Five women pioneers in the conquest of space06/03/2020
From engineers, like Christina Koch in the picture, or mathematicians to pilots and astronauts, women have been fundamental in the success of the space conquest. Credit: NASA
ANTONIO LÓPEZ | Tungsteno
NASA plans to take the first woman to the moon within four years. Ever since the first female engineers, pilots, mathematicians and biologists managed to carve out a niche for themselves on the space exploration chart, many women have been opening the doors of space for their female colleagues. As in any field of knowledge, the participation of women has also been fundamental in the conquest of space. Here we review some of the most significant female figures of the space race.
The first female spacewalk: Christina Koch and Jessica Meir
Time has not stood still on the large space stations, and women have been regaining their rightful place by accomplishing a variety of feats in the space race. The most recent of these, the first all-female spacewalk, took place on the International Space Station in October 2019, when NASA's Christina Koch (b. 1979) and Jessica Meir (b. 1977) suited up and ventured outside to replace a power control unit.
An electrical engineer and a doctor of marine biology, respectively, they both come from an astronaut class nicknamed the "eight balls", the class with the most female astronaut candidates to date. The first all-female spacewalk was supposed to have been completed in March 2019, but a logistical problem delayed things: there weren’t two medium-size suits, so only one of the astronauts was able to participate.
Now NASA has announced its intention to take the first woman (and the "next man") to the Moon in 2024 with the Artemis project (named after Apollo's twin sister). NASA is also working on a next generation spacesuit, called the Exploration Extra-vehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU for short, and will employ 3D-scanning technology to optimally match the components to each astronaut’s body to ensure that sizing will not hinder the inclusion of women on this future mission.
The first exclusively female spacewalk took place in October 2019, when Christina Koch and Jessica Meir went out to replace an energy control unit. Credit: NASA
Katherine Johnson and the space race calculations
In the midst of this female space revolution, it is worth remembering the great figures who have already made history by conquering space, in every sense. Women also left an important mark in Artemis' sister program: Apollo. Margaret Hamilton was 33 years old when the restart protection system she had designed allowed Armstrong and Aldrin to safely complete the moon landing.
Bringing them home safely was the mission of the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous program, which required detailed calculations that also fell into female hands. In this case, responsibility lay with Katherine Johnson (1918-2020), who had also been in charge of calculating another trajectory, the one that in 1961 had taken the first American into space on the Freedom 7 mission. This mathematician, born in Virginia, United States, joined NASA in 1953, taking advantage of the fact that the agency was hiring women given the shortage of male engineers after the Second World War.
Katherine Johnson recently died at the age of 101 after receiving, among other honours, the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. Her story became popular thanks to the film "Hidden Figures" (2016), loosely based on Margot Lee Shetterly's novel about the group of African-American women mathematicians known as the "human computers".
Mathematician Katherine Johnson is behind the success of programs such as the Lunar Orbit Redezvous that brought Armstrong back, or the Freedom 7 space mission. Credit: NASA.
Valentina Tereshkova: the first woman astronaut
In parallel to the trajectory of the hidden figures of the American space race, some female faces did have a unique impact and were particularly visible at the time. Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova (b. 1937) was the first woman to venture into space and she was not American, since part of the Cold War played out in space and women were at that time a powerful symbol to win the game.
According to The New York Times, the director of training for the Soviet cosmonauts program wrote in his diary in 1961: "We cannot allow the first woman in space to be an American." This strong conviction led to a young Valentina, who had experience as a paratrooper and was also linked to the Communist Party, being sent into space. In 1963, at the age of 26, she would become the first woman in space, aboard the Vostok-6 spacecraft. After a mission that lasted 3 days, she parachuted from more than 6,000 metres and landed in Karaganda, Kazakhstan.
Although today she is a figure of unquestionable significance, the publicity component of the mission and the political context of the time led to Valentina and her feat being belittled, both in Europe and in the United States, even though today she has received great recognition at a global level, such as the United Nations Gold Medal for Peace or the Joliot-Curie Gold Medal. A few months after returning to Earth, she would marry fellow astronaut Andrian Nikolayev, with whom she would have a daughter, Elena, the first person born to two human beings who had travelled into space. Valentina continued to work in the space program as a scientific collaborator at the Astronaut Training Centre until she retired to the country.
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