This month has seen two suborbital space flights from companies Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. One of the people aboard the Blue Origin flight was Wally Funk, an 82-year old aviator who on that flight became the oldest person to go to space. Funk obtained her pilot’s license at the age of 17 and has since accumulated over 19,000 flying hours. In 1961, at the age of 21, Funk was one of 13 women in a privately-funded astronaut training program later known as Mercury 13. Unfortunately, the program was canceled and Funk’s dreams of going to space were postponed. Because of her gender, Funk has faced numerous obstacles surrounding spaceflight, but at the age of 82 she has finally made it into space. Funk’s historic flight reminded me of the many contributions women have made to spaceflight. In this blog, I highlight three accomplished female astronauts.

Dr. Mae Jemison

Dr. Mae Jemison aboard mission STS-47
Jemison is shown onboard mission STS-47. Photo by NASA on The Commons on flickr.

Mae Jemison holds a BS in chemical engineering from Stanford University and a medical degree from Cornell University. She became the first Black woman to go to space in 1992 as part of the Endeavour STS-47 mission. Before becoming a NASA astronaut, Dr. Jemison worked as a Peace Corps medical officer in Sierra Leone and Liberia. After her time in Africa, she worked as a general practitioner in California while taking graduate level engineering classes. While at NASA, Dr. Jemison participated in a number of support services before going to space on STS-47, a collaborative mission between the US and Japan. While on the 8-day mission, Dr. Jemison participated in bone cell research. Since leaving NASA in 1993, Dr. Jemison founded a number of organizations, taught environmental studies at Dartmouth College, and appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, among other things.

Dr. Jessica Meir

Astronaut portrait of Dr. Jessica Meir in 2018
Astronaut portrait of Meir taken in 2018. Photo by NASA Johnson/Josh Valcarcel on flickr.

Jessica Meir obtained a PhD in marine biology from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 2009 before becoming a NASA astronaut in 2013. During her PhD and post-doctoral research Dr. Meir studied marine mammals and birds, specifically their physiology while experiencing oxygen depletion and in extreme environments. Before joining NASA as an astronaut, she participated in NASA’s human physiology research. Dr. Meir was a part of the fourth NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) mission. During NEEMO missions, astronauts, engineers, and scientists live in a research station located 62 feet below the ocean’s surface off Key Largo in the Florida Keys. NEEMO crews live underwater for up to three weeks. The underwater environment simulates alien worlds and gravity conditions different to those on Earth’s surface. The crews test out equipment for spacewalks and spacecraft during their stay.  Dr. Meir was a part of NASA expeditions 61 and 62 in 2019 through 2020. Dr. Meir and fellow NASA astronaut Christina Koch completed spacewalks together in 2019 and 2020. These three spacewalks lasted a total of 21 hours and 44 minutes and were the first all-woman spacewalks.

Dr. Peggy Whitson

Dr. Peggy Whitson preparing experiments aboard Expedition 16.
Whitson is shown preparing an experiment on board Expedition 16. Photo by NASA on The Commons on flickr.

Peggy Whitson holds a number of space flight records including the US record for most collective time in space, which she earned by spending 665 days in space across three missions at the International Space Station (ISS). Dr. Whitson has completed more spacewalks than any other female astronaut and is tied for the most spacewalks among all US astronauts. Furthermore, in 2008 Dr. Whitson became the first woman to command the International Space Station. Dr. Whitson holds a PhD in biochemistry from Rice University and worked as a biochemist for NASA’s Johnson Space Center before becoming an astronaut. Dr. Whitson has received numerous awards for her contributions to NASA and spaceflight.

Representation in news and media matters. Hopefully the accomplishments of these women will inspire the next generation of astronauts!

Header photo depicts Jessica Meir (left) and Christina Koch aboard Expedition 61 preparing for their first spacewalk together. Credits: NASA Johnson on flickr.

Peer Editor: Jeanne-Marie McPherson

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