On June 16, 1963, Russia edged ahead in the Space Race with the United States when 26-year-old Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to go into space.
Soon after, the US press launched a counteroffensive, publicly denigrating Tereshkova, as Loren Grush explains in “The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Women Astronauts” (Scribner).
“Articles highlighted her ‘plump figure’ and her infrequent application of lipstick,” she writes. Chris Kraft, a NASA flight director who would become the head of the Manned Spacecraft Center, described Tereshkova as “an absolute basket case when she was in orbit” and “nothing but hysterical.”
Such responses, argues Grush, were typical of NASA’s reluctance to consider women for their astronaut training scheme.
Indeed, the very idea that women could ever become astronauts was seen not just as unlikely but even comical.
In 1963, Robert Voas, NASA’s resident astronaut trainer, joked that having women onboard spacecraft would help to reduce the weight of the spacecraft but “only if they left their purses behind.”
His colleague Randy Lovelace, NASA’s Director of Space Medicine, meanwhile, could see women in space, but only as secretaries on space stations.
One article, published by the Associated Press, even argued that women would be needed on long space trips as “the question of man’s sexual needs on flights lasting two or three years has to be considered.”
Essentially, Grush writes, “The only way people could conceive of women going into space was if they provided some kind of release or assistance for the male crewmates.”
By the mid-1970s, however, questions were being asked of NASA and its discriminatory recruitment process.
In 1978, they relaxed their rules for applicants and allowed women and those without military test pilot experience.
On January 18, 1978, NASA announced the 35 new astronauts that would form NASA Astronaut Group 8. It was a groundbreaking crew.
“Among the selected, three were African American and one was Asian American, making them NASA’s first astronauts of color,” writes Grush.
“Also within the group: America’s first six women.”
Sally Ride, Judy Resnik, Anna Fisher, Kathy Sullivan, Shannon Lucid, and Rhea Seddon had undergone the toughest of training programs — including flying Navy fighter jets — fought misogyny and discrimination along the way, and emerged at the other end as trailblazers for a new generation of space travelers.
Their backgrounds were as impressive as they were diverse.
Sullivan was an oceanographer and Resnik an electrical engineer, while Lucid was a chemist and Ride an astrophysicist.
Fisher and Seddon were both physicians.
Gaining respect and acceptance wasn’t easy.
“As much as they tried, the women could only control their narratives so much,” writes Grush.
Magazines would talk about their marital status and their ages, heights, and weight.
Newspapers, such as the Midnight Globe, referred to them as “Glamournauts” and NASA’s “eye-popping space gals.”
On TV, chat show hosts couldn’t help themselves either.
“Imagine a woman astronaut two million light-years out in space,” Johnny Carson quipped to his audience. “She says, ‘My God, I forgot to leave a note for the milkman.’ ”
Despite the cynicism, all six would make it into orbit.
On June 18, 1983, Ride became the first American woman to go into space when she lifted off on the Space Shuttle Challenger’s second mission.
Aged 32, she was also the youngest ever astronaut.
In October 1984, Sullivan performed the first extravehicular activity (EVA) by an American when she took a 3.5-hour spacewalk.
Lucid and Seddon both enjoyed successful missions on the Space Shuttle Discovery, both in 1985.
Fisher also had a successful mission on Discovery, in November 1984.
Before she lifted off, she recorded a series of videos for her daughter just in case she never returned.
But it was Resnik who met tragedy.
Having successfully completed a mission on Discovery in 1984, she took her place alongside six other astronauts on Challenger’s 10th mission in January 1986.
Tragically, just 73 seconds into the flight, disaster struck and the shuttle exploded.
“The scale of it was unimaginable,” writes Grush. “Seven people were gone in an instant.”
But, the pioneering legacy of Resnik and “The Six” lives on.
Every NASA astronaut class since 1978 has included women.
In 1992, Mae Jemison became the first black women astronaut while Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle in 1995, later becoming the first female commander of a Space Shuttle mission.
And women are increasingly front and center in NASA’s thinking.
In 2017, for example, NASA launched the Artemis program, which aims to send humans back to the moon for the first time in more than half a century — something that no woman has ever done.
“That means among the current members of NASA’s corps is the first woman who will walk on the moon,” writes Grush.
“All she’s waiting on is her selection.”
This story originally appeared on NY Post