RoundupReads ISS20th: Women and the International Space Station

ISS20th: Women and the International Space Station

by John Uri | 2020-03-08

Celebrating International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month

“A bird cannot fly with one wing only. Human spaceflight 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 2020, 65 women have flown in space. Of these, 38 have visited the International Space Station (ISS) as long-duration Expedition crew members, as visitors on space shuttle assembly flights or as spaceflight participants on short-duration Soyuz missions. It is fitting to recognize the significant accomplishments of these women, as well as the pioneering women who preceded them into space.  This article cannot recognize all the great contributions by women to make the space station the unique laboratory it is in space, and only strives to capture significant firsts. Many other women contributed to the assembly of the station and the research being conducted aboard it on a daily basis. These include not only the astronauts who flew the daring missions, but also the many women on the ground who, as center directors, managers, flight directors and many other roles, continue the exploration of space as NASA endeavors to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon and possibly send the first crews to Mars in the coming decades.

Soviet cosmonaut Valentina V. Tereshkova made history on June 16, 1963, when she launched aboard Vostok 6 as the first woman in space. Soviet plans to launch other female cosmonauts in the 1960s never materialized, and 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 those, Svetlana Y. Savitskaya, launched with her two crewmates aboard Soyuz T-7 to spend a week aboard the Salyut-7 space station. The next day they joined the two long-duration resident crew members aboard, marking the first time a space station hosted a mixed-gender crew. Ten months later, astronaut Sally K. Ride made history on June 18, 1983, becoming the first American woman in space, spending seven days aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger during the STS-7 mission.

Left: Valentina Tereshkova just before boarding her Vostok 6 capsule. Right: Sally Ride aboard the 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 the Space Shuttle Challenger during the STS-41G mission. With Ride as one of Sullivan’s crewmates, the flight marked the first time that two women flew on the same mission.

Left: Svetlana Savitskaya during her spacewalk outside Salyut-7. Right: Kathryn Sullivan (at left) and Ride aboard Space Shuttle Challenger during the STS-41G mission.

The honor of the first woman to complete a long-duration mission in space belongs to Russian cosmonaut Elena V. Kondakova. She launched aboard the Soyuz TM20 spacecraft on Oct. 3, 1994, spending 169 days aboard the Mir space station as part of Expedition 17 before returning to Earth on March 22, 1995. The first American woman to complete a long-duration mission, Shannon W. Lucid, launched on March 22, 1996, aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis. The second astronaut to fly as part of the Shuttle-Mir Program, she spent 188 days aboard Mir as part of Expeditions 21 and 22, returning to Earth with STS-79 on Sept. 26.

Left: Elena Kondakova (second from right) aboard Mir during the handover between Expeditions 16 and 17. Right: Shannon Lucid (at left) with her Mir Expedition 21 crewmates.

As on-orbit assembly of station commenced in 1998, women were literally onboard from the very beginning. As the first woman to reach the space station, Nancy J. Currie participated in the first assembly mission, STS-88, in December 1998, using the shuttle’s robotic arm to precisely join the American Unity Node 1 module to the Russian-built Zarya module, which had launched three weeks earlier.

Left: Nancy Currie (in front at right), the first woman to reach the space station with her STS-88 crewmates. Right: Currie at work in the Zarya module.

The second shuttle assembly mission, STS-96 in May 1999, included three women on the crew: Tamara E. “Tammy” Jernigan, Ellen L. Ochoa and Julie Payette. Jernigan became the first woman to participate in a spacewalk at station to install crane equipment for future assembly tasks, with Ochoa working as the robotic arm operator. Payette became the first Canadian of any gender to visit the space station, and the first Canadian to make a second visit to the outpost during STS-127 in 2009.

Left: STS-96 crew in the Unity Node 1 module, with Tammy Jernigan and Julie Payette in the top row and Ellen Ochoa at bottom right. Middle: Jernigan during the STS-96 spacewalk. Right: Payette in the Unity Node 1 module.

Astronaut Pamela A. Melroy was the first woman to serve as pilot on a shuttle flight to the space station, STS-92 in October 2000, the mission that added the Z1 truss, control moment gyros and a Pressurized Mating Adaptor to the developing laboratory. She returned to station as pilot of STS-112 in October 2002 and commander of STS-120 in October 2007.

Meanwhile, 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 station — a 167-day flight between March and August of 2001. She had previously flown to station during STS-101, making her the first woman to visit the station twice. Helms was also the first woman with a military background to visit the outpost, having graduated in the U.S. Air Force Academy’s first woman-inclusive class of 1980. She co-holds the record for the longest spacewalk to date at eight hours and 56 minutes, completed with her Expedition 2 crewmate James S. Voss. 

Left: STS-92 Pilot Pamela Melroy shortly after reaching orbit. Right: Expedition 2 Commander Yuri V. Usachev (at left) coaxes a reluctant Flight Engineer Susan Helms to leave the station at the end of their mission.

Eileen M. Collins had already made history twice before, first in 1995 as the first female pilot of a space shuttle mission, and again in 1999 as the first woman shuttle commander. In 2005, Collins became the first woman to command a shuttle mission to station — the Return to Flight STS-114 mission, the first after the Columbia accident two years previously. Heidemarie M. “Heidi” Stefanyshyn-Piper was the first woman to conduct a spacewalk from the station’s Quest Joint Airlock Module on Sept. 12, 2006, during the STS-115 mission that installed the P3/P4 truss segment to the station. 

Left: STS-114 Commander Eileen Collins (at left) with Pilot James M. “Vegas” Kelly on the flight deck of Discovery. Right: Heidi Stefanyshyn-Piper working on the P3/P4 truss segment during an STS-115 excursion.

Peggy A. Whitson became the first woman commander of the space station during Expedition 16 in 2007, her second long-duration mission to the station. Expedition 16 was notable for the addition of the Harmony Node 2 module, ESA’s (European Space Agency’s) Columbus research module, the first of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s elements and the arrival of the first of ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle cargo resupply vehicles, named Jules Verne. As noted above, Melroy commanded STS-120, the October 2007 mission that brought Columbus to station, marking the first and only time that commanders of both station and the visiting space shuttle were women. In 2017, during Expedition 51, Whitson became the first woman to command the station for a second time. And, as of March 2020, Whitson holds the record for most cumulative spaceflight time for a woman, as well as for any American astronaut. Over the course of three long-duration missions aboard station, she spent a total of 639 days, or nearly two years, in space. Whitson also holds the record for the most spacewalking time for a woman; during her three missions, she spent 60 hours and 21 minutes outside the station in the course of 10 spacewalks.

Left: During the change-of-command ceremony, Expedition 16 Commander Peggy Whitson (top right) hangs the crew’s patch in the Destiny module. Right: STS-120 Commander Melroy (at left) and Expedition 16 Commander Whitson meet at the hatch between the two vehicles.

Between May 16 and 23, 2010, for the first time four women were aboard the outpost at one time. Expedition 23 Flight Engineer Tracy E. Caldwell Dyson had been living and working since April when STS-131 arrived, with Dorothy M. “Dottie” Metcalf-Lindenburger, Stephanie D. Wilson and Naoko Yamazaki as part of the shuttle crew. 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 crewmates, including Shannon Walker, making Expedition 24 the first to include two women. The next two-woman Expedition took place between November 2014 and March 2015 with Expedition 42, including Elena O. Serova, the first Russian woman to make a long-duration flight aboard the station, and Samantha Cristoforetti from Italy, the first female ESA astronaut on a long-duration mission.  

 Left: Four women aboard station (clockwise from top left) Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, Naoko Yamazaki, Stephanie Wilson and Tracy Caldwell Dyson. Middle: Caldwell Dyson (middle) and Walker (right) with their Expedition 24 crewmate Douglas H. “Wheels” Wheelock. Right: Elena Serova (at left) and Samantha Cristoforetti in the ATV-5 cargo vehicle, Georges Lemaître, during Expedition 42.

Expeditions including two women have recently become more common. During Expedition 57, Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor and Anne C. McClain overlapped by about three weeks in December 2018. Between March and June 2019, McClain and Christina Hammock Koch were aboard as part of Expedition 59, and 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 to date by a woman.

Left: Serena Auñón-Chancellor (at left) and Anne McClain work together in the Kibo module during Expedition 57. Right: McClain (at left) and 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 station to carry out the first all-woman spacewalks — one of several to replace the station’s batteries. The astronaut in mission control who communicates with the astronauts in space, the capsule communicator, or Capcom for this historic spacewalk, was three-time shuttle veteran Stephanie Wilson (who, as noted above, took part in the first four-woman gathering on station). Wilson was assisted by space station veteran Mark T. Vande Hei.

“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,” said astronaut Caldwell Dyson during live coverage of the spacewalk. As if to prove her point, Koch and Meir conducted two more all-woman spacewalks in January 2020.

Left: Spacesuited astronauts Jessica Meir (at left) and Christina Koch, assisted by their Expedition 61 crewmates, prepare for the first all-woman spacewalk. Right: CAPCOMs Wilson (at left) and Mark Vande Hei assist Meir and Koch during the first all-woman spacewalk.

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, Yiu Yang, launched on June 16, 2012, aboard the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft with her two crewmates, docking with the Tiangong-1 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. Wang conducted science experiments and taught a live physics lessons to school children from aboard the station.

 Left: Yiu Liu, China’s first woman in space, aboard the Tiangong-1 space station. Middle: Yaping teaches a physics lesson live from Tiangong-1. Right: The Tiangong-1 space station as seen during the approach by the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft.