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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.

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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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Hypatia

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.

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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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Cheomseongdae

Image Brendan O’RourkeGetty Images
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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image

Gavnø
Sophia Brahe

Sweden
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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Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG  Getty Images
Wang Zhenyi

China
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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Bettmann Getty Images
Maria Mitchell

U.S.
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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Boston Globe Getty Images
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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Alex Wong Getty Images
Katherine Johnson

U.S.
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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Heritage Images Getty Images
Valentina Tereshkova

Russia
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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NASA
Valerie Thomas

U.S.
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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Nur Photo Getty Images
Margaret Hamilton

U.S.
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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Bettmann Getty Images
Sally Ride

U.S.
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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Science & Society Picture Library Getty Images
Mae Carol Jemison

U.S.
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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Encyclopaedia Britannica Getty Images
Sharon Christa McAuliffe

U.S.
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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Bill Ingalls/NASA Getty Images
Peggy Whitson

U.S.
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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Handout Getty Images
Katie Bouman

U.S.
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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Phillip Faraone Getty Images
Jill Tarter

U.S.
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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Interim Archives Getty Images
Ellen Ochoa

U.S.
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.

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