NASA Astronaut Sally K. Ride, STS-7 mission specialist, communicates with ground controllers from the flight deck of the Earth-orbiting Space Shuttle Challenger at an unknown location, on June 21, 1983. Ride was America's first woman in space.
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NASA Astronaut Sally K. Ride, STS-7 mission specialist, communicates with ground controllers from the flight deck of the Earth-orbiting Space Shuttle Challenger, on June 21, 1983. Ride was America's first woman in space.NASA/DPA/Corbis
NASA Astronaut Sally K. Ride, STS-7 mission specialist, communicates with ground controllers from the flight deck of the Earth-orbiting Space Shuttle Challenger at an unknown location, on June 21, 1983. Ride was America's first woman in space.
NASA astronaut Linda Godwin on STS-131, in 2010. Godwin traveled in four spaceflights, logging over 38 days in space, as well as over 10 EVA hours during two spacewalks.
Sandy Magnus - NASA astronaut and stealth craft engineer - flies in a T-38 trainer on her way from Houston to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida June 20, 2011.
Japanese astronaut Chiaki Mukai and John Glenn at a press conference, on Oct. 8, 1998. Mukai was Japan's first woman in space.
Astronaut Marsha Ivins, mission specialist aboard space shuttle Columbia, surrounded by cameras and supportive gear suspended by zero-gravity, on Jan. 1, 1990. Ivins flew in space five times.
The greatest number of women in space at any one time was four, in 2010. From lower right: NASA astronauts Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Stephanie Wilson, both STS-131 mission specialists, Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Expedition 23 flight engineer; and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Naoko Yamazaki, STS-131 mission specialist, on the International Space Station in the Cupola.
NASA astronaut Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper, STS-115 mission specialist, takes a self-portrait during a space walk, on Sept. 12, 2006.
NASA Astronaut Susan J. Helms, flight engineer, views the topography of a point on Earth from the nadir window in the U.S. Laboratory / Destiny module of the International Space Station (ISS), on March 31, 2001. Helms is now a three-star lieutenant general in the United States Air Force.
French astronaut Claudie Haigneré trains with a cosmonaut at the City of the Stars, Russia's space exploration facility near Moscow, in 1996. Haigneré was France's first woman in space.
NASA astronaut Kalpana Chawla looks over a procedures checklist in the SPACEHAB Research Double Module aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, on Jan. 27, 2003.
NASA Astronaut Nancy Currie reads a manual as she grapples an arriving space station module, in the cargo bay of the Endeavour, on Dec. 6, 1998.
From left: NASA astronaut Mike Massimino looks through an aft flight deck window with astronaut Megan McArthur inside the Space Shuttle Atlantis, on May 17, 2009 during the mission's fourth spacewalk to refurbish and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope.
South Korea's first woman in space, astronaut Yi So-yeon is helped by Russian specialists as she undergoes a splashdown landing training session in the Ukrainian Black Sea city of Sevastopol, on July 24, 2007.
NASA astronaut Shannon Walker lands near the town of Arkalyk in northern Kazakhstan, on Nov. 26, 2010.
Astronaut Kathryn Sullivan at the Johnson Space Center, in Houston, on July 20, 1984. Sullivan was the first U.S. woman to space walk from the shuttle Challenger, on Oct. 13, 1984.
Chinese astronaut Liu Yang waves as she attends a drill in Jiuquan, northwest China's Gansu Province, on July 27, 2012. On June 16, 2012, Yang became China's first woman in space.
Canada's first female astronaut—and a neurologist as well—Roberta Bondar flew aboard the space shuttle in 1992
Astronaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman sent into space, in Moscow, on June 16, 1963.
NASA Astronaut Sally K. Ride, STS-7 mission specialist, communicates with ground controllers from the flight deck of the Earth-orbiting Space Shuttle Challenger, on June 21, 1983.
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The Space Sorority

Apr 24, 2014

The first man on the moon was a character in popular culture decades—even centuries, perhaps—before Neil Armstrong actually filled the role. The assumption was that humanity would reach the moon someday, and it was simply a given that the first historic step would indeed be taken by a man. "This country should commit itself, before this decade is out," President Kennedy declared in 1961, "to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth." There was no need for the gender-neutral "landing a person on the moon," no clumsy "and returning him or her safely to the Earth." Astronauts were supposed to be men and they jolly well would be.

But only until they weren't. The boys-only rule ended fast, just two years later, when the Soviet Union sent Valentina Tereshkova (slide 18) into orbit for a flight that lasted just minutes shy of three full days. In the half century since Tereshkova's flight, 57 other women have strapped in and blasted off, representing nine different countries—most recently China. The U.S. did not join the space sorority until 1983, when Sally Ride flew, but America made up for that dallying, sending a total of 45 women into space since then. 2014 TIME 100 honoree Kathryn Sullivan (slide 1) was the first American woman to space walk. Lt. Gen. Susan J. Helms, a crew member on five space shuttle missions and a former resident of the International Space Station, is now a three-star lieutenant general in the United States Air Force. They have faced the same challenges as the men, experienced the same thrills as the men and, on occasion, paid the same price as the men. Four women—Christa McAulliffe, Judith Resnik, Laurel Clark, and Kalpana Chawla—died in the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

The U.S. space program is now in a state of drift, with no American vehicle currently capable of carrying human beings to space, and NASA thus dependent on the Russians to ferry our crews up to the International Space Station—at a cost of $70 million per seat. But China—as in so many other things—is a rising power in space and on June 11, sent its second female astronaut, Wang Yaping, into orbit on what is just the country's fifth crewed mission. She was preceded last year by Liu Yang.

There was less global hoopla when Yang flew than when Ride did, and much less than when Tereshkova did. The fact that human beings travel in space continues to be—and should be—something that delights and even surprises us. The fact that women are among those explorers is, at last, becoming routine.

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