The crew of STS-7, on which Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. via NASA
Today marks the 30th anniversary of STS-7, the flight on which Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space. It comes just two days after another significant anniversary: on June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. With the dates so close together, it’s natural that we’ve been celebrating 50 years of women in space over the weekend. Yet while Ride's first flight came 20 years after Tereshkova's, it’s Ride who really broke the barrier for women aspiring to become astronauts.
By the end of 1961, the race to the Moon was on, and the United States and the Soviet Union were approaching the problem very differently. For the Americans, the goal of manned spaceflight was to learn to live and work in space while taking measured and deliberate steps towards the Moon. For the Soviets, the goal was to stay one step ahead of the Americans while cobbling together a lunar program.
This difference in approach gave Soviet women an opportunity to fly in space that American women didn’t have. NASA drew it’s astronauts from the ranks of military test pilots at the time, which by default excluded women. so flying a woman in space was another “first” the Soviets could secure over the Americans. And so Sergei Korolev, the chief designer and driving force behind the Soviet space program, decided to pursue a womanned flight.
It was a stunt, but the Central Committee of the Communist Party agreed. Leaders saw the flight as a way to promote the idea that the nation valued its women as much as its men. On February 19, 1962, five women out of 400 applications were selected for the first all-female cosmonaut training group.
Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. via Space.com
Valentina Tereshkova spent three days in space as the pilot of Vostok 6, becoming the poster-girl the Soviet Union wanted for its space program. But she was the only one of her cohort to fly; the group was quietly disbanded in 1969.
After this historic first of a woman in space, things went quiet. For the next 19 years, everyone who went into space—American astronaut or Soviet cosmonaut—was a man. The next woman in space was Svetlana Savitskaya, who flew in 1982. But even 19 years later, her road to the stars bore the telltale signs of political one-upsmanship as Tereshkova’s.
In 1978, NASA selected the first group of astronauts to break the tradition of selecting military test pilots and scientists. The agency began dividing its astronauts into two categories: pilots and mission specialists. This opened the door to space hopefuls from broader backgrounds. It also opened the door for more diversity in space. Of the 35 astronauts selected on January 16, 1978, three were African American, one was Asian, and six were women. Among the women was Sally Ride.
Ride was assigned to the crew of STS-7 in April of 1982, and something strange happened. Svetlana Savitskaya, an unknown cosmonaut who begun training two years after Ride, was assigned to the crew of Soyuz T-7. The mission was slated to launch that August, meaning Savitskaya would fly before Ride.
Svetlana Savitskaya, the second woman in space.
At the time, the space shuttle stood as a promise of futuristic technological advancement. This, combined with a peak in Cold War tensions, prompted the Soviet Union to do something to restore the illusion that the nation could still dominate in space. Savitskaya, an accomplished pilot in her own right, became the second woman in space and the first to perform a space walk, partially because the Soviet Union needed to secure another “first.”
Of course, all this is to say nothing of the character or abilities of either Tereshkova or Savitskaya. Both women had incredible careers, and are highly accomplished, exceedingly bright, and have been rightly praised for their missions. And the Soviet Union wasn't alone; NASA's emphasis on developing a diverse 1978 astronaut class was motivated at least partially by politics.
We’d do well to remember that manned spaceflight began as a political endeavor in the 1950s. It’s likely there will always be at least some political aspect in space exploration, even if it is a shadow of what it once was. Still, if we are to look at the moment when space started to become an even playing field for men and women, the credit goes to Sally Ride, who became the face of a changing NASA