On this day – the 12th of April – in 1961, humanity slipped the bonds of Earth. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin blasted into orbit, and spent the best part of two hours in orbit. As a result, today is celebrated as a day of celebrating space exploration.
First up, to soundtrack your reading of this article, click play on this. It is Commander Chris Hadfield's rendition of David Bowie's “Space Oddity,” which he recorded aboard the International Space Station.
Since we at Motorsport Sisterhood are all about women in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics), we thought we'd write about a few women who have inspired young girls to pursue careers in physics, engineering, and the fields that space travel and motorsport have in common. Many women have participated in building space craft, going to space, and working on space-based experiments. This is just a highlights reel as we skip chronologically through humanity's history of space travel. NASA have a Women@NASA page, if you want to check out some inspirational examples for yourself.
Cosmonaut (and later politician) Valentina Tereshkova holds the distinction of being the first woman in space. From a background in amateur skydiving, she was selected to join the female cosmonaut corps in 1962, and piloted the Vostok 6 on the 16th of June, 1963 at the age of twenty-six. She was a full decade younger than any American astronaut who had flown. She orbited the earth forty-eight times, spending about three days in space. In that single flight, she logged more space time than all the American astronauts to date combined. She periodically took photographs of the horizon, which were later used to analyse the atmosphere's layers. Tereshkova later went on to earn a doctorate in engineering in 1977, finally retiring from the Russian Air Force and cosmonaut corps in 1997.
She's not a scientist or an engineer. She's not even an astronaut. The furthest she's been above the earth is a sub-orbital flight that NASA organised as a special treat for her when she was in her eighties (as an aside, if I'm riding the Vomit Comet on sub-orbital flights when I'm in my eighties, I'll consider myself a successful grandma). Still, between 1966 and 1969, she inspired a generation of young, black girls to dream big. She was Lieutenant Uhuru on Star Trek – one of the first non-stereotypical portrayal of a black woman on an American primetime TV. Her role was so revolutionary that Martin Luther King Jr. urged her to stay on the show when she was considering leaving.
The second woman in space, Savitskaya began her career as a test and sport pilot. She set eighteen world records in MiG aircraft, and three group parachute records prior to joining the cosmonaut corps in 1980. Her first space flight was on the Soyuz T-7 mission in 1982. In 1984, she became the first woman to participate in two space flights. While in orbit, Savitskaya worked on the Salyut 7 space station, cutting and welding metals on a space walk that lasted for three hours and thirty-five minutes. This task made her the first woman to perform a space walk, and remains the only Russian woman to do so. She retired from the Russian Air Force in 1993 with the rank of Major. Savitskaya was so influential in Russian space exploration that she has an asteroid named in her honour – the 4118 Sveta.
Sally Ride holds the double distinction of being the first American woman as well as the first lesbian woman in space. A California native, she joined NASA in 1978 after they advertised for female physicists to join their astronaut candidate program. She was doing her PhD in physics, specialising in the interaction between x-rays and the interstellar medium, at the time. Her first flight was done at the age of thirty-two, and she remains the youngest American to have been to space. Despite being the capsule communicator on the second and third space shuttle flights, and being on the team that developed the shuttle's robotic Canadarm, before her flight on the seventh shuttle launch in 1983, she was besieged with questions from the press that related to her gender, rather than her technical skills (click here for a discussion between Sally Ride and legendary feminist Gloria Steinem). She provided key information to the investigative team after the Challenger disaster, and her observations about the behaviour of O-rings in extreme cold led the team to discover the cause of the accident.
Helen Sharman, OBE
The first Briton to fly to space, as well as the first woman aboard the Mir space station, Sharman was selected live on ITV in 1989 after a rigorous selection process to determine her suitability for the mission. Project Juno – a collaboration between the British and Russian governments – was initiated to put a Briton in space. While the lottery failed to fund the program, Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the mission to proceed funded by the Soviets, and Sharman launched on the 18th of May, 1991. She performed medical and agricultural tests aboard Mir, photographing the British Isles. She also performed an unlicenced radio hook-up with some British school children to promote space flight.
In 1992, space flight finally diversified when Mae Jemison became the first black woman to orbit. She began her university career at Stanford University at the age of sixteen, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Afro-American Studies. She then went on to a medical doctorate from Cornell, and worked in general practice before joining the Peace Corps. Following Ride's space flight, Jemison applied to NASA's astronaut candidacy program, and was part of the first class to be accepted after the Challenger disaster. In 1992, she was mission specialist on the forty-seventh shuttle flight, performing bone cell experiments, as well as researching weightlessness and motion sickness on herself and the other crew members. After her retirement from NASA, Jemison became the first actual astronaut to appear in on Star Trek.
The above-mentioned women are only a tiny slice of the women who have participated in space programs since their inception in the 1960s. The first South Korean and the first Iranian in space were both women. Women have performed a myriad roles within the machines of the Russian space program, NASA, ESA, and now private companies like SpaceX.
To end off, we'd like to leave you with NASA's parody of Gangnam Style, recorded at the Johnson Space Center by NASA staff.