We are sung to about the stars from birth; we grow up eating Milky Ways; and the other week, a grown man actually sent a sports car into orbit. Space is the place. It exerts a mighty pull on our imaginations – and on the determination of a select bunch of spacemen who have dared venture beyond the pull of earth’s gravity. Yet also too, on a band of bold interplanetary women.
For let’s not forget that 59 of the 559 people who have ever been in space, have been women. And breaching the final frontier is a little more challenging than breaking the glass ceiling down here: these fearless femmes had to blast through the earth’s atmosphere to prove that anything men could do, women could match.
The trailblazer, Valentina Tereshkova, is a name for girls to conjure with. In 1963, at the age of 26, the Russian skydiver and then cosmonaut became the first woman to make it in to space. She is still the only female to complete a solo mission. She orbited the earth 48 times and narrowly averted disaster on her return to earth. Although she never made it back out there, being something of a poster girl rather scientist, she never stopped dreamed of doing so. Only a few years ago (she has just turned 81) she volunteered for a one-way trip to Mars, on what was described as ‘a suicide trip’.
It was another two decades before America thought about addressing space travel’s ‘woman problem’ by catapulting their first woman astronaut into the cosmos. Sally Ride took a ride on Challenger in 1983 and 1984. It hadn’t been an easy journey getting there, though: she was told she was ‘wasted on science’ as a school girl. But she persisted. And even when the stars were within reach, she was still asked questions like, “Do you wish you were a boy?” in interviews. Shrugging off the sexism, the passionate advocate for Stem and fearless fighter for women’s rights was a powerful role model to those millions of young girls with upturned faces.
But other, equally fearless space travellers in Ride’s league at Nasa, are less well-remembered. Have we grown so used to the idea that people can ‘slip the surly bonds of earth’, that the challenges of space travel are no longer daunting? Judith Resnik, for example, who was at Nasa with Ride, was only the fourth woman in space, Kathryn D. Sullivan, was the first American woman to go for a spacewalk and Anna Lee Fisher, was the first mother in space - for which she was vilified. How can you be a proper mother, her critics mocked, if you aren’t even on the same planet as your child?
All of these women – along with the 556 others who rocketed off into the unknown – challenged stereotypes, going, in the eyes of many, against nature. Yelena Serova may have been the first Russian woman to take a flight to the International Space Station, in 2014, yet she was only the latest in a line of women who’ve had to deal with questions about beauty in zero-gravity conditions.
The narrative, though, is changing. The Iranian-born American Anousheh Ansari did have to buy her passage to the stars – to become the first female space tourist – but she did so with the best of intentions: “To inspire everyone - in particular young girls all over the word and in Middle Eastern countries that do not provide women with the same opportunities as men - to not give up their dreams.”
These are words to live our lives by and to whisper to our own little stargazers. And not only on International Women’s Day.