06 Mar 2023
by Archie Breare

Women who changed space exploration

techUK wants to commemorate pioneering women who made space exploration as we know it possible.

2023 marks the 60th anniversary of the first woman to reach space, Valentina Tereshkova, and the 40th anniversary of the first American woman in space, Sally Ride. techUK has an active space and satellite programme, and we recently hosted our Space Finance and Tech Summit with the D Group.

Valentina Tereshkova

On 16 June 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to reach space. Tereshkova had been chosen for training due to her hobby as a parachutist, meaning she would be comfortable with the individual parachute descent at the end of every early Soviet spaceflight.

Tereshkova’s flight inspired an increase of girls studying STEM subjects in the Soviet Union during the 1960s. However, it would be 18 years until Svetlana Savitskaya became the second woman in space.

Sally Ride and the Group VIII Astronauts

Sally Ride was the first American woman in space in 1983. She was part of the first cohort of Astronauts selected for training that did not contain only white men, alongside five other women: Anna Fisher Judith Reznick, Shannon Lucid, Margaret Seddon and Kathryn Sullivan.

The Astronauts faced training programmes, equipment and routines designed for men, and had to press for changes so they had suitable equipment and support for living in space. Women in future would have to press for far fewer changes thanks to the Group VIII Astronauts.

The cancellation of the first joint-spacewalk by two women in 2019 though, due to a shortage of suits in the right size, suggests there is still progress to be made in ensuring women in space have the equipment they need.

‘Computers’ at the Langley Research Centre

Of course, a woman doesn’t have to go to space to change space travel. A fantastic group of pioneering women who never went to space include the Langley Research Centre’s ‘computers’ in the 1940s and 1950s.

This group of women, who did a significant number of the calculations needed for space flight, were largely African American, who faced discrimination due to their skin colour as well as their gender.

While an amazing group of women collectively, some of the most prominent of the Langley Research Centre computers include Mary Jackson, the first black woman to be an engineer at NASA (when only 0.5% of engineers at NASA were women), and later a key figure in increasing NASA’s diversity and helping ensure women received opportunities she was denied;

Dorothy Vaughan, the first black supervisor at NASA’s predecessor, NACA;

Miriam Mann, a computer who actively fought the racism and sexism found in the workplace by removing segregation signs.Miriam Mann, a computer who actively fought the racism and sexism found in the workplace by removing segregation signs.

Katherine Johnson, who was responsible for calculations that made possible the first American orbital spaceflights, the Apollo missions and the Space Shuttle programme.

Judith Love Cohen and Apollo 13

The story of Apollo 13 is a near-legendary tale, popularised by the Hollywood movie of the same name. However, one character missing from the film was the engineer Judith Love Cohen.

Cohen was one of the key designers of the Abort Guidance System, which the Astronauts relied on to get home. Without Cohen’s contribution both before and during the mission, the Apollo 13 Astronauts may not have made it back to Earth.

After retiring from NASA, Cohen published books encouraging girls to study STEM subjects.

Holly Ridings

Even in the 21st century, there are still heights women are only just reaching at NASA and in spaceflight. Holly Ridings was announced as the first woman Chief Flight Director at NASA, responsible for the 32 flight directors who oversee all human space flight, in 2018. She was confirmed last year to be joining the leadership of NASA’s gateway programme, which aims to establish a lunar space station to enable further space exploration

There are countless women without whom, space flight as we know it would not have been possible. While recognising there’s still a way to go before full equality in space for women, we still want to salute those who have helped pioneer the place of women beyond the final frontier!

techUK is marching forward to close the tech gender gap in 2023. Throughout March, coinciding with International Women’s Day (IWD 2023) on 8 March, we are exploring how we embrace equitable workplaces. The UN’s theme for IWD 2023 focuses on Digital for All or DigitALL, and we are proud to support this.

For more information, please visit our Women in Tech hub.

Blog CTA WiT 3.png

Skills, Talent and Diversity updates

Sign-up to get the latest updates and opportunities from our Skills, Talent and Diversity programme.


Related topics


Archie Breare

Archie Breare

Team Assistant - Policy and Public Affairs, techUK

Archie Breare | LinkedIn