The history of women in space is about to turn 50 years old.
Sunday (June 16) marks the 50th anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova's landmark 1963 flight, which launched her into history as the first woman to fly to space — only two years after Yuri Gagarin performed the first spaceflight ever in 1961. Tereshkova circled the Earth 48 times during her time as the pilot onboard the Vostok 6 spacecraft.
Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly to space when she launched on the Vostok 6 mission June 16, 1963.
Today, 57 of the 534 people that have flown to space are women, according to space history and artifacts expert Robert Pearlman, editor of collectSPACE.com. [Women in Space: A Space History Gallery]
"There have been so many boundaries broken, " said Cathy Lewis, curator of the international space programs collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. "We've had a woman commander, woman pilot. We've had an all-woman crew that just occurred out of coincidence because it just so happened that they were assembled for their skills. I think the United States is leading the way."
It took 20 years after Tereshkova's launch for Sally Ride to become the first American woman in space, but since that time, more than 40 women have flown to orbit as NASA astronauts.
Astronaut Sally Ride, the United States' first woman in space, will be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at the White House in 2013.
"NASA took [Tereshkova's flight] to heart, everyone took it to heart, that in order to sustain a space program they were going to have to make it not a program of high performance test pilots and a few selected scientists, " Lewis told SPACE.com. "They were going to have to do it as a more practical, day-to-day career in space."
NASA currently has 12 active female astronauts.
It's an uphill battle for women cosmonauts today, Lewis said. Of the 19 women that have trained as Russian or Soviet spaceflyers in the last 50 years, three have flown. 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