About three years ago, shortly after the launch of the Chinese Shenzhou 9 spacecraft in 2012 with female “Taikonaut” Liu Yang aboard, I was interviewed on television by a woman reporter who seemed quite impressed by the fact that China had a real female astronaut. She was aware that the first female space traveler was Valentina Tereshkova, who flew a mission in the Soviet Union’s Vostok program ‘way back in 1963, and wondered why the United States didn’t have female astronauts.
I was confounded by the question: it was like being asked why gravity had stopped working, or whether I had stopped beating my wife! Perhaps a little summary is in order here.
The first woman to travel in space was indeed Valentina Tereshkova. I actually would hesitate to call her an astronaut; “state-sponsored space tourist” would be a better description. Her employment as a textile worker seemed poor preparation for piloting a spacecraft: she was not trained as a pilot, engineer, or scientist. According to my Russian friends, she was trained in space flight to the extent of being “warned not to touch anything”, which I view as a probable overstatement by jealous men. However, she had a background as a parachutist, an important factor. The rationale for flying a parachutist was explained as giving her the option of jumping out of the Vostok capsule “if something went wrong”. (In reality, it was always far safer to jump out than to remain aboard, because the spherical Vostok capsule and its Voskhod successor had the nasty habit of rolling downhill upon touchdown, much to the detriment of their occupants.)
The argument that Tereshkova was pioneering the way for Soviet women astronauts is ludicrous: the next Soviet woman cosmonaut was not to fly for another 19 years! That woman, Svetlana Savitskaya, flew on the Soyuz T-5 mission to the Salyut 7 space station in July, 1982. She was a real astronaut, well trained and competent to do far more than touch the controls. Two years later she flew a second time, on the Soyuz T-12 mission, becoming the first woman to fly in space twice and also the first woman to go on a spacewalk.
In 1978 NASA had selected a new class of astronauts, including several women. It was clear that by 1983 NASA would begin launching female astronauts into orbit. It is reasonable to interpret Savitskaya’s flight as being a preemptive strike, timed to beat NASA’s women astronauts into space-- but she was a real astronaut!
The first American woman to fly in space, Sally Ride, a Ph. D. physicist from Stanford, flew two Space Shuttle missions (STS 7 and STS 41G, in 1983 and 1984 respectively). She was followed in quick succession by Judith Resnik (STS 41D and STS 51L in 1984 and 1986) and Kathryn Sullivan (three flights, STS 41G, STS 31, and STS 45 in 1984, 1990, and 1992, plus one spacewalk). Anna Fisher flew on STS 51A in 1984, and Margaret Seddon flew three STS missions between 1985 and 1993.
Shannon Lucid flew five separate space missions between 1985 and 1996, the last being a visit to the Mir space station. She also has the unusual distinction that she was the first woman born in China to fly in space.
Bonnie Dunbar followed with five Space Shuttle missions from 1985 to 1998, and a number of other American female astronauts have flown three, four, or five missions since that time.
As of April 2016, the totals look like this:
· Forty-four American women have flown in space, for a total of 116 missions.
· Four Soviet/Russian women (Valentina Tereshkova, Vostok 6; Svetlana Savitskaya, Soyuz T 5, Soyuz T 12; Yelena Kondakova, Soyuz TM 20, STS-84; Yelena Serova, Soyuz TMA 14M) have flown a total of six missions.
· Two Canadian women (Roberta Bondar, on STS 42; Julie Payette on STS 96 and STS 127) have flown a total of three Space Shuttle missions,
· Two women from Japan (Chiaki Mukai on STS 65 and STS 95; Naoko Yamazaki, STS 131) have also flown a total of three missions.
· Two Chinese women (Liu Yang, Shenzhou 9; Wang Yaping, Shenzhou 10) have each flown one mission. (The political significance of the launch of China’s first female space traveler can be judged by the fact that it occurred precisely on the 49th anniversary of the launch of Valentina Tereshkova.)
· From France (Claudie Haigneré, Soyuz TM 24 and Soyuz TM 33), two missions.
· From India (Kalpana Chawla, STS 87 and STS 107), two missions.
· From the United Kingdom (Helen Sharman, Soyuz TM 12), one mission.
· From Iran (Anousheh Ansari, Soyuz TMA 9), the first female space tourist, an Iranian-born US citizen, one mission.
· From Italy (Samantha Cristoforetti, Soyuz TMA 15M), one mission.
· From the Republic of Korea (Yi So-yeon, Soyuz TMA 12), one mission.
Soviet/Russian boosters have launched 6 American women (7 counting Anousheh Ansari*), 4 Russian women, 2 French women, and one woman each from Great Britain, Iran*, Italy, and Korea.
If a woman wants to fly into space on a Russian booster, her best bet is to be an American citizen.
Of the 139 missions flown by women, 84% have been by Americans and 4% by Russians.