, but her passion and accomplishments still serve as inspiration for the next generation of female explorers, to continue the craving of reaching for the stars.

The First Chinese Woman in Space: Liu Yang

Born on October 6, 1978, Liu Yang, a 34-year-old fighter pilot, was launched into space on June 16,2012, with two other crewmates, commander Jing Haipeng and operator Liu Wang, aboard Shenzhou 9 after completing two years of intense astronautic training. She became China’s first female astronaut to travel into space from among half a billion Chinese women to be the country’s first space heroine

I am grateful to the motherland and the people. I feel honored to fly into space on behalf of hundreds of millions of female Chinese citizens.

Astronaut Liu Yang

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She is also married, as per the China space program’s requirements. According to the newspaper China Daily, female Chinese astronauts must be married and preferably be mothers, because of concerns that higher levels of radiation in space would harm their fertility. In 1997, Liu joined the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and learned to fly. That way, she became a pilot of cargo planes. Liu attained the rank of major and became deputy head of her flight unit. After two years of hard training, she excelled in testing. Chinese astronauts must score perfectly on a series of tough examinations and only then was she selected as a candidate to crew the Shenzhou-9.

Helen Sharman: The First European Woman to Go to Space

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We should push forward not only our own individual boundaries, but also the boundaries of what humans believe is possible. People are the biggest limitations in our own lives. There’s a huge amount we can do, and we should make the best use of our lives for the benefit of the world.

Astronaut Helen Sharman

Helen Sharman was a British chemist, and astronaut who became the first European female astronaut to fly into space in May 1991. She was not even 28 years old when she became an astronaut. She launched on a Soyuz spacecraft to spend eight days orbiting the Earth, most of that time on the Mir Space Station. In space, Helen was engaged in medical, agricultural, and chemical experiments, materials testing, Earth observation work, and operating an amateur radio link with British school students. Moreover, she took some seeds into space and brought them back to Earth for British school students to explore the effects of space travel on the seeds as compared with a control sample. After her return from space, Helen spent many years communicating science and its benefits by way of speaking, presenting on radio and television, and organizing science events for the public.

A First for Canadian Women: Roberta Bondar

Roberta Bondar, born on December 4, 1945, is a Canadian neurologist, researcher, and astronaut who was awarded as the first Canadian woman and the first neurologist to navigate into space. She had earned a B.Sc. in Zoology and Agriculture, an M.Sc. in Experimental Pathology, and a Ph.D. in Neurobiology before receiving an M.D. from McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, in 1977.

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This great personality was selected as one of the six original Canadian astronauts, and thereby initiated her astronaut training as a member of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in 1984. She, as a payload expert on the Discovery space shuttle during the STS-42 mission, launched into space on January 22, 1992. During the eight-day mission, the crew carried out life science and materials science experiments on Spacelab. They mainly focused on the adaptability of the human nervous system to low gravity. Furthermore, an analysis was done based on the effects of microgravity on other living organisms including shrimp eggs, fruit fly eggs, and microorganisms.

Setting History in Space Exploration

Svetlana Savitskaya: The First Woman to Walk in Space

Born on August 8,1948, Soviet Union’s cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman to participate in a spacewalk on July 25, 1984. She earned an engineering degree from Moscow Aviation Institute in 1972 and was accepted as a test pilot candidate. In 1980 Savitskaya was selected to join the Soviet space program and began training. On August. 19, 1982, as part of the Soyuz T-7 mission to the Salyut 7 space station on her second trip to Salyut 7, she was fortunate to become the first woman to perform a spacewalk. Moreover, she participated in welding experiments on the outer hull of the space station.

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A Female Crew-member on the ISS: A First by Susan Helms

NASA astronaut Susan Helms became the first female crew member aboard the international space station in the 2001 mission. She shared a record for the longest single spacewalk and the longest spacewalk by a woman at 8 hours and 56 minutes.

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Born February 26, 1958, U.S., she was selected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as an astronaut in 1990. she was not only an astronaut but also an Air Force officer who was honored as the first U.S. military woman in space (1993), a weapons separation engineer on the F-15 and F-16 aircraft at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and was an assistant professor of aeronautics at the Air Force Academy from 1985 to 1987. Helms made five spaceflights, where she had spent a cumulative total of nearly 211 days in space.

The first on the STS-54 mission (January 13–19, 1993) of the space shuttle Endeavour, where a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite was launched from. Her second spaceflight, STS-64 (September 9–20, 1994) on Discovery, carried an experiment that used lasers to measure aerosols in Earth’s atmosphere. The STS-78 mission of the space shuttle Columbia carried a pressurized Spacelab module in which the crew performed biological and materials science experiments. Helms was the payload commander of the Spacelab module. The mission lasted nearly 17 days (June 20–July 7, 1996) and at the time was the longest space shuttle flight.

On Helms’s fourth spaceflight, STS-101 (May 19–29, 2000) on the space shuttle Atlantis, the crew made repairs to the International Space Station (ISS) to prepare it for its first crew. She returned to the ISS on the space shuttle Discovery’s STS-102 mission (launched March 8, 2001).

A Record Setter and the First Female Commander of the ISS: Peggy Whiston

NASA’s most experienced astronaut to date (a cumulative total of 665 days in space), Peggy Whitson became the first female International Space Station Expedition Commander, starting April 2008, during a six-month tour of duty on Expedition 16.

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Whitson, who was also a biochemist, served as NASA’s chief astronaut. Now, she works as commander of Axiom Space’s Ax-2 mission, the second planned private spaceflight mission. Also, served as backup commander for Ax-1, the first private crewed launch to the space station. Furthermore, she was the Keynote Speaker at the Online 2021 International Space Development Conference.

The First All-Female Space Walk: Jessica Meirs and Christina Koch

In October 2019, NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch completed the first all-woman spacewalk to replace a controller regulating the batteries that store the station’s solar power. At 328 consecutive days, Koch holds the record for the longest continuous time in space by a woman during a single mission. The duo conducted two more spacewalks together in 2020.

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Sequencing DNA in Microgravity for the First Time Ever: Kathleen Rubins

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Born in 1978 in Farmington, Dr. Kathleen Rubins completed her first spaceflight on Expedition 48/49, where she became the first person to sequence DNA in space, which could allow astronauts to diagnose an illness in space or identify microbes growing at the space station. She 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. Rubins most recently served aboard the International Space Station as a flight engineer for Expedition 63/64. During Dr. Rubins’s two spaceflight missions, she has spent the fourth most days (300 days) in space by a female astronaut and conducted four spacewalks.

For decades, women have performed essential roles to enable the safe development of human space flight, often from the ground, and behind the scenes. It inspires all women to engage more within the space sector and to highlight their abilities and confidence. We should express our gratitude to all those incredible and inspiring women for their tremendous effort, and for stepping outside the stereotypes, reminding us of all that even the sky doesn’t have to be the limit.


01. Astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir. (2020, September 23). Time.
02. Gillis, K. (2020, June 25). Mission Monday: The first women in space. Space Center Houston.
03. Helen Sharman – First British Astronaut in Space and Inspirational speaker. (2019, March 27). Scampspeakers.
04. Jnimon, A. (2013, June 17). Women in Space Part One, Female Firsts in Flight for Space Exploration and Research – A Lab Aloft (International Space Station Research). NASA.
05. Johnson, M. (2021, March 3). Celebrating Women’s History Month: Most Recent Female Astronauts. NASA.
06. Liu Yang | Biography & Facts. (2021, September 27). Encyclopedia Britannica.,the%20astronaut%20corps%20in%202010
07. Liu Yang, China’s First Female Astronaut, To Blast Off Saturday. (2012, June 15). HuffPost.
08. Meet the women who made history in space. (2021, April 12). My ITU.
09. Roberta Bondar | Biography & Facts. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from
10. Wolchover, N. (2012, June 15). Who Is China’s First Female Astronaut? NBC News.

Image Courtesies:

01. Featured Image: Designed by Dasith Tilakaratna (SEDS UOC). Images resourced from:,,,,
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Article by: I. A. Vidanegamage (2nd Year Undergraduate)

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