On April 12, 1961 Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completed a 108-minute orbit around the Earth, becoming the first man in space. The world was shocked and many were incapable of comprehending technology's rapid progression.

In the mist of this phenomenal event there must have been a few inquisitive souls who wonder whether a woman might one day take on a similar quest.

For those who asked themselves that question, or those who never even entertained the thought, the answer would have been obvious if they were aware of the role women have played in both astronomy and aeronautics.

As far back as the late 1700s, at least one woman held an interest in astronomy, for on March 13, 1781 William and Caroline Herschel discovered the seventh planet from the sun, Uranus. Then, there is Maria Mitchell, who in 1847 discovered a comet and later became a professor of astronomy at Vassar, where she taught for 23 years. She also started the Association for the Advancement of Women in 1873. Another famous female stargazer by the name of Annie Jump Cannon was employed at Harvard College Observatory for over 40 years, naming and cataloguing over 300,000 stars. These are just a few of the not so humble beginnings of women's involvement with science, space and technology.

And there is more to follow in the aeronautics department.

Though many can only name one famous female pilot -- Amelia Earhart -- there were numerous others that preceded her. In 1911 Harriet Quimby became the first American woman to earn a pilot's license and in 1912 she was the first woman to fly across the English Channel. For the women of the Stinson family, a love of flying ran through their blood. In 1913 Katherine Stinson started a flying business with her mother, and in 1915 her sister Marjorie joined them and formed her own flight school where many American and Royal Canadian pilots were trained during World War I. Marjorie also became the first female Air Mail pilot in 1918.

Another wondrous accomplishment was that of Bessie Coleman, the first African-American -- man or woman -- to earn a pilot's license (though she had to go to France to get it). She later went on to raise money towards an aviation school for African-Americans.

1929 was a big year for female pilots. That year the Women's Air Derby brought together 20 female pilots determined to fly to Cleveland and back and 14 finished the race -- though many Americans at the time did not believe the women could do it. Also, in 1929 the 99 members of a women's pilot association called the Ninety-Nines Inc. International had their first meeting.

It was several years after the first woman received her pilot's license that Amelia Earhart completed the infamous first transatlantic solo flight by a woman in 1932.

And the list of these incredible women -- the predecessors of female astronauts -- never ends. For example, there is Phoebe Omlie who in 1934 founded the National Air Marketing Program. It was the first federal program directed by a woman, with a senior staff consisting exclusively of women. These pilots were responsible for writing the names of towns and cities on various buildings, creating navigational aids. Then there is Willa B. Brown who in 1937 became the first African-American woman to receive her commercial pilot's license and later went on to co-found the National Airmen's Association of America and opened Coffey School of Aeronautics. Both organizations were designed to promote careers in aviation for African-Americans. In fact, two hundred pilots were trained through her school and some later became part of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Another interesting character is Jacqueline Cochran, who in 1953 became the first woman to break the sound barrier. Sounds like a painful endeavor, but when she found out the control tower failed to record her flight; she went back up an hour later and did it again. When she died in 1980, she held more speed, altitude, and distance records than any other pilot -- man or woman -- in aviation history.

So, now that all of the building blocks have been set, it's time to move on to the astronauts or rather cosmonaut, since it was Soviet cosmonaut Valentin Tereshkova who in 1963 became the first woman in space.

Two years later In the U.S., Marjorie Townsend was the first woman to manage a U.S. spacecraft launch, but it took until 1978 for the first American women to join the astronaut corps - one of whom was Sally Ride, Ph.D. On June 18,1983 Ride became the first American woman in space.

1984 held two important events for American female astronauts. In August, Judy Resnik, Ph.D. joined the staff on the first flight of the Discovery; her job was to control the remote manipulator arm. Then in October, Kathryn D. Sullivan, Ph.D. became the first American woman to walk in space.

Through the years women continued to make their presence felt in astronautics. On May 4, 1989 Mary Cleave, Ph.D., and the crew of STS-30 became the first to deploy a planetary probe by the name of Magellan off the space shuttle. Another great historic moment is when, in 1991, Lt. Col. Eileen Collins of the US Air Force became the first female space shuttle pilot.

But wait, there's more. Record-breaker Kathy Thornton, Ph.D., can lay claim to the longest space walk made by a woman. In December 1993 she also performed two space walks during the first Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission.

In three consecutive years, three minority women became the first females of their race to enter space. In September of 1992 Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman in space; in April of 1993 Ellen Ochoa, Ph.D., became the first Latino woman in space and in July of 1994 Chiaki Mukai, M.D., Ph.D., became the first Japanese woman to fly in space. She went back for more on the STS-95 where she spent nine days in 1998. Nearly two-thirds of the flight control team for STS-95 consisted of women. In fact, for the first time in space-flight history, the flight director, Linda Hamm; the launch commentator, Lisa Malone; the ascent commentator, Eileen Hawley and CapCom -- communicator between Mission Control and the crew -- Susan Still, were all women.

Taking a step back chronologically to 1996, Shannon Lucid returned from a six- month mission aboard the Russian space station Mir, setting both a space endurance record for women and a U.S. space endurance record. She was also the first woman to be awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

In March of 1998 Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that Lt. Col. Eileen Collins would be NASA's first female commander. On July 23,1999, Collins commanded a space mission that inspired many and set new heights for women in astronautics.

Most recently, on August 22, 2001 Susan Helms, Ph.D., who spent 163 days aboard the International Space Station -- the first woman to live on the station --and 167 days in space, returned to Earth.

At the end of the 20th century, 25 percent of NASA's astronauts are women, nearly one-third of the agency's workforce consists of women and 16 percent of the scientists and engineers are women. And, the line of great women in NASA will not end here, there are many more women waiting to take their place beside them.


© Melt Magazine 2002