A Brief History of Women in Space

Cosmonauts Metro Station, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, pays homage to female astronauts of the past. Editorial credit: Ciga / Shutterstock.com.
Cosmonauts Metro Station, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, pays homage to female astronauts of the past. Editorial credit: Ciga / Shutterstock.com.

572 different people have been to space since humanity began its extraterrestrial exploration. Of those 572 people, only 59 of them have been women. Just over ten percent of all people in space have been women. These women have gone to space in a variety of roles.

Who Was the First Woman in Space?

The first woman in space was a Russian cosmonaut named Valentina Tereshkova. She was the first and youngest woman to go to space. Tereshkova was only 26 when her solo mission occurred in 1963! There would not be another woman in space until 1982, when Svetlana Savitskaya (also a Russian) was a part of the Souyz T-7 mission. Although Russia was the first to send women to space, they have not continued the integration. Only three of the 19 female Russians trained have actually launched into space. In 2013 they adapted their recruitment requirements and removed any gender-specific criteria.

United States

In the United States, although women applied to be astronauts in the 60s, and passed through the process, they were ineligible due to the fact that they weren’t military test pilots, which was a prerequisite for being an astronaut. In 1978, the space program was truly opened to women, due to the anti-discrimination laws passed.

As a result, The United States was significantly behind their Russian counterparts. The first American woman in space was Sally Ride in 1983. This was 20 years after the first Russian female cosmonaut. At the age of 32, Sally Ride was also the youngest American astronaut in space.


Roberta Bondar was the first woman in space from Canada. She went on mission in 1992 and was the second Canadian to be in space. Bondar was also the first neurologist to go to space. She was selected in 1983 to be one of the first Canadian astronauts and began her training in 1984. That’s a lot of training!


Chiaki Mukai was the first Japanese woman in space. She was selected in 1985, but did not fly until 1992. Mukai has over 566 hours in space and has spent a total of 23 days in space. She is also a physician.


In 2012 China sent its first woman to space, Liu Yang. She is a pilot and astronaut. Of the above named astronauts, she is the only one who is not currently retired. Her mission to space was launched exactly 49 years after Valentina Tereshkova’s flight was launched.

Tragedy in Space

Although these women didn’t actually go to space, it’s important to still remember them and include them in the conversation. Christa McAuliffe and Judith Resnick both died in the Challenger explosion on January 28, 1986. They were the first women to die on a space mission.

Judith Resnick was the second American woman in space and the fourth woman in space worldwide. She had her Ph.D in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland. Resnick was also the first Jewish American to be in space.

Christa McAuliffe would have been the first teacher in space. In 1985, NASA selected her to participate in the teacher in space program. She was going to teach a lesson from space. Because she was a teacher, many children were watching the launch in their schools and saw the explosion happen in real time.

Other Firsts For Women in Space

International Space Station

Peggy Whitson was the first woman to command the International Space Station. She completed her six month tour of duty on April 16, 2008.

Space Shuttle Pilots

Eileen Collins was the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, from February 3-11, 1995.

Space Shuttle Commander

Eileen Collins was the first woman to command a space shuttle and she did so July 23-27, 1999. She commanded again July 26, 2005.

Space Station Expedition Crew Member

Susan Helms was on the second expedition, from March 2001-August 2001.

There are 11 women who have graduated from NASA Astronaut Classes between 2009 and 2017 who have not yet flown in space. We can only hope that they will soon join their fellow women and increase that total percentage just a smidge

List of Women Who Have Been to Space

RankCosmonautCountry of OriginYear(s) of Mission
1Valentina TereshkovaSoviet Union1963
2Svetlana SavitskayaSoviet Union1982, 1984
3Sally RideUnited States1983, 1984
4Judith ResnikUnited States1984, 1986
5Kathryn D. SullivanUnited States1984, 1990, 1992
6Anna Lee FisherUnited States1984
7Margaret Rhea SeddonUnited States1985, 1991, 1993
8Shannon LucidUnited States1985, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996
9Bonnie J. DunbarUnited States1985, 1990, 1992, 1995, 1998
10Mary L. CleaveUnited States1986, 1989
11Ellen S. BakerUnited States1989, 1992, 1995
12Kathryn C. ThorntonUnited States1989, 1992, 1993, 1995
13Marsha IvinsUnited States 1990, 1992, 1994, 1997, 2001
14Linda M. GodwinUnited States1991, 1994, 1996, 2001
15Helen SharmanUnited Kingdom1991
16Tamar E. JerniganUnited States1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1999
17Millie Hughes-FulfordUnited States1991
18Robert BondarCanada1992
19Jan DavisUnited States1992, 1994, 1997
20Mae JemisonUnited States1992
21Susan J. HelmsUnited States1993, 1994, 1996, 2000, 2001
22Ellen OchoaUnited States1993, 1994, 1999, 2002
23Janice E. VossUnited States1993, 1995, 1997, 1997, 2000
24Nancy J. CurrieUnited States1993, 1995, 1998, 2002
25Chiaki MukaiJapan1994, 1998
26Yelena V. KondakovaRussia1994, 1997
27Eileen CollinsUnited States1995, 1997, 1999, 2005
28Wendy B. LawrenceUnited States1995, 1997, 1998, 2005
29Mary E. WeberUnited States1995, 2000
30Catherine ColemanUnited States19995, 1999, 2010
31Claudie HaigneréFrance1996, 2001
32Susan Still KilrainUnited States1997, 1997
33Kalpana ChawlaIndia/United States1997, 2003
34Kathryn P. HireUnited States1998, 2010
35Janet L. KavandiUnited States1998, 2000, 2001
36Julie Payette Canada1999, 2009
37Pamela MelroyUnited States2000, 2002, 2007
38Peggy WhitsonUnited States2002, 2007, 2016
39Sandra MagnusUnited States2002, 2008, 2011
40Laurel B. ClarkUnited States2003
41Stephanie WilsonUnited States2006, 2007, 2010
42Lisa NowakUnited States2006
43Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-PiperUnited States2006, 2008
44Anousheh AnsariIran/United States2006
45Sunita WilliamsUnited States2006, 2012
46Joan HigginbothamUnited States2006
47Tracy Caldwell Dyson United States2007, 2010
48Barbara MorganUnited States2007
49Yi So-yeonSouth Korea2008
50Karen L. NybergUnited States2008, 2013
51K. Megan McArthurUnited States2009
52Nicole P. StottUnited States2009, 2011
53Dorothy Metcalf-LindenburgerUnited States2010
54Naoko Yamazaki Japan2010
55Shannon WalkerUnited States2010
56 Liu YangChina2012
57Wang YapingChina2013
58Yelena SerovaRussia2014
59Samantha CristoforettiItaly2014
60Kathleen RubinsUnited States2016

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