The Pioneering Women of 1980s Space Travel

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Even though the “space race” began in the 1960s, the leaps taken in the 1980s were incomparable. Not only did a new type of space vehicle, the space shuttle, make its debut, but the 1980s saw the first American women flying into space as equals to male astronauts.

Throughout the Cold War, the USSR and USA remained locked in a battle to explore and utilize the vast unknown of space. The Russians beat the USA in at least one category, sending a female cosmonaut into space in 1963. However, with the new shuttle program, the USA was able to leave the Soviets in the (space) dust.

The Shuttle Program

Up until the 1970s, space launches were “one and done.” Capsules and rockets were not reusable. As a cost-saving measure, NASA started developing what was initially supposed to be a 100% reusable space vehicle. Due to the effects of space on certain parts of the shuttle, it eventually became semi-reusable, which was still a step above original methods of space travel.

The first operational space shuttle, Columbia, launched on April 21, 1981. Millions watched on television, as it was still unfathomable that a vehicle could be launched into space, perform tasks, and return safely to Earth. After four successful missions, a second shuttle, Challenger, was added to the fleet.

Female Astronauts

In response to a slew of 1970s anti-discrimination laws targeting the workplace, NASA opened the space program to women in the late 70s. The space shuttle allowed for a larger crew (seven members) than any previous space vehicle. The combination of the two made it evident that it was time women took their place among peers. In 1983, millions of little girls gained a new hero and role model.

Sally Ride

One of the most famous names in space history, Sally K. Ride was the first American woman in space. She was aboard the second flight of the Challenger as a Mission Specialist. She was instrumental in completing the tasks assigned to the shuttle, as well as carrying out other experiments.

Being the first to do anything is not easy, and Sally Ride endured a good bit of chauvinistic behavior. By most accounts, the media was the worst. For example, a reporter asked her if she would cry if things went wrong. They reported that a privacy curtain was installed on the shuttle. But she persevered and ultimately had the last laugh on naysayers (can anybody name any of the other astronauts who took that flight with her?).

Judith Resnik

The second American female in space did not have much of an easier time with the media than Sally Ride, but she had a background that was a testimony to her character. She had perfect scores on the SAT exam (one of only 16 females to achieve so at that time) and gave up a place at Julliard to attend Carnegie Mellon University, ultimately obtaining a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland.

Therefore, it was no surprise that NASA recruited her in 1978, and she just narrowly missed being the first woman in space. She and the space shuttle Discovery shared the same inaugural flight in August 1984. As a Mission Specialist, she operated the shuttle’s robotic arm. It is fitting, as she assisted in creating it and was considered an expert in its usage.

Kathryn Sullivan

Space shuttle flights were occurring every few months in the mid-80s. The Challenger lifted off in October, shortly after Discovery’s August ’84 flight. The flight was notable for two reasons. First, it was the first mission that included two women in the crew, with Kathryn Sullivan joining Sally Ride. Second, during the flight, Kathryn became the first American woman to walk in space.

During a 3.5-hour spacewalk, she and another astronaut demonstrated how a satellite could be refueled while still in orbit. She was also a member of the crew on the Discovery when it deployed the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990.

Christa McCauliff

Even though she took a different career path, Christa McCauliff’s name is nonetheless indelibly linked to the three pioneering women above. A teacher by trade, she won NASA’s Teacher in Space Project, beating out over 11,000 applicants. The program was announced by President Reagan in 1984 to get the public interested in the prospects of space travel. Christa was to communicate with students from the space shuttle, even giving a couple of lessons via satellite linkup.

Christa was all in from the very beginning, undergoing the rigorous training necessary to prepare for space travel, planning what lessons to share, and (of course) making the media rounds. Gone were the chauvinistic questions asked of Judith Resnik and Sally Ride. The country buzzed with the excitement of a civilian traveling on the space shuttle. The possibilities of expansion were endless. As Christa herself put it to Johnny Carson, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.”

The Challenger

Judith Resnik and Christa McCauliff were both members of the crew of the space shuttle Challenger as it lifted off January 28, 1986. Just 73 seconds after takeoff, the Challenger exploded into a ball of fire and smoke.

Once the shuttle program resumed in 1988, having a woman in the crew was no longer a novelty. Although they didn’t fly in every mission, there was enough integration that it was barely news anymore. Thanks to the pioneering women of the 1980s, women had finally taken their place next to men to explore the final frontier. 

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Jeanne McAvoy


Jeanne has always been drawn to history and remains avidly interested in all time periods, finding that there are many hidden lessons within historical events. Her heart belongs to the 80s, however. Hitting high school right when the Brat Pack emerged, she crushed on the cast from “The Outsiders,” danced to “Wham!,” belonged to her very own “Breakfast Club” and used her fair share of Aqua Net. Currently a soccer mom, she is very grateful for satellite radio and long drives to and from soccer practice when she can revisit the totally bitchin’ music of the 80s.