Yuri Gagarin, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, are well-known names in the conquest of space. But what evokes those of Katherine Johnson, Valentina Tereshkova, Mae Jemison or Sally Ride for us? Certainly not much. Without some of these pioneers in the space industry, men might never have set foot on the Moon. If women remain a minority in aerospace to this day, those who have managed to rise there, despite the obstacles associated with their gender and their skin color, have been carefully invisible from the history of the conquest of the room. African-Americans, Soviets, French, light on these heroines of shadows.
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The “Rocket Girls”, African-American mathematicians from NASA
Have you ever heard of the “Rocket Girls,” that group of African-American mathematicians from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, without whom NASA would not have set foot on the Moon? Called “the colored computers”, these women were actually responsible for the work on today’s computers, with the difference that they calculated and programmed the missions in space… using a pencil and a ruler! In a context of racial segregation, with Jim Crow laws in force in the United States, they worked within the Naca group, kept separate from their white counterparts. In 1958, the team finally joined other branches of the agency to participate in the nation’s first manned spaceflight program.
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“Before the arrival of all the digital devices we have today, humans were needed to do the calculations. These women were called “calculators” because they did all the math in the lab.” explains Nathalia Holt, author of the book “Rocket Girls: the women who propelled us, missiles to the Moon and Mars”, in an interview with National Geographic. Completely unknown to the general public, the film adaptation of the book “The Figures of the Shadow” in 2016 for the first time paid tribute to the fundamental contribution of black women to the conquest of space in the United States. Among them we can cite:
- Katherine Johnson: it is to this black mathematician that the United States owes the calculations of the rocket flights of Alan Shepard, the first American to go into space in 1961, and John Glenn, the first American to fly into orbit in 1962. A true genius in mathematics, she is also originated the equations that made it possible to send astronauts… to the Moon. And for good reason, she performed the calculations of the trajectories for the Apollo 11 mission that crowned Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon in 1969. Formulas that are still used today.
- Dorothy Vaughan: A “visionary” mathematician, Dorothy Johnson Vaughan, was the first woman to head NACA, NASA’s “human computing machines,” where Katherine Johnson worked.
- Mary Jackson: NASA’s first black engineer, this mathematician has published a dozen research papers on understanding aerodynamics and possible innovations in this field. She has also worked her whole life to open these fields to women, but also to people of color.
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Valentina Tereshkova, Sally Ride, Mae Jemison, pioneer astronauts
Just two years after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight, Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman to travel into space. A real slap in the face from the Soviet Union to the United States in a context of the Cold War combined with a space race. Only 26 years old, the young pilot and skydiver completed 48 orbits around the Earth in 70 hours, from June 16 to 18, 1963. She won another record that still stands: She is the only female astronaut to have completed a solo flight today!
On the US side, it will be necessary to wait 20 more years, i.e. 1983, for a woman to board a ship to get a seat. it is Sally Ride, who thus became the first American woman to go into space. Before that, space travel was reserved for astronauts who were military test pilots, a profession from which women were excluded. And for the record, NASA engineers had designed a space makeup kit for him, which the astronaut refused to take. Mae Jemison was the first black woman to travel into space in 1992.
Claudie André-Deshays, the first French woman to go into space
In France, the first female astronaut was Claudie André-Deshays. Selected by the European Space Agency (ESA), she made her first flight aboard the Mir station in 1996 and another on the ISS in 2001. More recently in 2019, Christina Koch broke the female record for the longest stay in orbit. She spent 328 days in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to collect data that will be used for future explorations of the Moon and Mars. The record for the longest stay in space by a woman.
Women, still a minority in the aerospace industry
As in other scientific fields, women are largely in the minority in the space industry to this day. To date, they represent only 21% of the staff of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). In fact, in 2021 there were 64 female astronauts in the world to 575 men. Admittedly, the numbers have changed quite a bit over the years from 10 to 20%, but the difference remains.
For the Artemis program, which aims to return men to the moon (and beyond), NASA has announced that among the 17 astronauts selected for the missions, 9 are women. And since they didn’t get the title of first woman in space, maybe the US will try to get the title of first woman on Mars. “The next person on the Moon is likely to be a woman, and the first person on Mars is also likely to be a woman.“, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stated on March 8, 2019. Case follows!
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