27 September 1995
- General (Good)
Women in Space
Ansari and the FLATs
by G B Leatherwood
By G.B. Leatherwood

The flight of entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari to the International Space Station deserves special notice: Ansari is the latest in a line of woman who have been to space.

But the list of women could have been longer had the Women in Space program, also known as FLAT (Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees) been made official.

In 1960, Dr. William Lovelace, who designed the tests of physical endurance for the Mercury astronauts, began a research program to determine whether or not women could tolerate the same stresses as men.

Twenty-five female pilots underwent the same physical and psychological evaluations as those endured by males. Of those, 13 women passed the tests and were enrolled in an “unofficial” astronaut training program. They were never officially declared astronaut candidates, nor were they scheduled for space flights.

The following clearly reveals NASA thinking at the time:

NASA management reportedly believed that damaging publicity would be generated if a woman were injured or killed while training for, or participating in, a space flight. It was also believed that the participation of female astronauts in the early space program would divert scarce resources and attention away from male astronauts.”

While laughable today, and possibly insulting even then, women had a major obstacle to overcome to participate as equals in space exploration—not “upper body strength” nor their supposedly fragile nature, but prejudice. And not just that of NASA, which was no doubt simply reflecting the attitudes of the time.

This prejudice was reflected by the Mercury astronauts themselves.

“Astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter testified that the women could not qualify as astronaut candidates. NASA required all astronauts to be graduates of military jet test piloting programs and have engineering degrees. In 1962, no women could meet these requirements.”

Fortunately, standards for women have changed, and women hold the same jobs as men (albeit for slightly less pay).

We may never be able to catalog all the forces that worked to enable women to fly, work, and live in space, but these notable events made it happen:

- 16 June 1963: Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, a civilian parachutist, became the first woman to fly in space aboard Vostok 6.

- 1978: Six women, Judith Resnick, Sally Ride, Shannon Lucid, Rhea Seddon, Kathryn Sullivan, and Anna Fisher were chosen as official astronaut candidates.

- June 1983: Sally Ride becomes the first American woman in space.

- June 1984: cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya becomes the first woman to walk in space. (Savitskaya was the second Russian woman to go to space since Tereshkova.)

- 1992: Kathy Thornton, the second woman to walk in space, holds the record for the longest space walk by a woman as of 2002.

- 1992: Bonnie Dunbar and Ellen Baker were members of the first American crew to dock with the Russian space station.

- Then followed the “ethnic” firsts:
1992: Mae Jemison, first African American woman in space.
1993: Ellen Ochoa, first Hispanic woman in space.
1994: Chiaki Mukai, first Japanese woman in space.

- February 1995: Eileen Collins becomes first woman to pilot a space shuttle.

- 1996: Shannon Lucid returns from six months on Mir, the Russian space station—a record for time in space and for Americans.

- 1998: Nearly 2/3 of the flight control team for STS-95 were women.

- December 1998: Nancy Currie was part of the International Space Station assembly mission.

- July 1999: Eileen Collins became the first woman to command a space shuttle.

As a popular advertisement once said, “We’ve come a long way, baby!” And women have. Once they were “Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees” who were denied equal status with their male competitors. Now they are vital contributors in worldwide space activities.
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G B Leatherwood 27 September 1995
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