• Female firebrand: Iranian-born astronaut Anousheh Ansari. (AP)Source: AP
Just 59 women have made the journey into space. In celebration of International Women's Day, here are ten who made milestones along the way.
Georgina Cooke

8 Mar 2016 - 9:30 AM  UPDATED 8 Mar 2016 - 9:55 AM

Of the 539 trips that have been made since man first flung man into the (relatively) unknown in 1961, just a little over 10 per cent of space voyages have been made by women.

A likely cause for this is female disengagement with an industry overrun by men, particularly in Australia - this sentiment is echoed by outgoing University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor Stephen Parker.

''We have a problem, in that Australia is falling well behind in the sciences, and if we want to be taken seriously on the world stage, we need to do something to boost our science capital,'' he told The Sydney Morning Herald.

While just 17 per cent of women are working in high level science fields Down Under, the problem is by no means unique to Australia, with a 2012 UNESCO report finding that women remain under-represented in science in every region of the world.

One answer to addressing this may have come in the form of the SAGE initiative, an offshoot of a UK program that has brought together over 140 experts from around Australia since 2014 to drive gender equality in the field.

So as science continues to grapple with its identity crisis, here's a list that celebrates ten of the 59 trailblazers who defied the odds and peered down at the awe-inspiring blue and green marble that is Earth from space.

Valentina Tereshkova

Valentina Tereshkova was the original pioneer, becoming the first woman to fly to space. The Soviet cosmonaut’s background in amatuer skydiving was appealing to Russia's space program selectors, and she was eventually chosen over more than 400 other candidates.

In 2013, Tereshkova, then 77, effectively (and somewhat morbidly) offered to donate herself to science, volunteering to travel on a one-way trip to Mars should the opportunity arise. Today however, she continues her extensive work in politics as a member of the State Duma of the Russian Federation, holding the position of deputy chair of the Committee for International Affairs on planet Earth.

Sally Ride

Californian Sally Ride made history for the Western world when she became the first American woman to enter space, piloting the space shuttle Challenger in 1983.

Ride was also a nationally ranked tennis player but chose to pursue science over a sporting career, as well as being an outspoken champion of gender equality. While there was much interest in her first mission, Ride chose not to appear on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show because she disagreed with the way women were presented on the program. Carson later joked that she delayed the mission to find a purse that matched her shoes. Sadly, Ride passed away in 2012, but her death sent shockwaves around the science community for more than one reason.

Svetlana Savistkaya

In 1984, Svetlana Savistkaya of Moscow took one giant leap for women by becoming the first female to perform a space walk, cutting and welding metals for almost four hours outside the Salyut 7 space station.

But this was not the only record Savitskaya set - her 1984 voyage was in fact her second trip beyond the exosphere (her first mission was in 1982), making her the first woman to enter space twice.

Mae Jemison

Inspired by Sally Ride, Mae Jemison applied to NASA’s astronaut program in 1983 after completing medical school, however it wasn’t until 1987 that she received the call inviting her to come and work for the organisation.

In 1992, Jemison completed her only mission where she worked on bone cell research experiments, making her the first African-American woman to fly to space. Jemison left NASA in 1993 to pursue how social sciences interact with technology, a field she continues to operate in as Professor-at-large with Cornell University.

In just the second year of the TED conferences, Jemison delivered a rousing speech on the role of creativity in science and how it influenced space exploration for her.

Chiaki Mukai

Trained as a doctor in Japan, Chiaki Mukai would go on to become the first Japanese woman to enter space as an astronaut with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Chiaki flew in 1994 and 1998, making her the first Japanese woman to travel to space twice, logging 566 hours all up. In that time, Chiaki also helped support the deployment of the the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been delivering jaw-dropping shots like the one below since the nineties.

Eileen Collins


If Top Gun was remade with women in the star roles (which they probably should because, awesome), Tom Cruise's Maverick role would surely be modelled on Eileen Collins, only it would feature a little more space travel.

Collins, a New York native, earned her stripes as a pilot at Vance Air Force Base before being assigned to the US Air Force Academy. In 1990, she was selected by NASA to be trained as an astronaut and became the first female Shuttle Pilot in 1995 on a mission which involved a rendezvous between Discovery and the Russian space station Mir.

As if that wasn't impressive enough, Collins was also the first female commander of a US Spacecraft with Shuttle mission. She retired in 2006 after having completed four missions.

Anousheh Ansari

Although Iranian-born American Anousheh Ansari prefers the term "spaceflight participant" over "space tourist", her early desires to be catapulted into orbit were certainly more than a flight of fancy.

In 2004, she made a multimillion-dollar contribution to a competition designed to spur private enterprise in space. By 2006, she was able to apply her knowledge of aeronautical engineering and computer science, training as a backup for a flight to the International Space Station (ISS) being run by a private company, which she would end up being elevated to the prime crew for, making her the first ever female space tourist.

 When asked what she hoped to achieve, Ansari replied: "I hope to inspire everyone - especially young people, women, and young girls all over the world, and in Middle Eastern countries that do not provide women with the same opportunities as men - to not give up their dreams and to pursue them."

Karen Nyberg

Parenting can be tough at the best of times, but try doing it when you're not even on the same planet as your child. That's exactly one of the many experiences American Karen Nyberg faced on her second mission - which coincided with the 50th anniversary of Tereshkova's first mission - as a flight engineer.

While Nyberg specialises in experimental metabolic testing and control and human thermoregulation, she has also participated in a deep-sea training and simulation exercise at the Aquarius underwater laboratory that aims to prepare astronauts for missions to the moon and Mars.

Known for much more than just being the first mother in space, Nyberg is also a very active Twitter user, for those of you that like your doses of space in 140 characters or less.

Samantha Cristoforetti

Having returned in November 2014, Samantha Cristoforetti is the most recent woman to have returned from space - and she did so with a number of firsts under her belt. Not only is she the first Italian woman to have entered space as a part of the Futura mission to ISS, she also holds the record for longest single space flight by a woman (a whopping 199 days and 16 hours) and the record for the longest uninterrupted flight by a European astronaut.

Yelena Serova

And last, but certainly not least, here’s one more very cool pioneer. Not only was Yelena Serova the first Russian woman to visit ISS, she also delivered the perfect serve to reporters in the most Russian #AskHerMore moment on record before she made her first voyage in 2014.

When asked about how she might style her tresses in zero gravity, her indignation was almost palpable, but she still managed to deliver the kind of perfectly withering response that would have humiliated even the most seasoned journalist. Go girl.

International Women's Day is on March 8. Find out more here.