The event was almost an anticlimax. On 19 October 2007, ten years ago today, Peggy Whitson became the first woman in history to take command of a space station. Surrounded by five astronauts and cosmonauts from three sovereign nations—including Malaysia’s first astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor—she was already a veteran, having spent six months aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in June-December 2002. Subsequently, she served as deputy chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office and trained as backup commander for Expedition 14, before rotating into the prime slot for Expedition 16. Asked to do a voice check on the Space-to-Ground-2 communications link, Whitson responded with a brief “five, four, three, two, one, zero…”, to which her Russian crewmate Oleg Kotov quipped “Handover’s complete!”
It was not, of course. Firstly, because it was veteran cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, rather than Kotov himself, who would be relinquishing command of the ISS. And secondly, because the first female to helm a space station was surely deserving of more exalted words. “I am very proud today, because today is the day when the ISS Program will have its first woman commanding,” Yurchikhin began. Announcing Whitson by her full name and doctorate, he congratulated her and officially handed station operations over to her. With a hearty handshake, Whitson thanked him for his contributions and closed with: “I relieve you, Fyodor Nikolayevich, of command.” It was not the first time the pair had been together in space, nor would it be the last. They first met aboard the ISS in October 2002, whilst Whitson was a member of Expedition 5 and Yurchikhin was a crewman aboard shuttle Atlantis on STS-112. And more recently, earlier this summer, Whitson and Yurchikhin flew together again during Expeditions 51/52.
Women have achieved remarkable feats in space exploration, ever since the pioneering flight by Soviet factory worker Valentina Tereshkova in June 1963. With no females selected by the United States until just prior to the dawn of the Space Shuttle era, the next woman to enter orbit was Russia’s Svetlana Savitskaya in August 1982. She went on to become the first female to fly twice and to perform a spacewalk, followed in quick succession by America’s Sally Ride and Kathy Sullivan, respectively. Although numerous women went on to fly aboard the shuttle over the next three decades, there was precious little representation from other nations. Helen Sharman became the first UK spacefarer—and in doing so, marked the first occasion that a woman was a sovereign nation’s inaugural space traveler—to be followed in the coming years by female astronauts from Canada and Japan, France and Iran, South Korea and China and, most recently, Italy.
Many records have been set by women in the process. Anna Fisher became the first mother in space, whilst Yelena Kondakova was the first to perform a long-duration mission aboard a space station. Kathy Thornton was first to execute two or more spacewalks, Ellen Ochoa—today’s director of the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas—was the first Hispanic woman in space and Kalpana Chawla was the first woman of Indian heritage to do so. Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman in space, Susan Helms was the first active-duty female military officer to enter orbit and Eileen Collins was the first to pilot and later command a mission. From Tereshkova’s flight to the ISS expedition of Kate Rubins last year, a total of 60 women from ten nations have voyaged into space.
Those records were advanced yet further in 2017, when Peggy Whitson became the oldest woman to venture into space, the oldest female to perform a spacewalk, the holder of the greatest number of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) hours by a woman and the holder of the longest single space mission by a female. Yet until this year, it was command of a space station which was Whitson’s main achievement. Since then, Sunita Williams has also commanded an ISS expedition, and Whitson went on to become the first woman to lead two increments. It remains to be seen where Whitson’s career will carry her next, although the future of women in space seems assured, with Williams set to fly next year aboard one of the Commercial Crew test missions and Jeanette Epps, Serena Auñón-Chancellor and Anne McClain training for ISS expeditions in 2018-2019. With a renewed emphasis on exploration Beyond Low-Earth Orbit (BLEO), it can be expected that the time is not far away for women to venture further afield, perhaps also in positions of command.