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A Brief History of Women in Space

Content generously provided by The Old Globe 


The Mercury 13

The Mercury 13 were a group of American women who underwent the rigorous screening tests given to NASA Astronauts during the late 1950s. None of the women from this privately funded program were ever selected for the austronaut program or flew in space. 

The name "Mercury 13" was coined by Producer James Cross in comparison to the group of male astronauts called the "Mercury 7" who were eventually selected for the program.

The members of the "Mercury 13" included Jerrie Cobb, along with the twelve women pictured here.

Top row: Sarah Gorelick Ratley, Irene Leverton, Janet and Marion Dietrich, Wally Funk. Second row: Myrtle Cagle, Gene Stumbough Jessen, Rhea Woltman, Bernice Steadman, Jean Hixson, Jerri Sloan Truhill, Jane Briggs Hart.


The Heroines of They Promised Her the Moon 

Jerrie Cobb, a private pilot, hoped to fly in space and was encouraged by passing many of the same medical requirement tests that the first NASA astronauts passed. She lacked the required jet test piloting background, however, an option only available to men at the time, and never became an astronaut.

Jackie Cochran is perhaps the most influential woman aviator of all time. Not only did she become the first woman to break the sound barrier, she was instrumental in including women pilots in the military in World War Two. She blazed the trail for later women pilots who became astronauts.



 A Timeline of Events

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Events in the Play
Historical Events
1931 •

Jerrie Cobb born in Oklahoma


1938 •

Jackie Cochran wins the Bendix race and
sets transcontinental speed records.


1942 •

Cochran begins a training
program for women pilots
that eventually leads to the
creation of the Women
Airforce Service Pilots
(WASP) program.



1953 •

While working at an airport
in Miami, Jerrie meets Jack
Ford and begins working
for his company, ferrying
aircraft worldwide.






1960 •

Jerrie goes to Albuquerque,
NM, to be tested for
spaceflight by William
"Randy" Lovelace, who
helped develop the
readiness testing for the
Mercury 7. She scores in
the top 2% of all astronaut

More women are recruited
to take the tests, all
privately financed by Jackie
Cochran. Thirteen of the
women pass Phase I
testing. As they move
forward with Phases II and
III, the program is
canceled, as it does not
have official NASA support.


JULY 1962 •

Representative Victor Anfuso of New York convenes
public hearings before a special House Subcommittee
to discuss whether the qualifications for astronauts
should exclude women. No action is taken
as a result of the hearings.



1965 •

After working as a
consultant for NASA for a
brief time, Cobb leaves for
the Amazon to work as a
humanitarian supply pilot.



1973 •

President Nixon awards Jerrie
the Harmon Trophy, naming
her “the top woman pilot
in the world.”






1998 •

Several organizations,
including the National
Organization for Women,
begin a campaign to finally
send Cobb into space,
following the precedent of
John Glenn. Cobb says, “I’d
give my life to fly in space. I
would have then, and I will
now.” The campaign fails.
Jerrie returns to the Amazon
and continues her decades-long
humanitarian work.




• 1937

Amelia Earhart disappears









• 1957

Russia launches the Sputnik
satellite, kicking off a
decades-long space race
between the U.S. and the
Soviet Union.



• 1958

The U.S. announces its first
manned spaceflight program,
Project Mercury.


• 1959

After months of testing the
first seven astronauts (the
Mercury 7) are named.





• 1961

The Soviet Union puts the first
human, cosmonaut Yuri
Gagarin, into orbit. Shortly
after, the U.S. launches its first
astronaut, Alan Shepard.






Astronaut John Glenn becomes the first
American to orbit the earth.




• 1963

Soviet cosmonaut Valentina
Tereshkova becomes the
first woman to fly in space.



• 1969

Apollo 11 becomes the first
manned mission to land on
the Moon.



• 1978

NASA selects its first
female astronaut
candidates. Among them
is Sally Ride, who becomes
the first American woman
in space in 1983.


• 1998

At age 77, John Glenn
returns to space on the
Space Shuttle Discovery to
study the effects of
spaceflight on older
individuals. He becomes the
oldest person to fly in space.



The Women of Space

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The USSR’s Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space. Launched solo in 1963, she spent almost three days in space. She continues to be an ambassador for global women’s rights.

It was another two decades until the next woman flew in space. Svetlana Savitskaya flew on Soyuz T-7 in 1982, on a mission to the Salyut 7 space station. She would fly a second time in 1984, becoming the first woman to perform a spacewalk.

Judy Resnik, the second American woman and first Jewish American in space, flew in space in 1984. Two years later, she died on her second mission, aboard space shuttle Challenger.

Anna Fisher flew on the space shuttle in 1984. Married at the time to another astronaut, she became the first mother in space.

Kathy Sullivan, a former geologist, became the first American woman spacewalker on a 1984 space shuttle mission.

Shannon Lucid is the first American woman to fly to a space station—the Russian Mir station. At one time she had spent longer in space than any other American.

In Christa McAuliffe was chosen as the first Teacher in Space as an effort to open space up to everyday people. Her death in the Challenger accident shortly after launch was a sobering reminder that space flight will always be dangerous, never routine.

Helen Sharman, a chemist, became the first Briton in space on a 1991 Russian flight to the Mir space station.

Roberta Bondar, a Neurologist, became the first Canadian woman in space in 1992.

Jan Davis, along with husband Mark Lee, were the first married couple to fly together in space, in 1992.

Chiaki Mukai became the first Japanese woman in space on a 1994 space shuttle flight.

Every American woman astronaut before Eileen Collins had been in essence a passenger on the space shuttle. They did important science and engineering work, but they never flew the spacecraft. Eileen Collins, former test pilot, in 1995 became the first woman to pilot the shuttle. In 1999 she became the first woman space shuttle commander.

Susan Kilrain became the second woman to pilot the shuttle, in 1997.

Pam Melroy was the third woman to pilot the shuttle, and in 2007 became the second woman space shuttle commander.

Susan Helms (left) was a member of the second crew of the International Space Station in 2001, and the first woman crew member. At her right is astronaut Janet L. Kavandi. 

Most spacefarers work for someone else and are paid to fly in space. Anousheh Ansari paid her own way in 2006 on a flight to the International Space Station, in the process also becoming the  first Iranian woman in space.

Peggy Whitson became the first woman commander of the International Space Station on her flight in 2017.

As the backup to Christa McAuliffe, Barbara Morgan fulfilled McAuliffe’s mission as the first educator astronaut by flying in space in 2007.

South Korea’s Yi So-Yeon became the first Korean in space on a 2008 Russian mission to the International Space Station.

China has become the third nation (after Russia and America) capable of launching people into 
orbit. In 2012 Liu Yang became the first Chinese woman in space.

Samantha Cristoforetti became first Italian woman in space on a 2004 mission to the International Space Station.

Patty Robertson was selected as a NASA astronaut in 1998, and died in a plane crash in 2001 before ever making it to space. She is fondly remembered by her many astronaut colleagues.