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Meet the female astronauts who changed the world

NASA's class of '78 were its first female recruits – but their attempts at diversity have been brought back down to Earth since then

Female astronauts nasa 1978

Forty years ago this month Nasa recruited its first female astronauts. Since then, only 10 per cent of the 555 people catapulted into space have been women. Last year there were none.

It was the Russians who first enabled one small step for womankind, when Valentina Tereshkova blasted off on Vostok 6 in 1963. It was another 19 years before fellow female cosmonaut, Svetlana Savitskaya, followed her. The first woman sent by Nasa, Sally Ride, lifted off in 1983.

Nasa’s attempts at diversity have been brought back down to Earth in the four decades since this groundbreaking class of ’78, which also included the first African-American and Asian-American astronauts.

Recent intakes have contained equal numbers of women and men: women now comprise 34 per cent of active astronauts at Nasa. In May, Jeanette J Epps will become the first African-American crew member on the International Space Station when she launches as a flight engineer on Expedition 56.

This year will also see the advent of private space explorers, so the six men currently inhabiting the space station could soon find themselves in more diverse company high above the world. Meet the class of 1978 below (left to right, back row then front).

1978 women astronauts NASA
tfng_astronaut_class_1978_women
(From top left) Kathryn Sullivan, Shannon Lucid, Anna Lee Fisher, Judith Resnik, Sally Ride, Margaret Seddon

Kathryn Sullivan 

The first American woman to perform a spacewalk. Sullivan’s trip aboard the Discovery shuttle included deploying the Hubble Space Telescope.

Shannon Lucid 

The only American woman to visit Russia’s MIR Space Station, in 1996. She had her own module and toilet for the six-month stay. On return, President Clinton praised her achievement as “a monument to the human spirit”.

Anna Lee Fisher 

The first mother in space, she was assigned her first flight two weeks before the birth of her oldest daughter. Her long career meant for a time she was the oldest active American astronaut, before retiring aged 67 last year. She was the last of the original group of space shuttle astronauts to work for the agency.

Judith Resnik

The first Jewish-American woman in space. She died in the Challenger disaster in 1986.

Sally Ride 

The first American woman in space, the first LGBT person in space and the youngest American astronaut to travel to space at age 32. Ride, who died in 2012, featured in the Women of Nasa Lego set.

Margaret Seddon 

Became half of the first marriage between astronauts when she wed Robert L Gibson. Her 14-day mission aboard Space Shuttle Columbia was recognised by Nasa as the most successful and efficient Spacelab flight flown by NASA, with the crew’s medical experiments on themselves and 48 rats furthering our understanding of human and animal physiology.

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