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Celebrating the legacy of the world’s greatest female astronauts

Sanjana Ray
6th Feb 2017
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Women have been battling stereotypes since the very inception of the world we know today. We face it every day, at work, on the streets, and even at our homes, regardless of its flickering levels on the subtlety scale. But for the most part, we have relentlessly and unapologetically battled through eras of bias, oppression, and dismissal to pursue our dreams. This is why when it’s our names on the door, we never take it for granted.

Image credits: www.wikipedia.com

Image credits: www.wikipedia.com

Today, it is that same instinct that kicks in that have led us to be role models to scores of little boys and girls alike, who are being taught from the very beginning that a sister can do what her brother can. Today, six-year-old Jane is being told that the world is her oyster, and if she wants to see it from a window in her spacecraft from the moon, then she can jolly well do so.

I remember my third-standard teacher laughing at me when I stood bravely in front of the whole class and declared my dream to be an astronaut someday. Encouraged by censure, all thirty students save one – my best friend – had joined in, nodding profusely to the next words that were out of her mouth, “Silly girl, girls don’t become astronauts. Wouldn’t you rather be a doctor like your father?” Regardless of the fact that a swift name-drop of Kalpana Chawla from me successfully wiped the smirk off her face, the fact that such a primitive perception existed within the older, educated generation we looked up to was disappointing to say the least.

But today, women are making history from ground up to all the way into galaxy. Strong-willed and valiant, women have waved goodbyes to their families and stepped into the crafts they knew would take them millions of miles into space. To quote Cooper from Interstellar,

“We've always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements…And we’ve barely begun.”

To celebrate the innumerable contributions and dedicated efforts of women in the field of aeronautics, we pay a tribute to some of the world’s greatest female astronauts and the legacies that they are sure to pass on to the future generations.

Valentina Tereshkova

“A bird cannot fly with one wing only. Human space flight cannot develop any further without the active participation of women.”

Often referred to as the ‘First Lady of Space’, she is naturally the first woman to have flown in space, in as early as 1963, when her selection to pilot the Vostok 6 was confirmed by the Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev himself. From an early age itself, Valentina was interested in parachuting – a skill which came into use with Vostok 6’s re-entry into earth, when she was forced to eject at about 7,000 feet with a parachute for a safe landing. While names like Neil Armstrong and Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin are known to all, Valentina’s stands straight right next to them in the hall of fame. Originally a textile worker, she conducted biomedical and science experiments to understand the effects of space on the human body and even took photographs that helped NASA identify aerosols in the earth’s atmosphere.

Kalpana Chawla

“When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system.”

Indians across the world waited with bated breath when the country’s first female astronaut to visit space, Kalpana Chawla, set foot into Space Shuttle Columbia back in 1997. Incidentally, she was also the second Indian to have travelled to space as well. Chawla began work at NASA at the Ames Research Center in 1988 and by 1994 had been selected for the Astronaut Corps to take flight for her first mission. After a break of several years, during which Chawla and her team worked upon engines and possible engine problems, the 41-year-old returned to space aboard Space Shuttle Columbia on her second mission – STS-107. While the information that the mission required was successfully collected, the on its re-entry into the earth, the spacecraft was met with an influx of hot atmospheric gases allowed by an outer-space damage, which penetrated and destroyed the internal wing structure and eventually the entire craft – a mere 16 minutes before the scheduled landing. Chawla was awarded a number of national and international awards posthumously for her priceless and unforgettable contributions to the field.

Sunita Williams

“Don't get bogged down by the notion of limits. There aren't any.”

Holding the records for total spacewalks by a female astronaut, as well as the longest single space flight by a woman, Williams has Indian-Slovenian ancestry. After her gaining her master’s degree from Florida Institute of Technology, she even enlisted herself in defence and was commissioned an ensign in the United States Navy in May 1987. Several promotions later and with ample experience in US aviation, she was selected by NASA for the astronaut program after having logged more than 3,000 flight hours in more than 30 aircraft types. Her first mission into space was with STS-116, where she went aboard the space shuttle Discovery, on December 9, 2006, to join the Expedition 14 crew. On this mission, she took along the Bhagavad Gita, a small Ganesha idol, and several samosas!

Sally Ride

“I think it's important for little girls growing up, and young women, to have one in every walk of life. So from that point of view, I'm proud to be a role model!”

History will remember her as the youngest and first American woman to have travelled to space. Sally Ride not only helped develop the Space Shuttle’s robotic arm but also served as the Capsule Communicator for the world’s second and third Shuttle flights. Joining NASA in 1978, she set out on her first mission STS-7 in 1983 as a crew member on space shuttle Challenger. Ride, like her contemporaries, had been targeted in press interviews with questions like “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?” and “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” Her answer, to all of these offensive questions was simple and effective – that before anything else, she was, and always would be, an astronaut. Ride was also the first to use the robotic arm to retrieve a satellite and the first female astronaut to use the arm in space.

Like they often say, it isn’t difficult to shoot for the stars. But it’s another feat to travel among them. These four remarkable women managed to break through confines of the earth, travel through space, and set a name for women everywhere in the galaxy. Like Ride often said, “The stars don't look bigger, but they do look brighter!”

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