52 years ago on this day, Valentina Tereshkova launched on her Vostok 6 mission and became the first woman in space, breaking the ultimate glass ceiling. Valentina was partly selected for the Soviet Space Program for her exceptional parachuting ability, having conducted 126 jumps, at a time when cosmonauts were required to parachute from their capsules mere seconds before they impacted the ground. This is unlike the current Soyuz capsules, which parachute into the desert steppes of Kazakhstan, firing retro rockets to land safely. As Valentina parachuted from her capsule during her Vostok 6 landing, wind gusts unfortunately caused her face to hit the inside of her helmet and gave her a bloody nose and a bruise under one eye. Valentina’s mission and achievement inspired generations of women to study STEM, however it was 20 years later in 1983 before Sally Ride would go on to become the first American woman in space. The percentage of female astronauts represented in NASA’s astronaut corps has steadily increased since then, now reaching 26%. NASA’s recent astronaut class contained the highest percentage of female astronauts ever selected by the agency, with women selected as four out of the new eight astronauts. Although not quite yet equal, the number of tangible female role models in space is increasing, inspired by Valentina’s story and the others that parachuted to Earth before them.
ESA Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti Returns To Earth, Becoming Longest Serving Female Astronaut In Space11 June, 2015
Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti landed today in her Soyuz descent module on a desert steppe in Kazakhstan having broken the world record for the longest serving female astronaut in space, spending 200 days on the ISS. The record was previously held at 195 days by NASA astronaut Suni Williams. European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut became the first Italian woman in space, launching to the ISS on 23 November 2014 . Her return, along with crewmates NASA astronaut Terry Virts and Russian commander Anton Shkaplerov, was delayed from May due to an incident with the Russian Progress 59 resupply mission. Samantha wasn’t disappointed by the delay tweeting, “Looks like it’s not time to get my spacesuit ready yet… what a present! #MoreTimeInSpace.”
Samantha also spoke to Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon whilst on the ISS, posting a video thanking her female friends for their support whilst she was on the ISS and thanking Susan discussing for her interest in girls in STEM and commitment to help girls find their way to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math[s], “..maybe in the future we can event work together to help sparkle that passion and interest for STEM and to show that no dream is too big”.
Maybe in the future we can work together to help sparkle that passion and interest for STEM and to show that no dream is too big. – Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti to Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon
I had the pleasure of working with Samantha whilst I was based at ESA’s European Astronaut Centre and DLR (German Aerospace Centre). She is a true role model with the ability to speak 5 languages fluently and was the first women to be a lieutenant and fighter pilot in the Italian Air Force, accumulating over 500 hours of flying time, prior to being selected as an ESA astronaut in 2009. Samantha has been tweeting regularly during her stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and posting some stunning images of the Earth. Hopefully her story will encourage girls to follow her footsteps and go on to beat her record during a future mission to Mars!
Ada Lovelace Day (October 16th) is an event designed to raise the profile of female scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians. A day to bring attention and celebrate their achievements. Born in 1815, Ada Lovelace is considered to be the world’s first computer programmer! As the daughter of poet Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke, she was encouraged by her mother as a child and taught math and science. She later worked with Charles Babbage using code-like language on the theoretical development of an “analytics engine”, similar to a computer. This was sadly never built as Ada passed away from cancer. Her notes however were used by Alan Turing in the 1940s for his work on the first modern computers. Starting in 2009, a group called Finding Ada led by Suw Charman-Anderson started a petition to call for a day of blogging about women’s achievements in STEM. Therefore every year on this day, blogs recognize powerful women the world over, paying special attention to women in the tech industry.
So this year I’ll be bringing attention and celebrating the achievements of women in the space industry, specifically those that I believe are inspiring others and a role model for women internationally. Two women who I think should be brought to attention are Sunita Williams and Dr.Soeyon Yi.
I’ve written about Sunita previously, but Sunita Williams is not just any astronaut, she holds the record for the longest single flight in space for a women and for the longest EVA duration for a female (cumulative). EVA Video
The previous record holder, Peggy Whitson, sent her a message to congratulate her on this accomplishment. She said, “Suni – Congratulations on being the female record holder of the most EVA time. It’s an honour to hand off the record to someone as talented as you.” Peggy ended the message with “You Go Girl!!” Suni replied saying that it was a matter of circumstance, time and place. Adding that, “Anybody could be in these boots.”
Sunita previously served in the Mediterranean, Red Sea, and Persian Gulf in support of Desert Shield as a helicopter pilot. She graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in 1993 and continued to perform test flights in a variety of military helicopters. After completing her master’s degree in Engineering Management in 1995, she was stationed on the USS Saipan, where she was selected to be a NASA astronaut. On her career path she has previously said,
“Enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll naturally do well at it, and if [the opportunity to be an astronaut] comes up, it’s just a bonus.”
Whilst onboard the ISS in 1997, Sunita completed the Boston marathon in space using the ISS treadmill. She completed the 26.2 mile race in 4 hours, 23 minutes and 10 seconds. In addition to this, whilst on the ISS this year Sunita completed the Nautica Malibu Triathlon. She ran, biked and “swam” in space simulated using a treadmill, stationary bike and strength-training machine. The swimming portion of the race in microgravity used the onboard Advanced Resistance Exercise Device (ARED) to do resistance activities and weight training. NASA’s flight director in Mission Control congratulated Sunita for completing the triathlon and emphasised that it was “critically important to understand human physiology and how to keep you strong on orbit”.Sunita has also been involved in charity work including cutting her long hair while in orbit to donate to Locks of Love, a non-profit organization that provides hairpieces to children suffering long-term hair loss due to medical issues. Sunita also went on a 5-day visit of India where she met then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, visited her ancestral village and was awarded the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Vishwa Pratibha Award by the World Gujarati Society. She’s a truly inspiring individual and has personally inspired me throughout my career.
The second female role model that I want to tell you about is Dr.Soyeon-Yi. Soyeon was South Korea’s first astronaut, selected from among 36,000 applicants and launched to the space station in 2008.
With a background in mechanical engineering and bio-systems, Soyeon currently serves as a senior researcher at the Korean Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) and an adjunct professor at the Korea Advances Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). Whilst spending 10 days on the ISS, Soyeon conducted 18 scientific experiments, including an experiment that monitored the effects of microgravity on 1,000 fruit flies that she transported into space. She has also described the experiments to educate students and the younger generations as being the most meaningful and important, her first responsibility being to support the next generation and inspire the people of Korea. Soyeon’s Soyuz capsule, which she shared with NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko ,also underwent a ballistic re-entry on return to Earth. This entry at a steeper than normal angle, resulted in the capsule landing at a distance of 400 km from the intended landing site. Ballistic re-entry can expose crew members to gravitational forces exceeding 10 times that of Earth gravity as it relies solely on atmospheric drag to slow a spacecraft. The Soyuz nominal re-entry usually allows for some aerodynamic lift during re-entry, which provides a shallower and slower descent. Luckily the crew were safe and located 20-minutes post-landing.
Soyeon also carried out the International Space University (ISU) Space Studies Program (SSP) at NASA Ames Research Centre in 2009. I was lucky enough to meet her there whilst working as a Teaching Associate for the Physical Sciences department. She truly inspired each and every person involved in the program with her ambition and accomplishments.