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Space Station 20th – Women and the Space Station

Celebrating International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month

“A bird cannot fly with one wing only. Human space flight cannot develop any further without the active participation of women.” – Valentina Tereshkova

“If we want scientists and engineers in the future, we should be cultivating the girls as much as the boys.”Sally Ride

“International cooperation is very necessary. Chinese have a saying, ‘When all the people collect the wood, you will make a great fire.’”Liu Yang

As of March 2020, 65 women have flown in space. Of these, 38 have visited the International Space Station (ISS) as long-duration expedition crewmembers, as visitors on Space Shuttle assembly flights or as Space Flight Participants on short-duration Soyuz missions. It is fitting to recognize the significant accomplishments of these women as well as the pioneering women who preceded them into space. This article cannot recognize all the great contributions by women to make ISS the unique laboratory in space and only strives to capture significant firsts. Many other women contributed to the assembly of the station and the research being conducted aboard on a daily basis. These include not only the astronauts who flew the daring missions but also the many women on the ground who as center directors, managers, flight directors and in many other roles continue the exploration of space, as NASA endeavors to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon and possibly send the first crews to Mars in the coming decades.

Soviet cosmonaut Valentina V. Tereshkova made history on June 16, 1963, when she launched aboard Vostok 6 as the first woman in space. Soviet plans to launch other female cosmonauts in the 1960s never materialized and nearly 20 years passed before another woman flew in space. In January 1978, NASA announced the selection of 35 new astronauts including six women for the Space Shuttle program. In response, the Soviet Union secretly selected a group of nine women cosmonauts in 1980. On Aug. 19, 1982, one of those, Svetlana Y. Savitskaya, launched with her two crewmates aboard Soyuz T-7 to spend a week aboard the Salyut-7 space station. The next day they joined the two long-duration resident crewmembers aboard, marking the first time a space station hosted a mixed-gender crew. Ten months later, astronaut Sally K. Ride made history on June 18, 1983, becoming the first American woman in space, spending seven days aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger during the STS-7 mission.

tereshkova_before_entering_vostok_6 ride_on_sts_7
Left: Tereshkova just before boarding her Vostok 6 capsule.
Right: Ride aboard the Space Shuttle
Challenger during the STS-7 mission.

Savitskaya made history again on July 25, 1984, as the first woman to participate in a spacewalk or Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA) during her second flight to Salyut 7. Less than three months later, on Oct. 11, Kathryn D. Sullivan completed the first EVA by an American woman from the Space Shuttle Challenger during the STS-41G mission. With Ride as one of Sullivan’s crewmates, the flight marked the first time that two women flew on the same mission.

savitskaya_eva ride_and_sullivan_sts_41g
Left: Savitskaya during her EVA outside Salyut-7. Right: Sullivan (at left) and
Ride aboard Space Shuttle
Challenger during the STS-41G mission.

The honor of the first woman to complete a long-duration mission in space belongs to Russian cosmonaut Elena V. Kondakova. She launched aboard the Soyuz TM20 spacecraft on Oct. 3, 1994, and spent 169 days aboard the Mir space station as part of Expedition 17, returning to Earth on March 22, 1995. The first American woman to complete a long-duration mission, Shannon W. Lucid launched on March 22, 1996, aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis. The second astronaut to fly as part of the Shuttle-Mir Program she spent 188 days aboard Mir as part of Expeditions 21 and 22, returning to Earth with STS-79 on Sep. 26.

mir_exp_16_and_17_handover_1994 lucid_aboard_mir_1996
Left: Kondakova (second from right) aboard Mir during the handover between
Expedition 16 and 17. Right: Lucid (at left) with her Mir Expedition 21 crewmates.

As on-orbit assembly of ISS commenced in 1998, women were literally on board from the very beginning. As the first woman to reach ISS, Nancy J. Currie participated in the first assembly mission, STS-88 in December 1998, using the Shuttle’s robotic arm to precisely join the American Unity Node 1 module to the Russian-built Zarya module, launched three weeks earlier.

sts_88_crew_in_node_1 sts_88_currie_in_fgb
Left: Currie (in front at right), the first woman to reach ISS with her
STS-88 crewmates. Right: Currie at work in the
Zarya module.

The second Space Shuttle assembly mission, STS-96 in May 1999, included three women on the crew – Tamara E. “Tammy” Jernigan, Ellen L. Ochoa and Julie Payette. Jernigan became the first woman to participate in an EVA at ISS to install crane equipment for future assembly tasks, with Ochoa as the robotic arm operator. Payette became the first Canadian of any gender to visit ISS, and became the first Canadian to make a second visit to ISS during STS-127 in 2009.

sts_96_crew_in_node_1 sts_96_jernigan_eva_to_install_strela sts_96_payette_in_node_1
Left: STS-96 crew in the Unity Node 1 module, with Jernigan and Payette in the top row
and Ochoa at bottom right. Middle: Jernigan during the STS-96 EVA.
Right: Payette in the
Unity Node 1 module.

Astronaut Pamela A. Melroy was the first woman to serve as Pilot on a Shuttle flight to ISS, STS-92 in October 2000, the mission that added the Z1 truss, control moment gyros and a Pressurized Mating Adaptor to the developing station. She returned to ISS as Pilot of STS-112 in October 2002 and as Commander of STS-120 in October 2007. Astronaut Susan J. Helms holds several distinctions for women. As a member of Expedition 2, she became the first woman to complete a long-duration mission on ISS, a 167-day flight between March and August of 2001. She had previously flown to ISS during STS-101, making her the first woman to visit the station twice. Helms was the first woman with a military background to visit ISS, having graduated in the U.S. Air Force Academy’s first woman-inclusive class of 1980. She co-holds the record for the longest EVA to date, 8 hours and 56 minutes, completed with her Expedition 2 crewmate James S. Voss. 

sts_92_melroy_in_plt_position helms_not_wanting_to_leave_iss_aug_2001
Left: STS-92 Pilot Melroy shortly after reaching orbit. Right: Expedition 2 Commander
Yuri V. Usachev (at left) coaxing a reluctant Flight Engineer Helms to leave ISS
at the end of their mission.

Eileen M. Collins had already made history twice before, first in 1995 as the first female Pilot of a Space Shuttle mission and again in 1999 as the first woman Shuttle Commander. In 2005, Collins became the first woman to command a Shuttle mission to ISS, the Return to Flight STS-114 mission, the first after the Columbia accident two years previously. Heidemarie M. “Heidi” Stefanyshyn-Piper was the first woman to conduct an EVA from the station’s Quest Joint Airlock Module on Sep. 12, 2006, during the STS-115 mission that installed the P3/P4 truss segment on ISS. 

sts_114_collins_in_cdr_seat_on_orbit sts_115_piper_on_eva
Left: STS-114 Commander Collins (at left) with Pilot James M. “Vegas” Kelly on
the flight deck of
Discovery. Right: Piper working on the P3/P4 truss
segment during an EVA on STS-115.

Peggy A. Whitson became the first woman Commander of ISS during Expedition 16 in 2007, her second long-duration mission to the station. Expedition 16 was notable for the addition to ISS of the Harmony Node 2 module, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Columbus research module, the first of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) elements and the arrival of the first of ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo resupply vehicles named Jules Verne. As noted above, Melroy commanded STS-120, the October 2007 mission that brought Columbus to ISS, marking the first and only time that Commanders of both ISS and the visiting Space Shuttle were women. In 2017, during Expedition 51 Whitson became the first woman to command ISS for a second time. As of March 2020, Whitson holds the record for most cumulative spaceflight time for a woman as well as for any American astronaut. Over the course of three long-duration missions aboard ISS, she spent a total of 639 days or about 1.75 years in space. She also holds the record for the most EVA time for a woman – over her three missions, she spent 60 hours and 21 minutes outside the station in the course of 10 EVAs.

exp_15_to_16_handover_patch_hanging melroy_and_whitson_handshake
Left: During the change of command ceremony, Expedition 16 Commander Whitson
(top right) hangs the crew’s patch in the
Destiny module. Right: STS-120 Commander
Melroy (at left) and ISS Expedition 16 Commander Whitson meet at the hatch
between the two vehicles.

Between May 16 and 23, 2010, for the first time four women were aboard ISS at one time. Expedition 23 Flight Engineer Tracy E. Caldwell Dyson had been living and working since April when STS-131 arrived, with Dorothy M. “Dottie” Metcalf-Lindenburger, Stephanie D. Wilson and Naoko Yamazaki as part of the Shuttle crew. The mission brought four new research facilities to the station. Three weeks after the Shuttle’s departure, Caldwell Dyson and her crewmates welcomed a new trio of long-duration crewmembers including Shannon Walker, making Expedition 24 the first to include two women. The next two-woman expedition took place between November 2014 and March 2015 – Expedition 42 included Elena O. Serova, the first Russian woman to make a long-duration flight aboard ISS, and Samantha Cristoforetti from Italy, the first female ESA astronaut on a long-duration mission. 

four_women_in_space_2010 exp_24_wheels_caldwell-dyson_and_walker exp_42_cristoforetti_and_serova_in_atv-5
Left: Four women aboard ISS (clockwise from top left) Metcalf-Lindenburger, Yamazaki, Wilson
and Caldwell Dyson. Middle: Caldwell Dyson (middle) and Walker (right) with their Expedition 24 crewmate
Douglas H. “Wheels” Wheelock. Right: Serova (at left) and Cristoforetti in the ATV-5 cargo vehicle

Georges Lemaître during Expedition 42.

Expeditions including two women have recently become more common. During Expedition 57, Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor and Anne C. McClain overlapped by about three weeks in December 2018, between March and June 2019 McClain and Christina Hammock Koch were aboard as part of Expedition 59, and Jessica U. Meir joined Koch in September of that year during Expedition 61. Koch returned to Earth in February 2020, completing a flight of 329 days, the longest to date by a woman.

exp_57_aunon-chancellor_and_mcclain_working_in_kibo exp_59_mcclain_and_koch_demonstrate_zero_g_in_kibo
Left: Auñón-Chancellor (at left) and McClain working together in the Kibo
module during Expedition 57. Right: McClain (at left) and Koch demonstrating
weightlessness during Expedition 59.

The Expedition 61 crew conducted a record nine EVAs between October 2019 and January 2020. Koch and Meir made history on Oct. 18 when they floated outside ISS to carry out the first all-woman EVA, one of several spacewalks to replace the station’s batteries. The capsule communicator (Capcom), the astronaut in Mission Control who communicates with the astronauts in space, for this historic EVA was three-time Space Shuttle veteran Stephanie Wilson (who as noted above took part in the first four-woman gathering on ISS), assisted by space station veteran Mark T. Vande Hei. “As much as it’s worth celebrating the first spacewalk with an all-female team, I think many of us are looking forward to it just being normal,” astronaut Caldwell Dyson said during live coverage of the spacewalk. As if to prove her point, Koch and Meir conducted two more all-woman EVAs in January 2020.

exp_61_koch_meir_eva_prep wilson_as_capcom_during_first_two_woman_eva_exp_61
Left: Space suited astronauts Meir (at left) and Koch, assisted by their Expedition 61
crewmates, prepare for the first all-woman EVA. Right: CAPCOMs Wilson (at left) and
Vande Hei assist Meir and Koch during the first all-woman EVA.

The story of women in space would not be complete without mention of the two women from the People’s Republic of China who have flown in space. China’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang, launched on June 16, 2012, aboard the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft with her two crewmates, docking with the Tiangong-1 space station two days later. The trio returned to Earth after a 13-day mission. One year later, on June 11, 2013, Wang Yaping and her two crewmates launched aboard Shenzhou 10 for a 14-day visit to Tiangong-1. Wang conducted science experiments and taught a live physics lessons to school children from aboard the station.

liu_on_tiangong_1 wang_aboard_tiangong_1_shenzhou-10 tiangong_1_during_approach
Left: Liu, China’s first woman in space, aboard the Tiangong-1 space station.
Middle: Wang teaching a physics lesson live from Tiangong-1.
Right: The Tiangong-1 space station as seen during the approach by the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft.