These female astronauts helped change the world

From Valentina Tereshkova to Mae Jemison, here are the female astronauts you need to know about, who broke boundaries – and rules – to do what no women had done before. They say the sky’s the limit, but for these female astronauts, it’s just the beginning.

Culver Elementary School first grade student Infiniti Collins holds a picture of Mae Jemison, the first female African-American astronaut during an African American History Month. (Photo: AP Photo/ Evansville Courier & Press/Bob Gwaltney)

Female astronauts have faced gender discrimination on various fronts over the decades, over concerns about the amount of space radiation they can be exposed to as well as worries that women were subject to factors beyond their control, which could jeopardise a mission, e.g. “the potential for the menstrual cycle to alter performance during space flight” (a genuine concern according to a 1964 report from the Women in Space program). 

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NASA’s first female recruits were part of the class of 1978 – just over 40 years ago – and, as of July 2016, 61 of 537 space travellers have been female. Here are some of the ones you need to know about (and, if you’re key to inspire the next generation, check out Libby Jackson’s A Galaxy of Her Own: Amazing Stories of Women in Space, featuring 50 stories of inspiring women who have made history and changed space travel).

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, stands in front of Vostok-6, the capsule that she piloted into space, during the press preview of the Science Museum in London’s new Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age exhibition. (Photo: Getty)

Valentina Tereshkova

The first female in space, cosmonaut Tereshkova was part of the Vostok 6 mission on June 16, 1963. She continues to inspire, and not just future space travellers: London-based designer Bora Aksu’s AW19 collection for London Fashion Week paid homage to Tereshkova with sci-fi sunglasses and hi-sheen fabrics.

Ausust 1982, soyuz t-7, docked with salyut 7, crew member svetlana savitskaya. (Photo: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)

Svetlana Savitskaya

The first woman walked in space 21 years after the first woman went to space. In 1984, Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman to spacewalk – she was also the first woman to make two spaceflights.

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Dr. Sally K. Ride waves to well-wishers after the completion of her historic ride in morning on Friday, June 24, 1983 in Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. (Photo: AP Photo)

Sally Ride

The first American woman in space, and third woman overall, Ride changed history when she flew on the Challenger as part of the STS-7 mission in June 1983. She was only 32 when she made her mission – making her the youngest American to fly into space – which lasted 147 hours and involved working a robotic arm to put satellites into Earth-orbit. She flew again in 1984 and played a key role in the investigation of the Challenger disaster in 1986. Ride was also the first LGBT person in space.

Britain’s cosmonaut Helen Sharman walks towards the spaceship, Soyuz TM-12, prior to blast off on May 18, 1991, at the Cosmodrome, Baikonur, Russia. The other crew members were Russian flight engineer Sergei Krikalev and Russian Commander Anatoly Artsebarski. (Photo: AP Photo)

Helen Sharman

The first British astronaut? A woman. Chemist Helen Sharman was 27 when she went into space to visit the Mir space station in 1991.

Sunita Williams will fly on the spacecraft developed by Elon Musk-owned SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. (Photo: Getty)

Sunita Williams

While many would be content to walk in space, Sunita Williams decided to run – the Boston marathon, to be exact, in 2007. She’s the first person to have done so, using the space station treadmill. She’s made seven spacewalks, too.

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In 1984 the American astronaut Anna Lee Fisher was launched into space on STS-51A, becoming the first mother to go intergalactic. She returned after her eight-day mission – and took extended leave from NASA from 1988 to 1996 to raise her children. Her message to future generations was that being a mother needn’t hold you back. In fact, you can rear a family and still, literally, shoot for the stars. (Photo: Getty)

Anna Lee Fisher

Anna Lee Fisher made history as the first mother in space, who got her assignment for her first flight just two weeks before the birth of her oldest daughter. She took an extended eight-year leave from NASA but motherhood didn’t stop her from flying out of this world – she retired at age 67.


Mae Jemison wasn’t just the first African American woman who orbited into space aboard the shuttle Endeavour. She’s also a physician, teacher, a Peace Corps volunteer, and president of tech company, the Jemison Group. She continues to work towards the advancement of young women of colour getting more involved in technology, engineering, and math careers. (Photo: Getty)

Mae Jemison

Engineer, physician and NASA astronaut (among many other qualifications), Jemison made history as the first African American woman in space, who flew aboard the STS-47 in 1992. She continues to campaign on topics like climate change and getting more women into STEM. “Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations. If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won’t exist because you’ll have already shut it out… You can hear other people’s wisdom, but you’ve got to re-evaluate the world for yourself,” she says.

US astronaut Kathleen Rubins returns to earth after 115 days on the International Space Station (ISS) on October 30, 2016 in Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan. (Photo: Getty)

Kathleen Rubins

The first woman to sequence DNA in space, NASA astronaut Rubins was the 60th woman to fly in space as the flight engineer on Expeditions 48 and 49.

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NASA astronaut, Jeanette Epps (Photo: Getty)

Jeanette Jo Epps

An American aerospace engineer and NASA astronaut, Dr. Epps was due to make history as the first African-American crew member to live aboard the International Space Stations for Expeditions 56 and 57 in May 2018 before she was bumped from the flight. The reasons for her removal are still unclear. “I did think about being an astronaut, but I never thought that they would take me,” Epps told a young woman at a press conference when asked if she dreamed of being an astronaut as a child. “So I decided to become an engineer. Through that route I made it into the astronaut corps.” Watch. This. Space.

The International Space Station (ISS) crew member Christina Koch of the U.S. waves near a bus before leaving for pre-flight preparation at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Anne McCLain and Christina Koch

These two NASA astronauts are set to carry out the first-ever all-female spacewalk in March 2019, so they’ll be making history we can all be a part of.