EVER since Valentina Tereshkova, a textile mill worker who enjoyed parachute jumping as a hobby, became the first woman cosmonaut in June 1963, the world has had unconcealed admiration for woman cosmonauts. Tereshkova orbited the earth aboard the Soviet Vostok 6 spacecraft for three days from June 16, 1963. The second woman to go into orbit was also from the Soviet Union - Svetlana Savitskaya flew to the Salyut space station in August 1982.
The United States sent its first woman into space on June 18, 1983, when Sally Ride flew aboard Challenger. The nation cheered her: "Go, Sally Ride, go". Three years later, when Challenger exploded soon after lift-off, Christa McAuliffe became the first woman martyr in humankind's quest to conquer space. The grief and horror on the faces of her students will be always remembered.
Of the 8,000 men and women who applied in the early 1980s, NASA selected 35 people to become astronauts. Of these 35, there were six women one of whom was Dr. Sally Ride. She attended Stanford University, where she received four degrees - a Bachelor's degree in English, a Bachelor of Science and a Master's and a Ph.D. in physics.
Woman astronauts have been achievers in several fields. The first African-American woman to fly into space was Dr. Mae Jemison, who flew in Endeavour on September 12, 1992. She was a medical doctor, had a degree in chemical engineering, and spoke Swahili, Japanese and Russian. She participated in research projects on the hepatitis B vaccine, and on schistosomiasis and rabies. As mission specialist aboard the shuttle, she tested biofeedback processes involving relaxation techniques, to help find out ways of combating motion sickness. She also did experiments on bone cell loss in the space environment.
Dr. Mae Jemison asserted to an Associated Press reporter that her shuttle mission was "important not only for a little Black girl growing up to know, yeah, you become an astronaut because here is Mae Jemison. But it is important for older white males who sometimes make decisions on the careers of those little Black girls."
Mary L. Cleave was another versatile American woman astronaut. She was a mission specialist in the shuttle mission that rocketed to space on November 26, 1985. An M.S. in microbial ecology and a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering, her work included research on subjects such as productivity of the algal component of the cold desert soil crusts in the great Basin desert, south of Snowville, Utah, and the effects of increased salinity and oil shale leachates on fresh water phytoplankton productivity. She has published numerous scientific papers. "We worked hard and had a good time," she commented on her seven days in space, when she was in Chennai in December 1987.
Besides Kalpana Chawla, another Indian American woman who has trained as an astronaut is Sunita L. Williams, who is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy. NASA announced in January that the 37-year-old Sunita Williams, an M.S. in Engineering Management, has been chosen as a back-up crew for the International Space Station Expedition-10. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, she has been a helicopter pilot, a test pilot and a test pilot instructor. NASA said she would train as a Space Station flight engineer. She is based at Needham, Massachusetts.