They Are Many and Legend
The first thing this writer discovered was there are many more women involved in space and aeronautics than I knew. Among this group, there are some record-holders. One is Sheila Scott, who became the first person to fly across the North Pole in a single-engine plane. Another is Dr Shannon Lucid, who still holds the record for the longest time in space by an American astronaut – male or female. She spent six months on the Russian space station Mir.
Just as Intel says in their latest commercial, 'Our rock stars are different from YOUR rock stars,' so it is with my own version of pinup girls. Mine do not come from Playboy or Penthouse, or from the pages of a lingerie catalog.
Nevertheless, these are the girls of my dreams, my favorite 'pinup girls.'
Some of them are as geeky as I am, but all of them are a lot smarter.
She was the first African-American licensed pilot. Born in 1892 to a family of sharecroppers in Texas, Bessie grew up in poverty. Her father abandoned the family in 1901 and her older brothers soon left as well, leaving her mother with the four youngest of thirteen children. In 1915, she moved to Chicago, working as a beautician for several years. After reading about World War I pilots in the newspaper, she decided she wanted to fly. Being a black woman, she knew she had no chance of being accepted by any American flying school at the time. So she moved to France in 1919 and enrolled at the Ecole d'Aviation des Freres Caudon at Le Crotoy.
Returning to the United States after more advanced training, she did exhibition flying and gave lectures around the country from 1922 to 1926. While flying, she refused to perform unless the audiences were desegregated.
She was test flying a new plane on April 30, 1926 when it malfunctioned, killing both her and the mechanic who was actually piloting it that day. A wrench fell into the gearbox, jamming it and causing the plane to go into a spin. She was thrown from the plane at 500 feet from the ground and died instantly. The mechanic was killed when the plane finally crashed. Thousands attended her funeral, flying clubs sprang up in her honor, and streets and parks were named after her. She inspired many who followed.
Her accomplishments were certainly legend. She established many aviation firsts for women, including being the first female to cross the Atlantic by air. TIGHAR, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, continues to believe Amelia's last stop may have been Nikumaroro Island in the South Pacific. They have sent several expeditions there and returned with numerous tantalizing clues, some of which are still being analyzed. These include pieces of metal and Plexiglas that may belong to Earhart's Lockheed Electra. The jury is still out on this one.
Amelia's disappearance remains one of the biggest mysteries of the 20th century, and continues to drive efforts to find her and inspire writers to create new books about her life.
Scott was born in 1927 in London, England. She served as governor for the British section of the Ninety-Nines, a large international association of women pilots. Scott is pictured here with her Piper Aztec, Mythre.
In 1971, she flew around the world one-and-a-half times in this craft. She became the first person to fly over the North Pole in a single-engine plane. On this flight, she carried special NASA gear for a communications experiment testing the IRLS Balloon Interrogation package. Basically, her equipment transmitted her location to the Nimbus satellite, which relayed it to a computer center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and then on to NASA's ground station at Fairbanks, Alaska. Her historic flight confirmed the satellite's ability to collect location data from remote areas using a mobile platform.
Sheila Scott died on October 20, 1988.
This lady is one of my all-time favorites, even though she was certainly a dyed-in-the-wool Communist right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union. I don't mind.
Not only was she the first woman in space, piloting Vostok 6 for forty-eight orbits around the world, but she also logged more time in space with that flight than all of the American astronauts combined up to that point. On June 16, 1963 she spent three full days in space before re-entering the atmosphere and parachuting safely to Earth. Rumors went around for years that Tereshkova became sick during the flight and had to be brought down early. The truth is that she suffered some nausea during the mission, but she also toughed it out for the entire forty-eight orbits. She was only twenty-six years of age at the time.
Before Tereshkova was recruited into the Russian space program, she was a textiles worker and an excellent amateur parachutist. She had never flown anything before going into the program, but during training the Russians put her into jets.
After her historic flight, Tereshkova was asked what the Soviet government could do to help honor her achievement. She requested that the government find the location where her father, a Soviet tank commander, had died in World War Two. It was found in Finland, and a memorial was erected. Tereshkova has since visited Finland many times.
Tereshkova went on to hold several high-ranking positions in the Soviet government, and received almost every award possible, including Hero of the Soviet Union, the nation's highest honor. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tereshkova lost her political office but none of her prestige. To this day, she is revered as a Russian hero, and some consider her importance in Russian space history surpassed only by Yuri Gagarin and Alexei Leonov.
Tereshkova's life and spaceflight were examined in detail in the 2007 book Into That Silent Sea by Colin Burgess and Francis French, including interviews with Tereshkova and her colleagues.
Tereshkova was invited to President Vladimir Putin's residence for the celebration of her 70th birthday in 2007. While there she said that she would like to fly to Mars, even if it meant that it was a one way trip.
The Mercury 13
Although they never went into space, thirteen women were trained by NASA in the early 1960's for the Mercury program. They were known officially as 'FLAT', or First Lady Astronaut Trainees. All passed the same tests as the men. Their commitment paved the way for other American women who finally made it into space, including Eileen Collins, the first female Space Shuttle commander.
Nineteen years after Tereshkova's historic mission on Vostok 6, the Russians finally sent up another woman. She spent time on the Soyuz space station, and on another mission in 1984, she became the first woman to walk in space.
Dr Sally Ride
The first American woman finally goes into space June 18, 1983 on the seventh Shuttle mission. Ride literally kicked down the door leading to space for American women. After her flight, a flood of women not only began going into space, but setting several records along the way.
Sally Ride's second mission included Kathryn Sullivan, on the Challenger in 1984. They became the first women to fly into space together.
Christa McAulliffe and Judith Resnick
McAuliffe, a teacher selected from more than eleven thousand candidates, died along with Resnick in the explosion of the Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. Most people still remember what they were doing on the day of the first Shuttle disaster, and both women are certainly American heroes.
A faulty O-ring that was susceptible to cold was later discovered to be the cause of the explosion. A famous NASA picture shows icicles up to a meter long hanging from beneath the Shuttle just before launch. These women did not give their lives in vain. The program was halted and several new improvements made to the spacecraft. Although there has been one more Shuttle disaster since then, it was not caused by faulty design, but by damage incurred during the actual launch.
Dr Mae Jemison
Jemison became the first African-American female to go into space in 1992, as a member of the Endeavour crew. She served in the Peace Corps before becoming an astronaut, and since her retirement from NASA, she has lectured, written a book or two, (including one about Bessie Coleman) and inspired many African-Americans along the way.
In 1995, Collins became the first woman to command a Shuttle mission. The mission was an overwhelming success, finally putting women on an equal footing with men in the American space program. Sally Ride helped pave the way for Collins, and Collins often referred to Ride as one of the reasons she was selected for command.
Dr Shannon Lucid
Lucid is not as well-known as some of the other female astronauts, but she holds one of the biggest space records. She has logged more time in space than ANY American astronaut, including the men. She spent six months on the Russian space station Mir and was the first American to take a spacewalk at Mir. (She held the female-in-space record from 1996-2007, when Sunita Williams finally surpassed her as the woman who has spent the most time in space, but still holds the American record.)
Susan Jane Helms
Helms was the first female crew member on the International Space Station in 2001. She stayed 165 days in space.
In April 2008, Yi So-yeon became the first South Korean astronaut, spending about ten days on the International Space Station.
Quick Facts About Women in Space
First woman in space – Valentina Tereshkova
Second woman in space – Svetlana Savitskaya
First American woman in space – Sally Ride
First woman to spacewalk – Svetlana Savitskaya
First American woman to spacewalk – Kathyrn Sullivan
First women together in space – Kathyrn Sullivan and Sally Ride
First mother in space – Dr Anna Lee Tingle Fisher, M.D.
First women to die in spaceflight – Judith Resnick and Christa McAuliffe
First black woman in space – Dr Mae Jemison
First woman to pilot the Space Shuttle – Eileen Collins
Endurance record for all American astronauts – Shannon Lucid
Endurance record for all female astronauts - Sunita Williams
First woman on the ISS – Susan Jane Helms
(*Robert Blevins is the author of the science fiction novels Say Goodbye to the Sun, The Corona Incident, and The 13th Day of Christmas.*)