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Women in space: A gallery of firsts

Humans have been flying in space since 1961, with the first women launching off planet Earth in 1963. 

Since then, women have gone on to set records for spacewalks and long-duration spaceflight on the International Space Station, with NASA aiming to land the first woman on the moon by 2024 under the Artemis program, named for the twin sister of Apollo. 

Here's a look back at some of the trailblazing women who achieved major "firsts" in space.

First woman in space

Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly to space when she launched on the Vostok 6 mission June 16, 1963. Credit: NASA

The first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, blazed a trail for the many female spaceflyers who would follow. 

Tereshkova, a Soviet cosmonaut, was selected from more than 400 applicants to launch on the Vostok 6 mission June 16, 1963. She was 26 at the time. 

Born in the village of Maslennikovo northeast of Moscow, Tereshkova volunteered for the Soviet cosmonaut program after Yuri Gagarin made history as the first man to fly in space on April 12, 1961. She was not a pilot, but had extensive parachuting experience, with 126 jumps under her belt. (Gagarin parachuted to Earth, ejecting from the Vostok capsule during descent as part of the landing sequence.)

Infographic: How Valentina Tereshkova's 1963 Vostok 6 flight worked

Tereshkova was one of four women who received 18 months of training for Vostok 6, and was ultimately selected to pilot the flight. The mission launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome two days after Vostok 5, piloted by cosmonaut Valeriy Bykovsky, with the two spacecraft's coming within 3 miles (5 kilometers) of each other. 

Tereshkova spent 70 hours in space and orbited Earth 48 times during her mission. Though an icon of Soviet space exploration, she never flew in space again and became a test pilot and instructor.

First American woman in space

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, is seen on the flight deck of space shuttle Challenger during her historic 1983 mission. Credit: NASA

On June 18, 1983, NASA astronaut Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman in space when she launched on the STS-7 mission of the space shuttle Challenger. She was the third woman in space, after Valentina Tereshkova and Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya, who flew on the Soyuz T-7 mission on Aug. 19, 1982.

Born in Encino, California, Ride studied physics and English at Stanford University, ultimately earning a Ph.D. physics in 1973. She joined NASA's astronaut corps in 1978 as one of the first six female astronauts to join the U.S. space agency. 

More: Sally Ride: First American Woman in Space (Pictures)

Ride was 32 when the STS-7 mission launched into space. The mission was NASA's seventh shuttle flight and marked the first time a woman controlled a space shuttle robotic arm. STS-7's main mission was deploy communications satellites for Canada and Indonesia. Challenger returned to Earth with Ride and her STS-7 crewmates on June 24, wrapping up a six-day flight. 

Ride would make history again in 1984 when she launched on the Challenger's STS-41G mission, beginning the first American woman to fly in space twice. 

In 2012, Ride died from cancer at age 61.

First female space station commander

Peggy Whitson at International Space Station. Credit: NASA

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson became the first woman to command the International Space Station when she took the helm of the outpost in April 2008 during Expedition 16.

It was science that led to Whitson's space career. A native of Mount Ayr, Iowa, Whitson grew up as a chicken farmer and earned a Ph.D in biochemistry from Rice University in 1985, after which she began working as a biochemist at NASA as a National Research Council Resident Research Associate. She officially joined NASA's Johnson Space Center as a biochemist in 1989 and served as the project scienctist for the Shuttle-Mir program in 1992. 

In photos: Record-breaking NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson

In 1996, Whitson was selected to become a NASA astronaut and first launched to the International Space Station as part of the Expedition 5 crew in 2002. She spent 185 days in space on that flight, and also served as NASA's first official Science Officer on the station.

Then came Expedition 16, when Whitson took her historic command of the space station. During the 192-day flight, Whitson welcomed a NASA shuttle mission commanded by another woman, Pamela Melroy, and racked up her career fifth spacewalk. 

On her next spaceflight in 2016, she became the first woman to command the space station twice when she took command of Expedition 51. She holds the record for being the oldest woman in space, having returned from her final mission at the age of 57

Whitson retired from NASA in June 2018. She has spent a total of 665 days in space.

First female spacewalker

Cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya, the first woman to walk in space. Credit: Getty

The first woman to complete a spacewalk, or extravehicular activity (EVA), was Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya

Savitskaya became the second woman to fly in space in August 1982 - 19 years after Valentina Tereshkova's flight - when she served as a research cosmonaut on the space station Salyut 7. She launched on a Soyuz T-7 spacecraft on Aug. 19 , 1982 and spent returned to Earth eight days later. 

But it was during Savitskaya's second trip to Salyut 7 in 1984 that she made history as the first woman to walk in space. She was also the first woman ever to fly in space a second time.

Savitskaya launched with two crewmates aboard Soyuz T-12 on July 17, 184 and spent 12 days on Salyut 7. Her spacewalk occurred on July 24, when she and crewmate Vladimir Dzhanibekov spent more than three hours spacewalking and performing welding experiments in orbit. 

Born in Moscow, Savitskaya was determined to fly at a young age. She began parachuting at age 16 and joined the Soviet Aerobatics Team at age 18 to perform daredevil stunts and performances in aircraft, according to the UK Space Agency. She was selected to join the Soviet cosmonaut corps in 1980 and holds a master's degree in flight engineering.

First U.S. female spacewalker

NASA astronaut Kathryn Sullivan undergoes spacewalk training for the STS-41-G mission in 1984.  Credit: NASA (Image credit: NASA)

NASA astronaut Kathryn D. Sullivan became the first American woman to perform a spacewalk when she floated outside the space shuttle Challenger during mission STS-41-G on Oct. 11, 1984.

Sullivan's spacewalk occurred just months after the first-ever spacewalk by a woman (cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya's excursion in July of that year) during Challenger's nine-day mission to deploy an Earth observation satellite (the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite) and demonstrate satellite refueling technology. 

Sullivan holds a Ph.D in geology and joined NASA's eight class of astronauts in 1978, training for spaceflight for six years while awaiting her first assignment. That assignment was the STS-41-G mission, when she became the first American woman to walk in space. 

In April 1990, Sullivan returned to space on the shuttle Discovery, this time to help deploy the Hubble Space Telescope. In 1993, Sullivan left NASA to serve as chief scientist for NOAA and ultimately became NOAA's Administrator in 2014.

First all-female spacewalk

Image 1 of 3

NASA astronauts Christina Koch (left) and Jessica Meir test their spacesuits for their historic Oct. 18, 2019 spacewalk.

NASA astronauts Christina Koch (left) and Jessica Meir test their spacesuits for their historic Oct. 18, 2019 spacewalk. (Image credit: NASA)
Image 2 of 3

Jessica Meir (at top left, with back to camera) and Christina Koch begin the first all-female spacewalk outside the Quest airlock of the International Space Station on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019.

Jessica Meir (at top left, with back to camera) and Christina Koch begin the first all-female spacewalk outside the Quest airlock of the International Space Station on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019. (Image credit: NASA TV)
Image 3 of 3

NASA astronauts Christina Koch (right) and Jessica Meir pose for a photograph while testing their spacesuits for a historic Oct. 18, 2019 spacewalk.

NASA astronauts Christina Koch (right) and Jessica Meir pose for a photograph while testing their spacesuits for a historic Oct. 18, 2019 spacewalk. (Image credit: NASA)

On Oct. 18, 2019, two NASA astronauts made space history with the world's first all-female spacewalk

NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir went outside the International Space Station on an unplanned repair spacewalk to fix a fault battery component. Koch, a spacewalk veteran, led the EVA while Meir performed her first spacewalk. 

Koch and Meir were part of the Expedition 61 crew, with Koch also flying the first nearly yearlong space mission by a woman. Koch set a new record for the longest single spaceflight, having spent 328 consecutive days on board the orbiting laboratory. (The previous record holder was Peggy Whitson, who spent 289 consecutive days in space.)

First Briton in space

Helen Sharman became the first British citizen in space in 1991. Credit: Sputnik/Alamy

British food chemist and private citizen Helen Sharman became the first British person to fly in space when she visited the Mir space station aboard the Soyuz TM-12 in May 1991. During this flight, she also became the first woman to visit the Mir space station.

Sharman's road to space was a bit different from the professional astronauts and cosmonauts of NASA and Russia's Roscosmos agency. 

In 1989, Sharman answered a radio advertisement calling for applicants to fly in space as part of Project Juno, a collaboration between private British companies and the Soviet Union to launch a Briton into space. She beat out nearly 13,000 other applicants to win the coveted spot and spent 18 months training to fly on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. 

Sharman launched to Mir on May 18, 2991 and spent eight days in space performing biological and crystal growth experiments, as well as talking with British schoolchildren via radio. 

First African American woman in space

NASA astronaut Mae Jemison flew on space shuttle Endeavour in September 1992, becoming the first black woman to travel to space. Credit: NASA

NASA astronaut Mae Jemison flew on space shuttle Endeavour in September 1992, becoming the first African-American woman to travel to space.

Born in Decatur, Alabama, Jemison grew up in Chicago and earned degrees in chemical engineering and African and African-American studies at Stanford University, as well as doctorate in medicine from Cornell University. After working as a doctor for several years and serving term in the Peace Corps, Jemison joined NASA as an astronaut in 1987. 

Jemison launched into space on Endeavour on Sept. 12, 1992 as part of the seven-person STS-47 crew. She served as a mission specialist, performing experiments in two bone cell research experiments among other tasks. Endeavour carried a Spacelab module in its payload bay to allow room for more than 43 different studies during the mission. 

Jemison spent just over 190 hours in space during the STS-47 mission and left NASA in March 1993. 

First Canadian woman in space

Roberta L. Bondar, the first Canadian woman in space, poses for a portrait. She flew in 1992. NASA

Roberta Bondar became Canada's first female astronaut when she flew on the STS-42 space shuttle mission in 1992. 

First Japanese woman in space

NASA

The first Japanese woman in space was Chiaki Mukai, representing the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA). Mukai flew on the space shuttle Columbia during mission STS-65 in July 1994. At the time, she set the record for the longest flight to date by a female astronaut.

First French woman in space

NASA

Doctor Claudie Haigneré became the first and only French woman to travel to space when she flew to the Russian space station Mir in 1996. In 2001, she became the first European woman to visit the International Space Station.

First female space shuttle commander

NASA

NASA astronaut Eileen Collins was the first woman to command a space shuttle mission, a role that required an astronaut to have at least 1,000 hours of experience piloting jet aircraft. Collins commanded the STS-93 space shuttle mission in July 1999, and went on to command a second time in July 2005.

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