Rad Women Of History is a series devoted to making sure your kids know that their mom wasn’t the first female badass, no matter what history books tell them.
When your daughter says she wants to be an astronaut when she grows up, she probably knows mostly about the adventurous dudes that came before: Neil Armstrong. Buzz Aldrin. Buzz Lightyear. For too long the women of NASA have been overlooked. These are ladies like Katherine Johnson who saved Apollo 13; Peggy Whitson who spent a year in orbit; and Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space. Introduce your daughter to these 11 astronomically successful ladies to ensure that the future isn’t just about boldly going where no man has gone before.
In the 50s, Johnson was known as a NASA human “computer”, performing calculations for flight trajectories — by hand! (For comparison, you can’t leave a tip without your iPhone.) She calculated the flight for Alan Shepard. She calculated the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. But the biggest oversight is that Johnson was the one who made sure Apollo 13 made it home safely. (According to the movie, that was all Gary Sinise.) Fortunately, in just the past year President Obama awarded her the National Medal of Freedom and filming just started on Hidden Figures, a movie about Johnson and her African-American NASA colleagues.
If your space-obsessed daughter doesn’t already know Sally Ride, you failed “introducing positive female role models” 101. Here’s the one line Cliff’s Notes: First American woman in space. (There’d be a mic drop after that, but in space, no one can hear you mic drop.) Unfortunately, being the first female NASA astronaut also meant being the first NASA astronaut to deal with sexist questions like, “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?” and “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” Houston, we have an eye roll.
Eileen Collins was the first female pilot of a NASA space shuttle when her colleagues were making jokes about asking for directions. Note that she was making history before she joined the space program: In 1978, Collins was one of 4 women selected for Undergraduate Pilot Training at Vance Air Force Base. In 1989 she became the second female pilot to attend the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School. In 2005, she piloted the mission to resupply the International Space Station, and became the first pilot to execute a complete 360-degree rendezvous pitch maneuver — without a barf bag!
Following a successful career as a Peace Corps doctor, Mae Jemison became the first African American woman in space in 1992. She served as the Mission Specialist on the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s second flight. And — fun fact — one of her biggest inspirations was Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek. (Apparently, she’d say “Hailing frequencies open” throughout the Endeavor’s mission, even though they never encounter a Roman vessel.) The story has a happy ending, because her fangirl dream came true. Just check out Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 6: episode “Second Chances.”
Kalpana Chawla was the first Indian-born woman and second Indian person ever to travel to space. She took 2 trips on the Space Shuttle Columbia, and conducted nearly 80 experiments. Chawla and the crew of the Columbia died when it broke apart in reentry, but her achievements have been honored with posthumous awards including the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the NASA Space Flight Medal, and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. She’s also credited with one of the deeper thoughts ever on zero gravity, of which she said you’re so light, “You are just your intelligence.”
In 1993, Ellen Ochoa became the first Hispanic woman in space while serving on a 9-day mission aboard the Discovery shuttle. Today, she’s the first Hispanic and second female Director of the Johnson Space Center, where NASA manages spaceflight training, research, and flight control. But she’s not just about that Astronaut life. Ochoa has 3 patents from her research work at NASA and played classical flute with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra. She’s so well-rounded, she’s basically orbiting.
Peggy Whitson is NASA’s most experienced female astronaut, with over 376 days in space. She’s also a former NASA Chief Astronaut, the first female commander of the International Space Station, and holds the current record for woman with the most spacewalks. The only ceiling she hasn’t shattered is the one in a space shuttle. Because that would be bad.
Nicole Aunapu Mann, Anne McClain, Jessica Meir, and Christina Hammock Koch
These 4 women are part of NASA’s most recent class of astronauts, which was the first to be half female. In a double whammy of history making, they’re also the first astronauts that could be eligible for an expedition to Mars. And while that mission is still at least 15 years in the making, they’re already training in Houston, working on the rockets, rovers, and the spacesuits they’ll need for the trip. By the time your daughter’s a teenager, these ladies could be on their way to rescue Matt Damon.