“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 2023, 72 women have flown in space. Of these, 44 have worked on the International Space Station as long-duration expedition crewmembers, as visitors on space shuttle assembly flights, or as space flight participants on short-duration missions. This article recognizes the significant accomplishments of these women from many nations as well as the pioneering women who preceded them into space. Many other women contributed to the assembly of the station and the research conducted aboard on a daily basis, including those on the ground who served as center directors, managers, flight directors, and in many other roles to pursue the exploration of space. Their achievements will contribute to NASA’s efforts to land the first woman and the first person of color on the Moon and possibly send the first crews to Mars in the coming decades.
Left: The five women selected for training to be the first woman in space, Soviet
cosmonaut-candidates Valentina L. Ponomareva, left, Tatiana D. Kuznetsova, Irina
B. Soloveva, Valentina V. Tereshkova, and Zhanna D. Yorkina, with an unidentified
woman at far right. Right: Tereshkova just before boarding her Vostok 6
capsule for her historic spaceflight.
The era of women in space began on June 16, 1963, when Soviet cosmonaut Valentina V. Tereshkova launched aboard the Vostok 6 spacecraft. Chosen from a group of five women selected for training, Tereshkova completed a three-day mission and entered the history books as the first woman to orbit the Earth. 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 these women, Svetlana Y. Savitskaya, launched with her two crewmates aboard Soyuz T-7 for a week-long mission. The next day, they joined the two long-duration resident crewmembers aboard Salyut 7, marking the first time a space station hosted a mixed-gender crew. Ten months later, on June 18, 1983, astronaut Sally K. Ride made history as the first American woman in space, spending seven days aboard space shuttle Challenger during the STS-7 mission.
Left: The six women astronauts selected by NASA in 1978, Shannon M. Lucid, left,
M. Rhea Seddon, Kathryn D. Sullivan, Judith A. Resnik, Anna L. Fisher, and
Sally K. Ride, pose with an Apollo-era space suit. Right: Ride aboard
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 during her second flight to Salyut 7. Less than three months later, on Oct. 11, Kathryn D. Sullivan completed the first spacewalk by an American woman from space shuttle Challenger during the STS-41G mission. With Ride as one of Sullivan’s crewmates, the flight marked the first time a space crew included two women.
Left: Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Y. Savitskaya during her historic spacewalk
outside the Salyut 7 space station. Right: NASA astronauts Kathryn D.
Sullivan, left, and Sally K. Ride aboard space shuttle Challenger
during the STS-41G mission.
Helen P. Sharman has the distinction as not only the first person from the United Kingdom in space but also the first woman to visit the Russian space station Mir. During her eight-day privately funded Juno mission in May 1991, Sharman conducted a series of life sciences experiments and talked to British schoolchildren. The next month marked the first time that a space crew included three women – NASA astronauts M. Rhea Seddon, Tamara E. Jernigan, and Millie E. Hughes-Fulford – during the STS-40 Spacelab Life Sciences 1 mission.
Left: Helen P. Sharman, the United Kingdom’s first astronaut, aboard the Russian
space station Mir in 1991. Right: The first time a space crew included three
women – NASA astronauts Tamara E. Jernigan, back row middle, M. Rhea
Seddon, and Millie R. Hughes-Fulford – the STS-40 mission in 1991.
Selected in 1983 as one of the six members of the initial cadre of the Canadian Astronaut Program – later incorporated into the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) – Dr. Roberta L. Bondar became the first Canadian woman in space during the STS-42 flight of Discovery in January 1992. As a payload specialist and the first neurologist in space, she performed and participated in more than 40 experiments during the eight-day International Microgravity Laboratory-1 (IML-1) mission. NASA selected Dr. Mae C. Jemison as an astronaut in 1987. In September 1992, she became the first Black American woman in space as a crew member of Endeavour’s STS-47 Spacelab-J mission. During the eight-day flight, she conducted numerous life and materials sciences experiments. Selected in NASA’s 1990 class of astronauts, Ellen Ochoa became the first Hispanic woman in space in April 1993 as a mission specialist on the STS-56 flight of Discovery, the second Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science mission. An accomplished flautist, she played the flute during her spare time during the mission. Ochoa completed three more space shuttle flights and served as the first Hispanic director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston from 2013 to 2018. Selected in 1985 as an astronaut by the National Space Development Agency of Japan, now the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Dr. Chiaki Mukai became the first Japanese woman in space in July 1994 when she spent 15 days as a payload specialist on the STS-65 IML-2 mission aboard Columbia. She became the first Japanese astronaut to make two spaceflights when she returned to space in 1998 aboard STS-95.
Left: Dr. Roberta L. Bondar, the first Canadian woman in space, participates in a neuro-vestibular experiment
during the STS-42 International Microgravity Laboratory-1 (IML-1) mission. Middle left: Dr. Mae C. Jemison,
the first African American woman in space, works in the Spacelab module during the STS-47 Spacelab-J
mission. Middle right: Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman in space, enjoys playing the flute in
her spare time during the STS-56 mission. Right: Dr. Chiaki Mukai, the first Japanese woman in
space, floats into the Spacelab module during the STS-65 IML-2 mission.
The honor of the first woman to complete a long-duration mission belongs to Russian cosmonaut Elena V. Kondakova. She launched aboard Soyuz TM20 on Oct. 3, 1994, and spent 169 days aboard the space station Mir as a member of Expedition 17, returning to Earth on March 22, 1995. The first American woman to complete a long-duration mission, NASA astronaut Shannon W. Lucid, launched aboard space shuttle Atlantis on March 22, 1996, as part of the STS-76 crew. The second NASA astronaut to fly as part of the Shuttle-Mir Program, Lucid spent 188 days aboard Mir, setting a new record for the longest single flight by a woman, as a member of Expeditions 21 and 22, returning to Earth with STS-79 on Sep. 26.
Left: Russian cosmonaut Elena V. Kondakova, second from right, aboard Mir during
the handover between Expedition 16 and 17 in 1994. Right: NASA astronaut Shannon
W. Lucid, left, with her Mir Expedition 21 crewmates in 1996.
With Lucid still onboard Mir, the August 1996 flight of Claudie André-Deshays, France’s first woman astronaut visiting the station during her Cassiopée research mission, marked the first time that two women lived aboard any space station. After marrying fellow French astronaut and Mir veteran Jean-Pierre Haigneré, she returned to space in October 2001, this time during her eight-day Andromède research mission to the International Space Station, becoming the first woman to live and work aboard two different space stations.
Left: Claudie André-Deshays, left, France’s first female astronaut, with Russian
cosmonaut Yuri V. Usachev and NASA astronaut Shannon M. Lucid aboard Mir
in 1996. Right: Claudie (André-Deshays) Haigneré in the Zvezda Service
Module of the International Space Station in 2001.
When on-orbit assembly of the International Space Station commenced in 1998, female astronauts took part from the very beginning. As the first woman to reach the new facility, NASA astronaut Nancy J. Currie participated in the first assembly mission, STS-88 in December 1998. She used the shuttle’s robotic arm to precisely join the American Unity Node 1 module to the Russian-built Zarya module, launched three weeks earlier.
Left: NASA astronaut Nancy J. Currie, front row right, the first woman to reach
the International Space Station, with her STS-88 crewmates in 1998.
Right: Currie at work in the Zarya module.
The second space station assembly mission, STS-96 in May 1999, included three women on the crew – NASA astronauts Jernigan and Ellen Ochoa, and CSA’s Julie Payette. Jernigan became the first woman to participate in a spacewalk at the space station 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 the space station and became the first Canadian to return to the space station during STS-127 in 2009.
Left: In 1999, the STS-96 crew in the Unity Node 1 module, with NASA astronaut Tamara E. Jernigan
and Julie Payette of the Canadian Space Agency in the top row and NASA astronaut Ellen Ochoa
at bottom right. Middle: Jernigan during the STS-96 spacewalk.
Right: Payette in the Unity Node 1 module.
NASA astronaut Pamela A. Melroy served as the first female pilot on a shuttle flight to the space station, the STS-92 mission in October 2000 that added the Z1 truss, control moment gyros, and a Pressurized Mating Adapter to the growing station. She returned to the station as pilot of STS-112 in October 2002 and as commander of STS-120 in October 2007. NASA 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 the space station, a 167-day flight between March and August of 2001. She had previously flown to the station during STS-101, making her the first woman to visit the facility twice. A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy’s first woman-inclusive class of 1980, Helms was the first woman with a military background to visit the station. She co-holds the record for the longest spacewalk to date, 8 hours 56 minutes, completed with her Expedition 2 crewmate NASA astronaut James S. Voss.
Left: STS-92 Pilot NASA astronaut Pamela A. Melroy shortly after reaching
orbit in 2000. Right: Expedition 2 Commander Yuri V. Usachev of Roscosmos,
left, coaxing a reluctant Flight Engineer NASA astronaut Susan J. Helms to
leave the International Space Station at the end of their mission in 2001.
NASA astronaut Eileen M. Collins had already made history three times before, first in 1995 as the first female pilot of a space shuttle mission (STS-63), the second time in 1997 when she served as the first female shuttle pilot to dock with a space station (STS-84 and Mir), and again in 1999 as the first woman shuttle commander (STS-93). In 2005, Collins became the first woman to command a shuttle mission to the space station, the Return to Flight STS-114 mission, the first after the Columbia accident two years previously. NASA astronaut Heidemarie M. “Heidi” Stefanyshyn-Piper conducted the first spacewalk by a woman from the station’s Quest Joint Airlock on Sep. 12, 2006, during the STS-115 mission that installed the P3/P4 truss segment on the station.
Left: In 2005, STS-114 Commander NASA astronaut Eileen M. Collins, left, with
Pilot NASA astronaut James M. “Vegas” Kelly on the flight deck of Discovery.
Right: NASA astronaut Heidemarie M. “Heidi” Stefanyshyn-Piper working on
the P3/P4 truss segment during an STS-115 spacewalk in 2006.
On Sept. 18, 2006, Anousheh Ansari became the first Iranian-born American in space when she launched with her Expedition 14 crew mates aboard Soyuz TMA9. Flying as a spaceflight participant through a commercial agreement with the Russian government, Ansari conducted four experiments on behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA) during her nine-day mission. She returned to Earth with the Expedition 13 crew. Eighteen months later, through a joint agreement between the governments of Russia and the Republic of Korea, Yi So-yeon, a researcher at the Korean Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), became the first Korean in space when she launched aboard Soyuz TMA12 with her Expedition 15 crew mates on April 8, 2008. During her 10-day mission aboard the space station, Yi carried out 18 experiments for KARI. She returned to Earth with the Expedition 16 crew, enduring a strenuous ballistic reentry caused by a spacecraft malfunction.
Left: Spaceflight participant Anousheh Ansari, center, with her Expedition 13 and 14 crew mates during a press
conference. Middle left: Ansari holds a plant grown in the Lada greenhouse in the Zvezda Service Module.
Middle right: Korean spaceflight participant Yi So-yeon with her Expedition 16 crew mates.
Right: Yi conducts an experiment in the Pirs Docking Compartment.
NASA astronaut Peggy A. Whitson holds the distinction as the first female commander of the space station during Expedition 16 in 2007, her second long-duration mission to the orbiting lab. The busy expedition included the addition to the station of the Harmony Node 2 module, ESA’s Columbus research module, the first of the JAXA elements, and the arrival of the first of ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle cargo resupply vehicles. As noted above, Melroy commanded STS-120, the October 2007 mission that brought Columbus to the station, marking the first and only time that women commanded both the space station and the visiting space shuttle. In 2017, during Expedition 51 Whitson became the first woman to command the station for a second time. During this third flight, she spent 289 days in space, at the time the longest single flight by a woman. As of March 2023, Whitson holds the record for the most cumulative spaceflight time for a woman as well as for any American astronaut – over the course of three long-duration missions aboard the space station, she spent a total of 665 days or about 1.8 years in space. She also holds the record for the most spacewalk time for a woman – over her three missions, she spent 60 hours, 21 minutes outside the station during 10 spacewalks.
Left: During the change of command ceremony, Expedition 16 Commander NASA
astronaut Peggy A. Whitson, top right, hangs the crew’s patch in the
Destiny module. Right: STS-120 Commander NASA astronaut Pamela
A. Melroy, left, and Expedition 16 Commander Whitson meet at
the hatch between the two vehicles.
The first time four women flew aboard the space station at one time occurred between May 16 and 23, 2010. Expedition 23 Flight Engineer NASA astronaut Tracy E. Caldwell Dyson had been living and working aboard since April when STS-131 arrived, with NASA astronauts Dorothy M. “Dottie” Metcalf-Lindenburger and Stephanie D. Wilson, and Naoko Yamazaki of JAXA as members of the shuttle crew – Yamazaki became the first Japanese woman to visit the space station. 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 crew members including NASA astronaut 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 Roscosmos cosmonaut Elena O. Serova, the first Russian woman to make a long-duration flight aboard the space station, and Samantha Cristoforetti from Italy, the first female ESA astronaut on a long-duration mission, spending 199 days in space, a then-record as the longest by an international partner astronaut.
Left: Four women aboard the International Space Station – NASA astronauts Dorothy M.
Metcalf-Lindenburger, top left, Tracy E. Caldwell Dyson, and Stephanie D. Wilson,
and Naoko Yamazaki of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Middle: Caldwell
Dyson, middle, and NASA astronaut Shannon Walker with their Expedition 24
crewmate NASA astronaut Douglas H. “Wheels” Wheelock, left. Right: Elena
O. Serova, left, of Roscomos and European Space Agency astronaut
Samantha Cristoforetti in the Automated Transfer Vehicle-5
Georges Lemaître cargo vehicle during Expedition 42.
Expedition crews including two women have recently become more common. During Expedition 57, NASA astronauts Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor and Anne C. McClain overlapped by about three weeks in December 2018. Between March and June 2019, McClain and NASA astronaut Christina H. Koch were aboard as part of Expedition 59, and NASA astronaut 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 single mission to date by a woman.
Left: NASA astronauts Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor, left, and Anne C. McClain work
together in the Kibo module during Expedition 57. Right: McClain, left, and NASA
astronaut Christina H. Koch demonstrate weightlessness during Expedition 59.
The Expedition 61 crew conducted a record nine spacewalks between October 2019 and January 2020. Koch and Meir made history on Oct. 18 when they floated outside the space station to carry out the first all-woman spacewalk, one of several to replace the station’s batteries. The capsule communicator (capcom), the person in the Mission Control Center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston who communicates with the astronauts in space, for this historic spacewalk was three-time space shuttle veteran Wilson (who as noted above took part in the first four-woman gathering on the space station). “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 spacewalks in January 2020. Meir’s return to Earth marked the end of the longest period up to that time of a continuous female presence aboard the space station – 682 days (one year and 10 months) from June 8, 2018, to April 17, 2020.
Left: Space suited NASA astronauts Jessica U. Meir, left, and Christina H. Koch,
assisted by their Expedition 61 crewmates, prepare for the first all-woman
spacewalk. Right: Capsule communicators NASA astronauts Stephanie D.
Wilson, left, and Mark T. Vande Hei assist Meir and Koch during the
first all-woman spacewalk from the Mission Control Center at
NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The arrival of NASA astronaut Kathleen H. “Kate” Rubins on Oct 14, 2020, began the longest continuous period to date with at least one woman living and working aboard the space station. On Nov. 16, as a member of NASA’s Crew-1 mission aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft, NASA astronaut Shannon Walker became the first woman to travel on a commercial crew vehicle. When she and her three crewmates joined the Expedition 64 crew abord the space station, they comprised the station’s first-ever seven-member resident crew. With Rubins already onboard, for the next five months two women once again called the space station home. NASA astronaut K. Megan McArthur, the first woman to pilot a commercial crew vehicle, arrived in April 2021 as a member of NASA’s Crew-2 mission, followed by Crew-3’s NASA astronaut Kayla S. Barron in November 2021.
Left: NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, the first woman to fly on a commercial crew vehicle, looks
out the window of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft Resilience. Middle: NASA astronauts
Kathleen H. “Kate” Rubins, left, and Walker working inside the International Space
Station. Right: The space station’s first seven-member crew including Walker,
left, and Rubins, third from left, pose in the Kibo module.
Left: NASA astronaut K. Megan McArthur wearing her SpaceX launch and entry suit
in the Destiny U.S. Laboratory module in preparation for return to Earth in October
2021. Right: NASA astronaut Kayla S. Barron inspects chili peppers grown
aboard the space station prior to harvest in November 2021.
In April 2022, when Crew Dragon Freedom lifted off, Crew-4 included first-time space flyer NASA astronaut Jessica A. Watkins and ESA’s Cristoforetti on her second long-duration flight, marking the first time two women flew aboard a commercial crew vehicle to the space station. Once they joined Expedition 67, Watkins became the first Black American woman to join a long-duration crew.
Left: Crew-4 astronauts Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency,
left, and NASA astronaut Jessica A. Watkins aboard Crew Dragon Freedom.
Right: Cristoforetti, left, and Watkins, right, bid farewell to NASA astronaut Kayla
S. Barron wearing her SpaceXlaunch and entry suit as she prepares
for her return to Earth with her fellow Crew-3 teammates.
In September 2022, Cristoforetti assumed command of the space station, a first for a European woman. When Crew-5 launched aboard Crew Dragon Endurance in October 2022, NASA astronaut Nicole A. Mann became the first Native American woman in space and the first woman to command a Crew Dragon mission, and Anna Y. Kikina of Roscosmos became the first Russian cosmonaut to fly aboard a U.S. commercial vehicle. For the second time, two women commanders, Cristoforetti and Mann, greeted each other as Crew-5 arrived to join Expedition 68. The launch of Crew-5 also marked the first time that five women lived and worked in space at the same time – the four women aboard the space station and Liu Yang aboard China’s Tiangong space station on her second space mission. The launch of Crew-6 in March 2023 marked the first all-male long-duration crew aboard a commercial crew vehicle. The planned return of Mann and Kikina will mark the end of the longest time period with at least one woman living and working in space, about 2 years and 5 months.
Left: Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency assumes command of the
International Space Station. Right: Space station Commander Cristoforetti greets
Crew-5 Commander NASA astronaut Nicole A. Mann and her crew mates.
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 experimental 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. She conducted science experiments and taught a live physics lessons to school children from aboard the station. Wang returned to space on Oct. 15, 2021, aboard Shenzhou-13 as the first woman to live and work aboard the Tiangong China Space Station. She also conducted the first spacewalk by a Chinese woman. Liu completed her second flight, a six-month mission aboard Tiangong as a member of the Shenzhou-14 crew.
Left: Liu Yang, the People’s Republic of China’s first woman in space, aboard the Tiangong-1 space station.
Middle: Wang Yaping teaching a physics lesson live from Tiangong-1. Right: Wang during the first spacewalk
by a Chinese woman astronaut. Image credits: courtesy of CNSA.
Women have been at the forefront of commercial spaceflights. In September 2021, two of the four crew members of the private space mission Inspiration4 were women – Sian H. Proctor, the first African American woman to pilot a spacecraft, and Hayley Arceneaux. They conducted science experiments during their three-day mission aboard the Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft. The next month, Russian actress Yulia S. Peresild and her director spent 11 days aboard the space station filming scenes for a film entitled “The Challenge” with an expected release date of April 12, 2023. The second Private Astronaut Mission to the International Space Station, currently planned for launch in May 2023, Ax-2 will include a crew of four spending 10 days aboard the orbiting laboratory conducting experiments. Making her fourth visit to the space station, former NASA astronaut Whitson and director of human spaceflight at Axiom Space, will be the first woman commander of a private space mission. Two mission specialists from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s inaugural astronaut program, including Rayyanah Barnawi who will be the first Saudi woman in space, will also serve on the crew. Private astronaut missions to the space station are a precursor to privately funded commercial space stations as part of NASA’s efforts to develop a thriving low-Earth orbit ecosystem and marketplace.
Left: Sian H. Proctor, left, and Hayley Arceneaux during the Inspiration4 private space mission.Image credit: courtesy Inspiration4. Middle: Russian actress Yulia S. Peresild arrives at the
space station. Right: The Ax-2 mission crew includes Commander Peggy A. Whitson of Axiom
Space, left, and Mission Specialist Rayyanah Barnawi from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, right. Image credit: courtesy Axiom Space.
To be continued…