The Contributions of Women to Astronomy and Space Exploration

The list of women who have contributed to the world of astronomy and space, whether as scientists, scientist astronauts, medical doctors, or military officers who command or fly spacecrafts is lengthy, and the contributions of these courageous women are and have been vitally important.

Their endeavors have paved the way for future generations of women and sent a message to all of the world that the barriers that once prevented women from achieving what men had formerly been achieving in the areas of space studies and exploration no longer exist.

It wasn’t until the third quarter of the 20th century that women in the U.S. were afforded some of the same opportunities that men were, both as astronauts and as scientists. These women paved the way for the future and for women who are interested in all aspects of astronomy and space science.

The women listed here were and are all vitally important figures in the world of space science in the United States. There are no doubt, many others, but these women notable for their pioneering efforts or for the valiant heroism that cost them their lives.


Sally Ride was born in Encino California on May 26, 1951. She attended what is now known as Harvard-Westlake School (at the time it was a girls school,) on scholarship and went on to Swarthmore College in PA. In addition to her interest in science, Rice was a nationally ranked tennis player. She soon transferred to Stanford University were she earned two bachelors degrees (one in English and one in Physics,) a M.S. and PhD, both in physics. While working on her doctorate, she did research in astrophysics and free electron laser physics.

Ride responded to something she had seen in the Stanford University newspaper where NASA mentioned that they were looking for astronaut candidate applicants. She was one of about 8,900 people to apply, and of those 8,900 people, only 35 were accepted. Of those 35, six were women and Sally Ride was among them. She was accepted as an astronaut candidate in 1978. After completing the required training, she became an astronaut.

Before actually going on a Shuttle Mission, she worked as a capsule communicator for STS 2 and STS 3. She also helped to develop the robotic arm that frequently goes on shuttle missions. From there, she went on to train for the STS-7 mission, for which she served as a mission specialist. With that mission in 1983, Sally Ride officially became America’s first female astronaut and first woman in space. It should be noted that two Russian women preceded her in space. That history making mission lasted for 147 hours.

Ride flew on one other mission in 1984 and in June 1985, she was assigned to serve as a mission specialist on STS-61-M. She was in training for the latter mission when in January of 1986, the orbiter Challenger exploded 73 seconds after take-off. She interrupted her training to serve on the Presidential Commission that was entrusted with investigating the Challenger tragedy. She went on to serve in other administrative roles for NASA, including the creation of the Office of Exploration.

Ride retired from NASA in 1987 to accept a position as a Science Fellow at the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University. Two years later, she became the director of the California Space Institute and a professor of Physics at the University of CA in San Diego. She has received numerous awards and honors and was the two time recipient of the National Space Flight Medal.


Barbara A. Williams received a bachelors degree in Physics from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She was also a member of the prestigious honor society Phi Beta Kappa. She went on to receive both her M.S. and PhD degrees in Radio Astronomy from the University of Maryland. In 1981, upon receiving her PhD from the University of Maryland, she made history by becoming the first black woman to receive a terminal degree in astronomy there. She is currently a professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware.


Dr. Beth A. Brown is currently a NASA Astrophysicist. She was the valedictorian of her high school class before going on to Howard University in Washington D.C. where she studied physics and astronomy. In 1991, Brown graduated Summa Cum Laude from Howard University with a B.S. degree in Astrophysics. She stayed on there for another year as a graduate student in physics before entering the PhD program in Astronomy at the University of Michigan.

In 1994, she received her M.S. degree in Astronomy and went on to complete a PhD in Astronomy, earning that on Dec. 20, 1998. Upon receiving her PhD from Michigan, she officially became the first woman to obtain a PHD in Astronomy from that department at the University of Michigan.

After completing her PhD, Dr. Brown returned to NASA’s Goddard Space Lab (where she had worked as an undergraduate,) as a post doctoral associate for the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council. With that position, she became an employee of Goddard. She is currently an Astrophysicist working within the National Space Science Data Center which is part of the Space Science Data Operations office.


Dr. Mae Jamison was born in Decatur Alabama in 1956. When she was three years old, her family moved to Chicago where she went through school until graduating from Morgan Park High School at the age of 16 in 1973. Dr. Jamison went on to Stanford University from which she earned a B.S. in Chemical Engineering while simultaneously completing all of the requirements to earn an additional B.A. degree in American Studies, both of which she earned in 1977 at the age of 20. She then went on to medical school at Cornell University in New York, and received an M.D. from there in 1981.

Dr. Jamison spent time in Cuba, Kenya and Thailand as a medical student, and from 1983 to 1985, she served in the Peace Corps, all the while providing much needed medical care to people in regions where medical care and facilities are virtually non-existent. After completing her Peace Corps obligation and returning to the United States, Dr. Jamison became a General Practitioner in Los Angeles, working for the CIGNA Health Plans of California.

She continued her education with the pursuit of graduate studies in engineering, after which she decided to apply to NASA for acceptance to the Astronaut Candidate Program. Although she was turned down once, she persevered and was accepted on her second application when out of a pool of over 2,000 applicants, she was one of the 15 people to be chosen for Astronaut Candidate Training. She completed her training in August of 1988, becoming the 5th black astronaut and earning the distinction of being NASA’s first black female astronaut in the agency’s history.

She was assigned to STS-47 which was a cooperative mission between the United States and Japan. The mission took place between September 12 and 20, 1992. As a Mission Specialist, she was a co-investigator on a bone cell research experiment. Upon returning from that mission, she officially became the first African American woman in space.


Christa McAullife was born on September 2, 1948. She received a B.A. degree in History from Framingham State College. After graduation, she married her high school sweetheart, Steve McAullife. They then moved to Washington D.C. so that Steve could attend law school at Georgetown University. Christa immediately began teaching American History in the D.C. public schools.

She returned to school to pursue a Master’s Degree in School Administration, earning that from Bowie State University in 1978. They moved back to New England and to New Hampshire where Steve accepted a position. In 1984, Christa learned that NASA was looking for an educator to fly in space. She decided to apply for the position, and out of 11,500 applicants, she was chosen as the person who would become the first American teacher to fly in space.

She took a leave of absence from teaching and entered the Astronaut Candidate Training Program in 1985. She then went on to train for a 1986 mission and was ultimately assigned to the crew of STS 51-L. That mission was to fly aboard the orbiter Challenger. After several weather related delays, STS 51-L officially launched on January 28, 1986 at 11:38 a.m. EST. Tragically, 73 seconds after take-off, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded over the Atlantic Ocean. Christa McAullife lost her life as an American Hero that day.


Dr. Resnik was born on April 5, 1949. She was educated as an Electrical Engineer, first earning a B.S. degree from Carnegie Melon University and then going on to earn a PhD, also in Electrical Engineering from the University of Maryland in 1977. Prior to pursuing her PhD, she spent three years working as a Biomedical Engineer for the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Resnik was accepted as an astronaut candidate in 1978. After successfully completing Astronaut Candidate Training, she became an astronaut in August of 1979. Before ultimately going up on her first mission, she worked on several projects in support of orbiter development. On August 30, 1984, Dr. Resnik went up on her first mission aboard STS 41-D as a mission specialist. The mission was the maiden voyage of the orbiter Discovery.

She was then assigned to STS 51-L as a mission specialist on board the orbiter Challenger. This mission was the fateful one that launched on January 28, 1986, only to explode 73 seconds after take-off. Dr. Judith A. Resnik was one of two women who perished on that fateful flight.


No discussion of important women in astronomy and space would be complete without mentioning Colonel Eileen Collins, USAF, retired. Although she is now a retired astronaut, she served as a military instructor and test pilot before becoming an astronaut. She went on to become the first female pilot and the first female commander of a Space Shuttle. She retired from NASA in May of 2006, but has since been seen as a Space Shuttle Analyst covering both launches and landings, mainly for CNN.

Dr. Sally Ride, Dr. Barbara A. Williams and Dr. Beth A. Brown are all physicists or astrophysicists. They broke down barriers that had formerly said that women didn’t study physics or astrophysics, and they didn’t become astronauts or important scientists or teachers. Dr. Judith A. Resnik was an Electrical Engineer, a field that was typically considered an all male field. That didn’t stop her from pursing both a bachelor’s degree and a PhD and going on to do important things with it. Dr. Mae Jamison is a medical doctor who studied engineering as well. Dr. Jamison wasn’t satisfied to do anything but the extraordinary, and all of the advances of her career have proved that she broke through the bonds of a formerly all male world.

Col. Eileen Collins became an important military officer and test pilot. She broke down the barriers that had previously stipulated that only men could pilot or command a Shuttle. Dr. Judith Resnik and Christa McAullife both gave their lives for astronomy and space science, McAullife as a teacher and Resnik as an engineer. They perished in the Shuttle Challenger explosion on that fateful day in January of 1986.