18 Famous Women Who Explored Space-Their stories told.

On May 26, 1951, a girl born in Encino, California would grow up to become the first American woman in space. Though Sally Ride later inspired a whole generation of women to follow in her footsteps, she actually came from a long history of female astronomers and explorers.


From the women who looked skyward centuries ago, to those who continue the legacy, here are 18 pioneers who left their mark on the world and in the stars.


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Alexandria, Egypt
Born c. 350-70; died 415 AD

Hypatia was a mathematician, astronomer, and Neo-platonic philosopher. Her father, the philosopher Theon, was a math professor and taught Hypatia everything he could about the sciences and philosophy, which eventually led to her securing a job at the Library of Alexandria. She also taught and wrote books on math, philosophy, and astronomy.

Hypatia designed an astrolabe and used it to chart the position of stars in the sky. She remains one of the earliest known female astronomers.

Sadly, Hypatia met her end when a Christian mob—who claimed she was a witch—murdered her. Some reports suggest she was killed on the orders of Cyril, a staunch Christian and the patriarch of Alexandria.


2 of 18 Aglaonice

Thessaly, Greece
Birthdate unknown

Aglaonice was considered the first female astronomer in ancient Greece who focused her studies on the moon’s cyclical patterns.

Her lunar eclipse predictions were so accurate that many claimed she was a sorceress who had the power to hide the moon and make it reappear at her whim.

Due to her ‘magical’ reputation, Aglaonice became known as the leader of group of female astronomers called the “Witches of Thessaly.” There is a crater on Venus named after her that measures 38.9 miles in diameter.


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Queen Seondeok of Silla

Silla (South Korea)
Born c. 595-610; died 647

Queen Seondeok (also stylized as Sondok) ruled Silla, one of the three Korean Kingdoms at the time, from 632 to 647—the first female ever do so in Korea.

Seondeok was instrumental in the construction of the 30-foot tall Cheomseongdae (“star-gazing tower”) Observatory, in 634. The Observatory is Asia’s oldest, longest-standing structure of its kind and was designated as one of South Korea’s National Treasures.

Seondeok, who never married or had children to inherit her throne, died of an unknown illness and her cousin, Jindeok, became her successor. Queen Jindeok was the second female ruler in Silla.


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Sophia Brahe

Born 1556; died 1643

Although Brahe was born in Sweden, she was raised as a Danish noble because her father served as advisor to the king of Denmark.

Brahe helped her brother, Tycho, with his observations of the stars and helped him create what would serve as the foundation for today’s predictions for planetary orbit.

Because Sophia Tycho were nobles, their family expressed disdain at their interest in the sciences. Tycho encouraged his sister to continue learning, but to avoid astronomy to appease their family. She refused.

Brahe spent her own money to translate German and Latin texts so she could continue her studies in astronomy. She also studied horticulture and had an interest in medicine and chemistry.

Tycho and Sophia jointly discovered a supernova in the Cassiopeia constellation, which was named “Nova Stella.”


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Wang Zhenyi

Born 1768; died 1797

Zhenyi was a Chinese astronomer, mathematician, and author of texts on the cosmos including Dispute of the Processions of the Equinoxes, Dispute of Longitude and Stars, and The Explanation of a Lunar Eclipse.

She lived during the Qing Dynasty and was self-educated, studying medicine, math, and geography in addition to astronomy.

Zhenyi was especially well-versed in both solar and lunar eclipses and the direction in which the planets revolved. One of her experiments consisted of creating a model of the Earth, Sun, and Moon (which she made using everyday items like a table and mirror) and acted as a visual aid to show people how eclipses worked.

Zhenyi’s research and writings, which included an easier-to-understand rewrite of the previously printed Principles of Calculation by a mathematician she admired, made her an acclaimed scholar.


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Maria Mitchell

Born 1818; died 1889

Mitchell was the first American female astronomer. She discovered a comet in 1847, which made her an overnight celebrity and led to her eventual election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was the only woman to hold a position at the academy until 1943.

In 1865, Mitchell became a professor of astronomy at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie where she was named the director of Vassar’s Observatory.

When she discovered that her male colleagues were making more money than her, she asked for equal pay—and got it. In 1888, Mitchell decided to retire and died just a year later. To honor her groundbreaking strides, an asteroid, the 1455 Mitchella, and a crater on the Moon (Mitchell) were named after her.


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The Harvard Computers

The Harvard Computers were a group of women who analyzed images of the stars in the sky in order to categorize and better understand space.

One of the first women to become a “computer” was Williamina Fleming, the maid of Harvard Observatory’s director, Edward Charles Pickering.

Fleming is credited with discovering the Horsehead Nebula and creating a classification system for stars based on their temperature. Fleming’s efforts were instrumental in the 1890 publication of the Draper Catalogue of Stellar Spectra, which detailed the brightness, star type, and position of 10,000+ stars.

Another ‘computer’ was Annie Jump Cannon, a suffragist and successor to Edward Pickering. Cannon’s accomplishments include admittance to the Royal Astronomical Society in 1914, and an honorary doctorate from Groningen University in the Netherlands in 1921.

Fleming, Cannon, and company worked six days a week for a meager salary of 25 to 50 cents and hour—much less than their male counterparts.

Other prominent Harvard Computers include Antonia Maury, Anna Winlock, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Florence Cushman, Mary Anna Palmer Draper.


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Katherine Johnson

Born 1918

Johnson’s calculations were instrumental in paving the path for the first and subsequent missions to send humans into space.

Johnson was a human computer who helped NASA develop computer programs to work on the calculations that she was completing manually, like wind gust alleviation.

When NASA was finally confident in the ability of its computers to complete calculations, John Glenn’s orbit was one of the first missions left to digital. Glenn refused to fly unless Johnson confirmed the computer’s calculations.

In 1986, Johnson retired from NASA, and in 2015, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award offered in the U.S. Taraji P. Henson played Johnson in 2016’s Hidden Figures.


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Valentina Tereshkova

Born 1937

In 1963, Tereshkova became the very first woman in space. She boarded the Vostok 6, a Soviet spacecraft, and spent nearly three whole days in space. The barrier-breaking trip saw her orbit Earth 48 times before coming back home.

Tereshkova had no experience as a pilot before she was chosen to join the Soviet space program. However, her extensive experience parachute jumping (126 jumps to be exact) gave her an edge over the competition, because astronauts at the time had to parachute from their ships right before landing upon their return to Earth.

For nearly 40 years, the secret of Tereshkova’s near-crash remained classified. When her craft re-entered the Earth’s orbit, an error in the navigation software began moving her ship away from Earth. Tereshkova alerted the ground team, who fixed the algorithm, and the craft was able to safely land near today’s border between Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China.


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Valerie Thomas

Born 1943

Thomas invented and patented the 3D Illusion Transmitter, which makes 3D TVs, MRIs, and other imaging possible. NASA still uses it today.

In the 1970s, Thomas managed the historic Landsat satellite program, which was the first satellite to send photos of space back to Earth.

She also assisted in developing program designs that helped further the research on Halley’s Comet. Plus, her computer program designs helped develop research on the ozone layer and satellite tech.

Thomas was the recipient of multiple awards including NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Award of Merit and the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal. In 1995, she retired from NASA.


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Margaret Hamilton

Born 1936

Hamilton was 24 when she started working at MIT as a programmer. She would eventually join the Charles Stark Draper Lab on campus and work on the Apollo space mission. Hamilton and her team were tasked with developing in-flight software—the same software that would eventually help put a man on the moon. Hamilton is credited for coining the term “software engineering.”

Hamilton was a dedicated scientist and mother—she would often bring her daughter to work with her. While her daughter napped, Hamilton plugged away. In reference to her own work and the work of her team, Hamilton said, “there was no choice but to be pioneers,” and that’s exactly what she was.

In 2016, former Obama presented Hamilton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her tireless work.


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Sally Ride

Born 1951; died 2012

In the summer of 1983, Ride became the first American woman to go into space aboard the Challenger space shuttle, and the third woman to go into space overall (the other two were from the USSR).

Ride, a Stanford graduate, participated in two separate space voyages, having launched in the Challenger again in the fall of 1984. This second mission kept Ride in space for nine days, during which she used the robotic arm attached to the shuttle to remove chunks of ice that were stuck to the ship.

Ride was set to head out on a third mission that was cancelled due to the tragic Challenger explosion in 1986. Sadly, in 2012, she died of pancreatic cancer.


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Mae Carol Jemison

Born 1956

Jemison was the first African American woman in space. She was part of the crew that rode on the Endeavour shuttle during its second mission.

Jemison, inspired by Ride’s jaunt into space, applied to NASA’s astronaut program and was selected as one of 15 candidates out of a pool of 2,000+ people. Mae’s yearlong training paid off when, in 1992, she was orbited the Earth 126 times aboard the Endeavour.

In 1993, Jemison left NASA and began teaching at Dartmouth. She also founded the Jemison Group—a company that encourages students to study the sciences—as well as an international science camp called The Earth We Share (TEWS) for teens.


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Sharon Christa McAuliffe

Born 1948; died 1986

McAuliffe beat out 11,000+ applicants in a NASA competition to become the first teacher sent to space. The announcement was made by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.

In early 1986, McAuliffe’s family and friends were at the Kennedy Space Center eagerly awaiting the launch of the Challenger, which was supposed to carry McAuliffe and six others up into space. McAuliffe’s students in Concord, NH., were also watching the launch when tragedy struck.

The Challenger exploded less than two minutes after lift off, killing everyone onboard. McAuliffe received a posthumous Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

The Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in New Hampshire and Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center in Utah were named in her honor.


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Peggy Whitson

Born 1960

In 2008, Whitson (second from the bottom in the photo) became the first woman to command the International Space Station (ISS). Her career with NASA saw her spend 665 days in space, the most time for any NASA astronaut.

She also holds the record for most spacewalks by a woman with 10 departures from the ISS totaling 60 hours and 21 minutes, and recently became the oldest woman astronaut to reach orbit in 2016 at the age of 56.

Not all of her records were attained in space, though. Whitson was also the first woman to serve as the chief of NASA’s Astronaut Corps, a title she held from 2009 to 2012. She retired from NASA in the summer of 2018.


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Katie Bouman

Born 1989

Last month, the Event Horizon Telescope captured the first-ever image of a black hole—a scientific revolution that was made possible by a dedicated team of researchers, engineers, scientists, and so many more.

One member of the team who made the photo possible was Bouman, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard who assisted in creating the code that helped capture the image.

Bouman, whose background is in computer science and electrical engineering, was interested in “coming up with ways to see or measure things that are invisible.” Mission accomplished.


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Jill Tarter

Born 1944

As an astronomer and co-founder of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, Tarter is one of the foremost researchers seeking to find life on other planets.

Tarter attended Cornell as an undergraduate in the school’s engineering program—the only woman in a class of 300 students. When she attended grad school at UC Berkeley, the head of the astronomy department said that Tarter and the other two female students were lucky that there was room for them in the program since so many men were drafted for Vietnam.

Tarter has dedicated her life to exploring the mysteries of the cosmos. Her thirst for knowledge and tireless work have earned her numerous awards including the Adler Planetarium Women in Space Science Award (2003), two public service medals from NASA, a spot on Time‘s 2004 list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

In 2005, Asteroid 74824 Tarter was named after her.


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Ellen Ochoa

Born 1958

Ochoa (left) attended San Diego State and received a Bachelor’s in physics before moving on to obtain a Master’s and Ph.D in electrical engineering from Stanford.

In 1988, she began working at NASA and moved up to serve as the 11th director of the Johnson Space Center. She was the Center’s first Hispanic director in addition to being its second female leader ever.

Ochoa was also the first Hispanic woman to go into space when she was selected to become an astronaut and had her first mission aboard the Discovery shuttle in 1993–a mission that lasted nine days.

She’s been to space four times and has logged almost 1,000 orbit hours, to boot.

Henry Sapiecha

How to Help 30 Million Girls Build Careers in STEM

stem-signage image

Around the world and across every industry, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are profoundly transforming society. Computers, transistors, data, and algorithms-and the experts who build and utilize these powerful technologies-are propelling communities and markets forward. Simply put, STEM workers are our world’s change agents, which is why the gender imbalance in the STEM community must be urgently addressed.

More than half of all college graduates are women[1], but according to the American Association of University Women, women earn only 20 percent of physics, engineering, and computer science bachelor’s degrees.[2] Women make up nearly half the total U.S. workforce, but just a quarter of the STEM workforce.[3]

STEM is the work of tomorrow, and it is today’s path to success. STEM employment is predicted to balloon by almost 17 percent between 2010 and 2020.[4] So why aren’t women pursuing STEM degrees and careers? Is it because they are not great at math? Are they disinterested in science? Of course not. Millions of girls and young women would earn STEM degrees and pursue STEM careers if they had one simple thing: encouragement.

Today, only 15 percent of high school girls in the U.S. express interest in pursuing STEM college majors or careers (compared to 40 percent of high school boys).[5] This is unacceptable. It is our responsibility to make sure that all girls can find a place in STEM. We need to encourage and support them as they begin their STEM education, and transition into a STEM career. But without an organized program, it’s difficult for professionals to know how to help and connect with these young women.

Enter Million Women Mentors (MWM), a STEMconnector® initiative. MWM is a collaborative effort between 60 national partners to provide over 30 million girls and women worldwide with STEM mentors. MWM will support one million STEM mentors-so far, 500,000 have pledged to mentor-to increase girls’ interest in pursuing STEM education and careers, and give them the confidence they need to thrive.

Through an automated, scalable and easy-to-use platform, MWM eliminates the obstacles that have stymied past efforts of similar scope. MWM’s program gives STEM professionals a choice of mentorship opportunities (face-to-face, online, paid internships or apprenticeships, workplace mentoring, or sponsorship) in order to reach and assist young women of all demographics.

PepsiCo chairs MWM’s global leadership council, and is committed to addressing the challenge of helping young women find careers in STEM. In 2015, PepsiCo boosted its MWM participation by mobilizing over 100 mentors in the United States. In addition, PepsiCo launched MWM’s first pilot program outside the U.S, in Mexico. Over the course of the 2015-2016 school year, 36 volunteer mentors will pair with a first-year STEM student from Universidad Iberoamericana. In 2016, this program will be replicated by other universities, high schools, and companies. PepsiCo’s goal is to sponsor 1,000 mentors in areas beyond the U.S. and Mexico, including France, Poland, and Dubai.

Together, MWM and PepsiCo had a vision for a STEM revolution-one mentor, and one girl, at a time. We’ve already seen some amazing progress, but imagine what could happen if every STEM professional made a commitment to mentoring one-on-one for just two hours a month. We could truly change the game.

Maya Angelou once said, “In order to be a mentor, and an effective one, one must care.” We all care about the phones in our hands, the computers on our desks, and the cars that we drive. But we must care even more about the girls who want to invent, explore, and discover the next generation of amazing STEM breakthroughs, but who just need a little encouragement to do so.

We can be the catalyst, and these girls can-and will-build the future.

[1] U.S. Department of Commerce: Economics and Statistics Administration


[3] U.S. Department of Commerce: Economics and Statistics Administration

[4] The White House Council on Women and Girls 2012

[5]®/STEMconnector Cooperative Research Program (2015)


Henry Sapiecha

Science Week: UNSW moves to strengthen women’s role in science.Read more for video.

Here’s a paradox. How does science move beyond the gender stereotypes holding women back even as it celebrates the particular qualities they bring to scientific endeavour?

As National Science Week started, it was such matters that some of Australia’s finest minds pondered at a University of NSW symposium celebrating women’s leadership in science.



scientists (from left) Professor Veena Sahajwalla, Dr Rebecca Johnson, Professor Emma Johnston and Professor Angela Moles. image

Stereotype-busting scientists (from left) Professor Veena Sahajwalla, Dr Rebecca Johnson, Professor Emma Johnston and Professor Angela Moles. Photo: Brendan Esposito

“There is a paradox,” Professor Emma Johnston said. Professor Johnston is head of the applied marine and estuarine ecology lab at UNSW and runs the Sydney Harbour Research Program at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science.

“On the one hand we want to let more women into the system and we know that we need to change the system for that to happen. On the other hand we want the system itself to be accepting of women who are not necessarily ‘super high caring’. We want them to be able to succeed in science as well.

“So it’s about increasing diversity. We don’t want to constrain everybody to work within the stereotypes that already exist.”

Scientists pondered the question of gender stereotypes at a symposium supporting more women achieving in science image

Scientists pondered the question of gender stereotypes at a symposium supporting more women achieving in science. Photo: Brendan Esposito

More than 200 women and men gathered on Friday at UNSW to celebrate women’s leadership in science. As well as an abundance of people who simply loved their jobs, the overwhelming theme was about supporting more women achieving in science.

A look at the figures is sobering.

More than 50 per cent of science PhDs and early career graduates are women. Yet, according to the Office of the Chief Scientist, only 17 per cent of senior science academics in Australian universities and research institutes are women.

Louise McSorley, acting head of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, told the conference that there is a 26 per cent pay gap between men and women in the sciences. And while women make up 61.4 per cent of science employment, just 27.6 per cent of key management jobs are held by women.

UNSW’s Professor Johnston said that alongside broader social pressures, “these add up to cause real bottle necks in the system. We have a very low number of women in higher levels of academia.”

Professor Angela Moles, head of the Big Ecology Lab at UNSW, said: “If you don’t have women [involved in science] then you’re really wasting a lot of amazing talent.”

The call for diversity is backed by Dr Rebecca Johnson, director of the Australian Museum Research Institute. She said: “An ecosystem is nothing without its diversity, and the same could be applied to science.”

Gender disparity in the natural and physical sciences at the higher academic levels (B to E) chart image

Gender disparity in the natural and physical sciences at the higher academic levels (B to E). Photo: Higher Education Research Data Collection 2012, Department of Education

UNSW Scientia Professor Veena Sahajwalla agreed. She said: “Women bring along a whole diversity of thinking – that lateral ability to bring across a whole range of ideas.”

Professor Johnston said that by including more women in science “you’re tapping into a different set of cultural values and different ways of working that can be beneficial. We know that diversity in the workplace actually increases productivity: it increases the rate at which problems get solved and science is all about solving problems.”

​So how can the current situation change?

Professor Moles said that a cultural shift in the roles of fathers “would have benefits for women, for men and for children”. “I’d like to see dads get more involved” in parenting.

She said it’s also about having role models: “It’s important that the women coming up through the ranks have good, positive role models.”

Professor Johnston agrees: “Unless you can see someone in front of you that you can identify with … you lose confidence, you lose the willingness to try. So if we don’t have women in science in leadership positions as role models, we won’t get the next generation of women through.”

And it seems there are changes afoot.

At the symposium UNSW Vice-Chancellor Ian Jacobs announced that his university had set itself the goal of appointing 100 female professors over the next 10 years. He also committed the university to involvement in the pilot Athena SWAN Charter program to promote women in science leadership roles.

This month the Australian Academy of Science is launching a two-year pilot involving up to 20 Australian universities, research institutes and government science organisations based on the British program, launched in 2005. The pilot will be overseen by the Science in Australia Gender Equity initiative, SAGE.

The program will require participants to collect, analyse and present data on gender equity policies and practices in science, technology, engineering and mathematics departments. Participants will also need to identify gaps and opportunities for improvement.

Those involved in the pilot will work towards an Athena SWAN Award at the Institutional Bronze level, which is a mandatory requirement for future Silver and Gold awards at the institutional and departmental levels.

In Britain, medical research institutes must hold a silver Athena SWAN award in order to receive research funds. (8)

Henry Sapiecha