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Women in Space - On the occasion of International Women's Day

Updated on March 8, 2012

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin created history in 1961 when he travelled to outer space aboard the Vostok I spacecraft. The space age had dawned. It was proved beyond doubt that humans could survive in outer space.

Close on the hells of the USSR, the USA had begun Project Mercury, a program that aimed at realizing American dreams of human space flight. In 1961, 25 women from all over the country were invited to participate in a private program that assessed women's fitness for space flight. Thirteen women successfully completed extensive endurance tests. Unfortunately, the program was unexpectedly cancelled, aborting their chances of becoming the first women in space. That honor went to Valentina Tereshkova of USSR.

Valentina Tereshkova
Valentina Tereshkova

Valentina Threskova's Efforts

Valentina hailed from a humble background and worked in a textile mill. She was inspired by Gagarin's feat and volunteered for the Soviet space program in 1961. She had 126 jumps to her credit as an amateur parachutist. Over the next eighteen months, she studied hard and underwent grueling physical and psychological test before being chosen as the chief pilot of the Vostok 6.

On June 16, 1963, Valentina was launched into orbit. The flight was meant to last only a day, but it was extended to almost three days and she made 48 orbits of Earth. She maintained flight logs, took photographs and conducted experiments designed to understand how gravitational forces affected a woman's body. Valentina returned to land a Russian hero and a beacon of hope for future women astronauts.

Svetlana Savitskaya
Svetlana Savitskaya

It would be 19 years before another woman set foot in space again. Svetlana Savitskaya, again a Russian, traveled to the Soviet space station Salyut 7 in 1982. During her second space mission in 1984, she became the first woman to perform a spacewalk.

The space age saw a marked rivalry between the USA and USSR. While the USSR sent its astronauts into space first, the Americans were the first to land on the moon. Nearly twenty years after Valentina made her trip, the US included astrophysicist Sally K.Ride as a crew member on Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983, making her the first American woman in space.

Since then, women have contributed immensely in space exploration, be it commanding space shuttles or the International Space Station(ISS). In 2010, a record of sorts was set when four women were in space at the same time during the space shuttle mission STS-131 - the most number of women in space at one time.

Peggy Whitson
Peggy Whitson

A Walk to Remember

What does one want to do when a part of the satellite gets dislodged or malfunctions? Take a walk in space! Also known as Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA), the spacewalk could count as one of the world's most dangerous jobs in which astronauts step out of the spacecraft to conduct science experiments or repair satellites while they are in orbit.

The astronauts have to wear a special suit and observe safety precautions. They may or may not be tethered to the spacecraft. Since the first one in 1965, 11 women have performed spacewalks. NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson has to her credit the maximum of six spacewalks totaling 39 hours and 44 minutes.

Sunita Williams
Sunita Williams
Anousheh Anseri
Anousheh Anseri

Fast Facts

  • Tracy Caldwell and Janet Kavendi celebrated their birthdays in space.
  • Sunita Williams has stayed the longest in space at one stretch - 194 days and 18 hours.
  • Peggy Whitson has spent the longest time in space, her hours totaling 376 days and 17 hours.
  • Anousheh Anseri was the first woman to fly to the International Space Station as a tourist.
  • A total of 56 women from seven countries have spent 2957 days and 6 hours in space.

Man vs Woman

Astronauts are put through strenuous tests designed to find out how they can cope with the pressure of space travel. One of the key tasks that Valentina accomplished on her mission was to prove that women were indeed well, if not better, equipped to survive in outer space.

Women adapt better than men to factors like heat, spacecraft tremors, radiations etc. They have an added advantage of being smaller in size - they consume less oxygen and space compared to men. Moreover research has shown that they are less likely to develop heart disease as a result of space travel.


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