Within the last century, space exploration has blasted off (pun very much intended!), with incredible women behind some major accomplishments. From reaching new heights to developing new technologies, we would not have the knowledge we do about space today without these women. And yet, most people would be challenged to recognize any of these amazing disruptors.
The following ten women are disruptors, and as I discuss in Chapter 4 of my book “Dream Big!: How to Reach for Your Stars,” they have broken barriers and revolutionized the space industry. They also are some of the biggest role models that I have spent my life looking up to. To celebrate Women’s History month, let’s learn more about these incredible women!
Image credit: ESA
1. Valentina Tereshkova, Russian Cosmonaut
Valentina Tereshkova is a Russian Cosmonaut who, in 1963, made history as the first woman to fly in space. She launched on the Vostok 6 mission when she was only 26 years old, and to this day, she remains the youngest woman to have flown in space. On this mission, Tereshkova also flew solo, something no other woman in history has done.
Before becoming a cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova worked at a textile factory. While she was working, she attended school at the Light Industry Technical School and graduated in 1960. During this time, Tereshkova also picked up skydiving and was a competitive parachutist.
It was her skydiving and parachuting experience that caught the attention of the Soviet Union and their Vostok program. (The Vostok program was a human spaceflight program conducted by the Soviet Union.) Tereshkova was selected to be a cosmonaut in 1962, along with four other women. Upon her selection, she was given the rank of private in the Soviet Air Forces and later went on to earn the ranks of both lieutenant and captain.
After months of training, Tereshkova launched on her first mission, Vostok 6, on June 16, 1963. She spent over two days in space and orbited the Earth 48 times. During this time, she gathered data on the effects of space travel on women. She descended back to Earth safely on June 19 near the local villages of the Altai Krai. The Altai Krai even made dinner for her and helped her out of her spacesuit!
Why I Admire Her
Valentina Tereshkova broke numerous barriers. In her travels to space, she went somewhere no woman has gone before (literally)! At the time, her hours logged in space were more than the combined times of all the American astronauts who had flown before her. She also made history at only 26 years old, showing that age isn’t a limit! Tereshkova’s mission proved women were as capable of participating in space travel as their male counterparts were.
My journey to becoming an astronaut may not have been possible without Valentina Tereshkova. She has inspired me to reach new heights and go somewhere else no woman has gone before – Mars. I greatly admire Tereshkova’s perseverance through adversity. At the time, no one thought a woman could make a successful astronaut, but she sure proved them wrong!
Image credit: NASA
2. Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician
Without Katherine Johnson, crewed spaceflight as we know it would not be the same. Between 1953 and 1983, Johnson worked as a mathematician and “human computer” at NASA and was one of the first African American women to hold such positions. Her calculations (many of which she did by hand) were essential to some of the first human spaceflights, including the missions of Alan Shepherd, John Glenn, and Apollo 11.
In 1937, Katherine Johnson graduated from West Virginia State College with her bachelor’s degree in mathematics and French. During her studies, she completed every math course offered – the professors even had to add new courses just for her! She then went on to become the first Black woman and one of only three Black students to attend graduate school at West Virginia State University.
Johnson began working at NASA in 1953 in the West Area Computers Unit of the Langley Research Center. West Computers was composed entirely of female African American mathematicians who completed complex calculations by hand. Johnson worked under the guidance of Dorothy Vaughn, another well-known NASA mathematician. She worked at West Computers for five years before moving on to the Spacecraft Controls Branch.
At the Spacecraft Controls Branch, Johnson calculated trajectories, launch windows, and navigation charts for the first human spaceflight missions. Her contributions helped Alan Shephard to become the first American in space, and the crew of Apollo 11 to step foot on the Moon for the very first time. She also notably worked with John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. Glenn actually refused to fly if Johnson didn’t approve of the calculations for his flight!
Why I Admire Her
Katherine Johnson never held back on pursuing her dreams. She knew she had important skills and ideas to offer the world, and she didn’t let negative remarks about her race and gender stand in her way. Human spaceflight would not be the same without her, and she broke down barriers in the aerospace industry so that young Black women could too follow their dreams and be involved in STEM fields.
Later on in her career, Johnson also worked on plans for missions to Mars! She has had a significant impact on the missions we’ve sent to the Red Planet, and the information collected from these missions will be essential for future human spaceflight there. One day, I hope to be an astronaut on the first crewed journey to Mars, and I know that dream of mine would not be possible without Katherine Johnson.
Image credit: NASA Langley Research Center
3. Mary Jackson, NASA Engineer
Mary Jackson was NASA’s first Black female engineer. Similar to Katherine Johnson, she began her career in the West Area Computers Unit of the Langley Research Center and eventually earned the most senior engineering title available. Just last year, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine shared that NASA’s headquarters would be named in her honor, now being called the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters.
Mary Jackson earned her bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physical sciences from Hampton University in 1942. Following her graduation, she worked as a teacher at an African American school, teaching mathematics. She dedicated her time to tutoring students at both the high school and college level and did so throughout her entire career.
Jackson began working for NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), in 1951. She first worked as a human-computer, making complex calculations by hand, before moving to work as an engineer in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. While working, she completed graduate courses that eventually earned her the title of an aerospace engineer. After 34 years of work, Jackson earned the most senior engineering title available.
After this accomplishment, Jackson accepted a demotion in order to be an administrator in the Equal Opportunity Specialist field. She served as a manager in NASA’s Federal Women’s Program and NASA’s Affirmative Action Program. In this role, she worked to highlight minorities and their accomplishments in STEM fields and influenced other women to chase after their dreams of becoming scientists, engineers, or mathematicians.
Why I Admire Her
Mary Jackson was one of the first leading Black women at NASA. Her accomplishments as the most senior engineer destroyed any stereotypes surrounding her race and gender and demonstrated that Black women deserve their place in the aerospace industry. Her work as a manager in NASA’s Federal Women’s and Affirmative Action Programs has also been incredibly influential, and because of her, women and minorities have found their place at NASA.
Image credit: NASA
4. Sally Ride, NASA Astronaut
Twenty years after Tereshkova’s flight, Sally Ride followed in her footsteps and made her own history. On June 18, 1983, she became the first American woman to fly into space as a crew member on NASA’s STS-7 mission. This mission made her the third woman in space overall and the first known LGBTQ+ person. To this day, Ride is the youngest American astronaut to have gone to space, having done so at age 32.
Sally Ride holds four degrees from Stanford University: a bachelor’s degree in English, a bachelor’s degree in physics, a master’s degree in physics, and a Ph.D. in physics. While completing her education, Ride played tennis competitively and even took some time away from school to pursue a professional career.
In 1978, Ride was selected to be a part of NASA Astronaut Group 8, the first class that included women. Following her selection, she was subject to relentless criticism due to her gender, but didn’t let it faze her. Before her first flight, she worked as a ground-based capsule communicator for Space Shuttle flights and worked on the development of the Space Shuttle’s “Canadarm” robotic arm.
Ride went on to make history in 1983 while onboard the STS-7 mission. On this mission, she became the first woman in space and served as a Mission Specialist. She helped to deploy two communications satellites, operate the robotics arm, and test the TDRS satellite. This mission lasted a little over six days.
She then flew to space a second time as a member of STS-41-G, also as a Mission Specialist. This was the sixth flight of Space Shuttle Challenger and launched on October 5, 1984. STS-41-G, most notably, was the first mission to carry a crew of seven, including two women! (I’ll talk about the other female astronaut in a bit.)
Why I Admire Her
Similar to Tereshkova, Sally Ride broke both age and gender barriers. She showed that these things don’t necessarily matter in order to be a successful astronaut, despite the negative remarks she received. Ride was determined to break barriers for young girls to pursue their dreams, and I admire that greatly.
Sally Ride also created Sally Ride Science, a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring young people to get involved in STEM fields and promote STEM education. In this regard, I have looked up to her immensely as I started my own nonprofit, The Mars Generation, dedicated to a similar mission. Empowering young people in STEM is something I feel very passionately about, and Sally Ride has both inspired me and generations to come.
Image credit: NASA
5. Kathryn Sullivan, NASA Astronaut
That other female astronaut I was just talking about? That astronaut was Kathryn Sullivan! On STS-41-G, Kathryn Sullivan made history as the first American woman to complete a spacewalk. Just last year, nearly 40 years after this mission, she made history once again as the first woman to dive to the Challenger Deep, the deepest known point in the Earth’s seabed hydrosphere, located in the Mariana Trench.
Kathryn Sullivan was a part of NASA Astronaut Group 8 alongside Sally Ride. She flew as a Mission Specialist on her first mission, STS-41-G, in October of 1984. On this mission, alongside astronaut David Leestma, Sullivan completed a 3.5-hour spacewalk. She also helped to deploy satellites and conduct tests and demonstrations of other technologies.
Sullivan went on to fly on two more missions: STS-31 and STS-45. Most notably, on STS-31, the crew deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, and on STS-45, they conducted twelve experiments about the climate using the Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science cargo.
However, space hasn’t been the only territory Sullivan has explored. In the spring of 2020, she traveled aboard the Triton Submarines DSV Limiting Factor to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, the deepest oceanic trench on Earth. She is the first woman to have reached this point and the first to have traveled to both the Challenger Deep and outer space.
Why I Admire Her
Kathryn Sullivan walked in space, somewhere no other woman had walked before and demonstrated women’s capabilities to perform intense extravehicular activities. In the future, I hope to do something similar and be among the first group of women to step foot on Mars.
I also admire Sullivan’s accomplishments as a diver! As a diver myself in college, seeing her travel to the deepest part of the ocean was incredible, and I had a newfound appreciation for the strength it takes to accomplish such a feat.
Image credit: NASA
6. Mae C. Jemison, NASA Astronaut
In 1992, Dr. Mae C. Jemison made history when she became the first Black woman to fly in space. Though she only flew on one mission, Jemison’s accomplishments opened up doors for future generations of Black women to reach for their stars. However, her influence doesn’t just pertain to the aerospace industry! From training as a professional dancer to working as a general practitioner, Jemison has made an impact on numerous fields and is an inspiration for young girls everywhere.
Mae C Jemison was first inspired to become an astronaut after following NASA’s Apollo missions. She was struck by the lack of female astronauts and decided she wanted to do something about it. She attended Stanford University and, in 1977, graduated with two bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering and African and African-American studies. She later went on to earn her M.D. degree.
While in college, Jemison also considered a career as a professional dancer. She enrolled in classes at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and trained in the styles of ballet, jazz, modern, African, and Japanese. During this time, Jemison choreographed musical and dance productions, something she continues to do today.
After college, Jemison began her medical career. She worked for the Flying Doctors and at a Cambodian refugee camp, and she served as a medical officer in the Peace Corps. She also conducted research on vaccines with the Center for Disease Control and opened up her own practice in Los Angeles.
Jemison was selected by NASA to become an astronaut in 1987. Two years later, in 1989, she was chosen to join the crew of STS-47 as a Mission Specialist and Science Mission Specialist. STS-47, the 50th space shuttle mission, launched on September 12, 1992, and lasted for eight days. On this mission, Jemison conducted research on the Autogenic Feedback Training Exercise (AFTE) to help mitigate motion sickness, worked on producing a saline solution in space, and experimented with bone cells.
Why I Admire Her
After retiring from NASA, Jemison founded the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, an organization dedicated to improving science literacy and creating more opportunities for young people to get involved with STEM. When I started my own nonprofit, I wanted to follow in her footsteps and pursue a similar mission. Empowering youth in STEM is something very important to me. Jemison does so every day, and I endeavor to follow her lead!
Image credit: NASA
7. Ellen Ochoa, NASA Astronaut, Director
Ellen Ochoa has dedicated her life to space exploration. She has served both as a NASA astronaut and as the director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. In each role, she made history; she was the first Hispanic woman to travel to space and the first Hispanic director (and second female!) of the Johnson Space Center.
Before her career as an astronaut and director, Ellen Ochoa led research groups at the NASA Ames Research Center and studied optical systems for automated space exploration. She served as Chief of the Intelligent Systems Technology Branch at Ames and is the co-inventor on three patents.
Ochoa became an astronaut in July of 1991. She flew to space in 1993 as Mission Specialist on STS-56, becoming the first Hispanic woman to do so. During this nine-day mission, she and the other crew members studied the Earth’s ozone layer. Ochoa went on to fly in three more missions: STS-66, STS-96, and STS-110. Most notably, STS-96 was the first docking at the International Space Station.
Ochoa went on to become the deputy director of the Johnson Space Center in 2007 and was later promoted to director. As the director, she oversaw work on the Orion, a crewed spacecraft that aims to push human exploration farther than ever before. She retired from the Johnson Space Center in 2018, and, in 2018, she became the chair of the National Science Board.
Why I Admire Her
Ellen Ochoa’s accomplishments were monumental for the Hispanic community. She proved that her skill was not defined by her ethnicity and has opened up new opportunities for young Latinx generations to both travel to space and work in STEM fields.
I also admire Ochoa’s dedication and belief in the Orion spacecraft. This spacecraft will be used during the upcoming Artemis missions, where NASA astronauts will head back to the Moon (and the first woman will step foot there!). Orion may also be used for future crewed spaceflight missions to Mars – missions I hope to be onboard one day!
Image credit: Science History Institute
8. Stephanie Kwolek, Chemist
Stephanie Kwolek is a chemist most known for creating Kevlar. She worked at the DuPont company for over 40 years and discovered poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide, the first of a family of synthetic fibers of exceptional strength and stiffness. The DuPont company awarded her their Lavoisier Medal for this accomplishment, and as of August 2019, she was the only woman to hold this honor.
Stephanie Kwolek’s father was a naturalist, so Stephanie grew up exploring the natural world. She went on to study chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University and graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 1943. She hoped to become a doctor and took time away from college to find a temporary job in order to save money for medical school.
That temporary job was a position at the DuPont company where she and her co-workers were looking for a fiber used to replace the steel used in tires in anticipation of a gasoline storage. In doing so, Kwolek came up with Kevlar, a material that is stronger than both nylon and steel. Today, Kevlar is used in hundreds of applications, including spacecraft, turbines, electricity generation, rope, cables, and particle physics. For this invention, Kwolek became the fourth woman to be added to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Why I Admire Her
Throughout her career, Kwolek often spent time tutoring students in chemistry. No matter how successful she became as an inventor, she stayed true to her passion for more young people to explore the sciences. This is a trait I greatly admire in her, and I try to practice it in my own life. I am incredibly passionate about promoting STEM education, and Kwolek’s dedication to doing so is inspiring!
9. Aisha Mustafa, Physicist
At only 19 years old, Aisha Mustafa came up with an idea that would revolutionize the aerospace industry. She developed a space propulsion system that doesn’t require fuel or thrusters. This would make space travel both lighter and cheaper, and scientists would have better control over the spacecraft. As we continue to travel farther out into our solar system, these seemingly smaller elements become more and more important!
The system Mustafa has created is based on ideas from quantum physics. In quantum physics, there is a concept that space is not a vacuum. Instead, it is filled with particles and antiparticles that pop into existence and destroy each other rapidly. Playing on this belief, Mustafa hypothesizes that when two silicon metallic plates are placed in a vacuum, they will interact with the particles between them and generate a net force. Depending on the arrangement of these plates, that force can either be an attraction or repulsion.
Egypt, where Mustafa is from, currently doesn’t have a prominent space agency, making it difficult for this young inventor to experiment on her design. However, her college, Sohag University, is working closely with Mustafa to help grow and test her space propulsion system.
Why I Admire Her
Aisha Mustafa was only 19 years old when she developed her invention! At such a young age, she has truly changed how scientists think of space travel, proving how age is really just a number. As we take leaps and bounds further out into our solar system (and beyond!), Mustafa’s cheaper and lighter system of space travel will be important to build upon.
Image credit: NASA
10 and 11: The Dynamic Duo Jessica Meir and Christina Koch
Jessica Meir and Christina Koch just made history on October 18, 2019, when they completed the first all-female spacewalk! The world came together and celebrated as these two astronauts participated in a monumental moment in women’s history. Their accomplishment showed that women truly can do anything!
Jessica Meir and Christina Koch were both members of NASA Astronaut Group 21. They worked together on Expedition 61, and it was during this time they completed their spacewalk. Koch had been on the International Space Station some time prior, for Expeditions 59 and 60, but for Meir, Expedition 61 was her first time. (She later went on to be part of the crew for Expedition 62 as well).
Meir and Koch’s historic spacewalk occurred on October 18, 2019 and lasted over seven hours. The two replaced a power controller and made vital other modifications to the ISS. Their successful spacewalk garnered attention from around the world because, as Meir noted, “… in the past, women haven’t always been at the table.” Two spacewalks for women, one significant path forward for womankind!
Why I Admire Them
Jessica Meir and Christina Koch are leaders for the new generation of space explorers. They are both members of NASA’s Artemis Team, which is the group of astronauts headed back to the Moon. Meir and Koch are two of nine women in this group, and one of these nine will be the first woman to walk on the Moon! After returning to the Moon, these astronauts will begin the path to Mars, and I hope to one day join them on that journey!
You Can Make History, Too!
The accomplishments of these women have broken barriers for women everywhere to follow their dreams and pursue a career in the space industry. Without these women, we would not be where we are today. They are leaders in their field, and their hard work and dedication have created countless opportunities for new generations in STEM. That is why I am so excited to celebrate each of them throughout the month of March for National Women’s Month.
You can follow in their lead, too! These incredible women have taught us a lot about following our dreams and accomplishing our goals. In my new book, “Dream Big!: How to Reach for Your Stars,” I’m sharing my own tips, pieces of advice, and even anecdotes from my journey. Check it out today!