Who were the first women in space? What were their stories?  

First Woman in Space: Valentina Tereshkova 

Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Vladmirovna Tereshkova in the spacecraft Vostok 6.

From June 16 to 19, 1963, Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova became the first woman to fly in space.  

Tereshkova was born on March 6, 1937, in Bolshoye Maslennikovo. Tereshkova graduated  at age 17. While working at a textile mill at the age of 18, she took correspondence courses from an industrial school and joined a club for parachutists, making over 150 jumps.  

Shortly after the flight of cosmonaut Gherman Titov in September of 1961 she wrote a letter to the Soviet space program volunteering for the cosmonaut team. Unknown to her, Soviet space officials were considering the selection of a group of women parachutists.  

In December 1961 Tereshkova was invited to Moscow for an interview and medical examination. The following March she reported with three other women to the Soviet Space Center at Star City. The women were subjected to the same centrifuge rides and zero-G flights as men. They were also commissioned as junior lieutenants in the Soviet Air Force and given fight instruction.  

In May 1963, Tershkova and Tatyana Torchillova were chosen to train for the Vostok 6 flight. On June 16, 1963, she was launched into orbit aboard Vostok and made 45 revolutions around the earth in a 70-hour 50-minute space flight. Tereshkova orbited the earth once every 88 minutes by operating her spacecraft with manual controls. Tereshkova parachuted from the Vostok 6 after re-entering the earth's atmosphere and landed about 612 km (380 miles) northeast of Karaganda, Kazakhstan, in central Asia.  

In the years following her flight, Tereshkova made many public appearances on behalf of the government and trips to other countries. Tereshkova went on to graduate from the Zhuykosky Air Force Engineering Academy in 1969 and earned a degree in Technical Science in 1976. 

First American Woman in Space: Sally Ride

Dr. Sally Ride in the aft flight deck mission specialist's seat during deorbit preparations during the STS-7 mission. Ride was a mission specialist during this flight and the first American woman in space. (NASA)

Twenty years after Tereshkova became the first woman to fly in space, Dr. Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space on June 18, 1983 as part of STS-7.  

Ride was born in suburban Encino, California. As a teenager she took up tennis and within a few years was ranked eighteenth nationally. In 1968, she enrolled at Swarthmore College as a physics major, but she dropped out after three semesters to work on her tennis game full time. In 1970, Ride gave up tennis and entered Stanford University, where she took a double major in physics and English literature.  Ride continued at Stanford for a PhD in physics, where her research focused on the absorption of X-rays by interstellar gas. 

While at the University she saw an announcement that NASA was looking for young scientists to serve as mission specialists, and she immediately applied. She passed NASA's preliminary process and became one of the 208 finalists. Ride was flown to Johnson Space Center outside Houston for physical fitness tests, psychiatric evaluation, and personal interviews. Three months later, she was an astronaut and one of six women selected as astronaut candidates. She was part of Astronaut Group 8, which formed in 1978. (After approximately two years of training, the ascans—astronaut candidates—become astronauts.) 

While learning to use a new space shuttle remote manipulative arm for a future mission, Ride acted as backup orbit Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) for STS-2 and prime orbit CAPCOM for STS-3. She was named a mission specialist on the seventh flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983 and became the first American Women to fly in space. She flew on a second mission, STS-41G, in 1984.  

Twice she served on the commissions appointed to investigate the causes and recommend remedies after the tragic losses of the Challenger and Columbia crews. 

She left NASA in 1987 to pursue an academic career. 

Tereshkova and Ride paved the way for the women who would follow them in space, including ... 

Tamara Jernigan 

Jernigan flew on five Space Shuttle missions, logging over 1512 hours in space.  (NASA)

Tamara Jernigan was one of the thirteen astronauts selected by NASA in June 1985. She flew on five Space Shuttle missions, logging over 1512 hours in space.  

Jernigan was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but grew up in southern California and graduated from high school in Santa Fe Springs in 1977. She attended Stanford University receiving a B.S. in physics (with honors) in 1981 and an M.S. in engineering science in 1983. She also earned an M.S. in astronomy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1985.  

While continuing her studies at Stanford and Berkeley from June 1981 until her selection as an astronaut, she worked for the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California. Her field of research was astrophysics and she earned and PhD from Rice in space physics in 1988. 

In addition to her time in space, on Earth Jernigan served as Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office and Deputy for the Space Station program, before retiring from NASA in 2001.  

Mae Jemison

Jemison, pictured here, was inspired to become an astronaut by Sally Ride and Guy Bluford. (NASA)

On September 12, 1992, Dr. Mae Jemison made history as the first African American woman to fly in space.  

Jemison grew up in a Chicago, where her mother was a teacher and her father a maintenance supervisor. She attended the Chicago Public School System and earned honors in math and science. Jemison attended Stanford University at the age of 16 and earned her bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering and African American Studies, graduating in 1977. She went on to earn a medical degree from Cornell University in 1981 and served two years in the Peace Corps in West Africa as a staff physician.   

Inspired by Sally Ride and Guy Bluford, Jemison left her private medical practice in Los Angeles and applied to become an astronaut candidate. In 1987, she was one of 15 ascans (astronaut candidates) chosen from a pool of 2,000 applicants. She completed the intensive training, and was assigned to STS-47, a Spacelab Life Sciences mission. On this eight-day flight Jemison served as a mission specialist and carried out experiments. 

After leaving NASA, Dr. Jemison went on to teach, formed a company that researches advanced technologies, and is a public speaker. 


This content was migrated from an earlier online exhibit, Women in Aviation and Space History, which shared the stories of the women featured in the Museum in early 2000s. 

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