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Sally Ride – First American Woman in Space

On June 18, 1983, NASA Astronaut Sally K. Ride became the first American woman in space, when she launched with her four crewmates aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger on mission STS-7.  Ride and five other women had been selected in 1978 for NASA Astronaut Group 8, the first American selection class to include females.  With the advent of the space shuttle, NASA expanded astronaut selection from only pilots to scientists and engineers, and women became eligible for selection.  NASA announced Ride and her classmates to the public on Jan. 16, 1978.

Space Shuttle Challenger and Sally Ride
Left: The launch of Space Shuttle Challenger on STS-7; center: Ride on Challenger’s Flight Deck; right: Challenger as seen from the SPAS-01 satellite. u003cstrongu003eCredits: NASAu003c/strongu003e

After completing astronaut training, the Class of 1978 astronauts became eligible for ground and flight assignments.  Ride served as Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) for STS-2 and STS-3 in late 1981 and early 1982, and became an expert in the use of the shuttle’s robotic arm.  On April 30, 1982, NASA announced that Ride would serve as a Mission Specialist on STS-7, a satellite deployment and retrieval mission on board the Space Shuttle Challenger.  Her crewmates were Commander Robert L. Crippen, Pilot Frederick H. “Rick” Hauck, and Mission Specialist John M. Fabian.  NASA added physician-astronaut Norman E. Thagard to the crew in January 1983 to conduct in-flight studies of space motion sickness, a condition that afflicted about one-third to one-half of all space travelers.  Thagard’s addition marked the largest crew flown in a single spacecraft to date.

During the six-day mission, the most complex in the shuttle program to date, the crew launched two commercial communications satellites, Anik C3 for Canada’s Telesat and Palapa B2 for Indonesia.  Ride used the Shuttle’s robotic arm to deploy the first Shuttle Pallet Satellite (SPAS-01) and retrieve it two days later, the first time the Shuttle was used to return a spacecraft to Earth.  The SPAS-01 satellite took some amazing photographs of Challenger as the two spacecraft flew in formation.  Although originally planned to conduct the first shuttle landing at Kennedy Space Center, inclement weather in Florida forced a diversion to Edwards Air Force Base in California.  Touchdown occurred June 24.

Ride’s launch on STS-7 occurred almost to the day of the 20th anniversary of the launch of the first woman in space, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina V. Tereshkova.  After the successful flight of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space in April 1961, Soviet Chief Designer Sergey Korolyov had the idea of flying a woman in space.  To find a suitable candidate, he looked outside the field of military pilots.  Although piloting was not a requirement for the female candidates (the Vostok spaceship was more or less automated), parachuting was, because after reentry Vostok cosmonauts ejected from the capsule and parachuted to the ground separately.  About 400 female candidates initially were screened and 40 were called to Moscow to undergo interviews and medical and other tests.  Valentina Tereshkova was one of five women selected on Feb. 16, 1962. 

Tereshkova launched into space June 16, 1963, aboard Vostok-6 using the call sign Chaika (чайка), or Seagull.  Her mission was part of the second group flight launched by the Soviets, with fellow cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky launching two days earlier aboard Vostok-5.  During Tereshkova’s first orbit, the two spacecraft came within three miles of each other and the two cosmonauts talked to each other by radio, before drifting apart and completing their separate missions.  She circled the Earth 48 times over three days and made a successful parachute landing June 19.

Soviet cosmonaut Valentina V. Tereshkova
Left: Soviet cosmonaut Valentina V. Tereshkova just before boarding her Vostok 6 capsule; center: TV image of her during the flight; right: shortly after her landing. u003cstrongu003eCredits: RKK Energiyau003c/strongu003e

Sally Ride and Valentina Tereshkova made their marks on history.  Despite the camaraderie between astronauts and cosmonauts even during the height of the Cold War and the thaw afterwards, there’s no indication that the two ever met.  In their own ways, the two were trailblazers for women who followed their footsteps in the conquest of space.