New Space Record: 4 Women in Orbit at the Same Time
The space shuttle Discovery lifts off on its STS-131 mission April 5, 2010.
Credit: NASA TV

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. ? Four intrepid women with the right stuff have sailed into the world record books as the most female astronauts ever to fly in space at the same time.

Discovery launched into space at 6:21 a.m. EDT (1021 GMT) in a pre-dawn launch from NASA?s Kennedy Space Center here carrying seven astronauts and vital supplies toward the International Space Station.

Three of seven astronauts on Discovery are women. They include former high school teacher Dorothy ?Dottie? Metcalf-Lindenburger, robotic arm expert Stephanie Wilson and Naoko Yamazaki, the second Japanese woman ever to reach space.

Rounding out the female space quartet is chemist-turned-astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, who is living on the International Space Station after arriving at the orbiting laboratory on Sunday. The four female spaceflyers will meet up on Wednesday to form the largest gathering of women in space in history.

Discovery?s flight is only the third in NASA history to launch with three female crewmembers aboard. There are still more men than women in space today, with nine men (four on Discovery, five on the space station) currently in orbit.

The first woman in space was cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who launched in June 1963 on the former Soviet Union?s Vostok 6 mission. The first American woman in space came two decades later, in June 1983, when astronaut Sally Ride rode the shuttle into orbit on the space shuttle Challenger.

In all, 54 women have flown in space out of the 517 people who have reached orbit. NASA?s current chief astronaut is veteran spaceflyer Peggy Whitson, who served two tours on the space station ? commanding the station as its first female chief in 2007.

?It?s a wonderful opportunity to be part of any crew,? said Wilson, 43, before flight. ?I hope it says that women have come a long way and have worked really hard to be able to do any of the jobs related to spaceflight.?

Legacy in space

Wilson is an aerospace engineer from Boston, Mass. She became the second African-American woman to fly in space during her first spaceflight in 2006. Discovery?s current flight is her third trip to space.

?I hope that part of our legacy is that we continue to inspire young women [to] pursue careers in science, engineering or math,? Wilson said.

Metcalf-Lindenburger, 34, is making her first career spaceflight on Discovery, but the drive to reach space has been with her since high school, when she attended Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., while in ninth grade.

She was teaching high school earth science and astronomy in Vancouver, Wash., when she found out NASA was looking for educator-astronauts in 2004. She was researching a question from a student on how astronauts go to the bathroom in space at the time.

On this flight, Metcalf-Lindenburger plans to film some educational videos about the role of robotics in space. She practiced counting down to launch with her 3-year-old daughter Cambria many times before actually reaching space.? On Discovery?s actual launch day, Metcalf-Lindenburger held up a hand-drawn sign for Cambria with a rocket ship and the numbers ?5-4-3-2-1,? a rocket launch countdown.????????

?My daughter doesn?t know that there?s a big deal or not a big deal. To her, flying is cool, running around is being cool, and just running around and growing up as a kid is cool,? Metcalf-Lindenburger said. ?And there?s not a lot of distinction, and that?s how I want it to be.?

Yamazaki, 39, is Japan?s second female astronaut and said she drew much of her inspiration from her country?s first woman spaceflyer Chiaki Mukai, who first flew in space in 1994. A fan of science fiction films and anime cartoons, Yamazaki chose aerospace engineering as her profession and joined Japan?s astronaut corps in 1999.

Her husband was extremely supportive of her space career, and even left his own behind so she could continue training to fly in space. This mission her first spaceflight.

?It was especially important to me that my husband quit his job and made it possible for my family to stay together as much as possible when my full-scale training started in 2004 in the U.S.,? Yamazaki said. ?These days, more women continue their careers after marriage, but how you juggle your job and housework may differ depending on each family's environment, and there are various ways to do that. My family has learned to handle it through trial and error.?

A long-term spaceflight

Caldwell Dyson has had a different road to space than her three shuttle comrades. She launched to the space station Friday on a Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft alongside two Russian cosmonauts.

A former chemist and electrician, Caldwell Dyson is on her second spaceflight, though this one is a six-month trek as a flight engineer on the station?s Expedition 23 crew.

It was NASA?s first Teacher-in-Space program, which recruited Connecticut teacher Christa MacAuliffe into NASA?s astronaut ranks in the mid-1980s, that allowed Caldwell Dyson to consider a career in spaceflight. Until then, she thought NASA?s ?right stuff? requirement meant being a military pilot ? and a man. But seeing MacAuliffe, who later died with six crewmates during the Challenger accident, changed her mind.

?You start to realize that I?ve got something in common with this person, and if a teacher has ?the right stuff? and a teacher?s teaching me all day long ? then it became very interesting to me,? Caldwell Dyson said in a NASA interview.

Caldwell Dyson will meet up with the three spaceflying women (and four men) aboard Discovery on Wednesday, when the shuttle is due to dock at the International Space Station to begin more than a week of joint work.

The three female astronauts aboard Discovery will spend about 13 days in space before the shuttle is due to return to Earth on April 18. Three spacewalks are planned during the flight, which is one of NASA?s last few remaining shuttle missions before the space agency retires its three-orbiter fleet later this year.

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