NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson retired in 1986, she’d spent three-plus decades at the agency and only seen a handful of American women go into space. One, of course, was Sally Ride in 1983; the second was Judith Resnik, who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. But it wasn’t for a lack of potential. “Girls are capable of doing everything men are capable of doing,” Johnson said in an interview years later. “Sometimes they have more imagination than men.”
Though Johnson knew this about women and vouched for them through much of her career, it’s taken the U.S. space program much longer to catch on. By
the time she passed earlier this year, the ranks of female astronauts had nearly pulled even with males. But NASA still isn’t quite there. Of the agency’s 48 active astronauts, only a third are women—and none have stepped foot on the moon yet.
a diversity report published in 2017, NASA reported that 23 percent of its technologists and engineers (around 11,000) identified as female. That’s a hair better than the more nascent Indian Space Research Organization, which has between 10 to 20 percent women across its scientific staff. And it’s leaps ahead of the Russian program, which has sent just two female cosmonauts into space since the 1980s.
Across the board,
the field of astrophysics skews toward men—and specifically white men, too. But that doesn’t take away from the achievements women have made in space research and exploration. Johnson is the perfect example: As one of NASA’s first black female computers, she helped draw the exact numbers for Apollo 11′s successful moon landing in 1969.
Scroll through the gallery below to learn more about some of the greatest female icons in astronomy, along with those who are still charting their path to greatness.
Annie Jump Cannon joined the Harvard Observatory in 1896 to help build the official classification system for stars. Her calculations were largely drawn off the atmospheric refraction in telescopic photos rather than in situ observations; she and her fellow female colleagues earned about half of the men in their positions. The university didn’t designate Cannon as an astronomer until near the end of her career in 1938. Mary Golda Ross led an entire life before turning her focus on the mysteries of outer space. After the mass removal of Native Americans in the 1800s, her Cherokee family resettled in Oklahoma. She then designed planes for Lockheed Aircraft Corporation during World War II—research that helped pushed her into engineering satellites and futuristic missions to Mars and Venus for NASA. Ross, who died in 2008, is also credited as an author on the agency’s Planetary Flight Handbook. Katherine Johnson fought her way through the rancor of school integration in West Virginia to graduate with a college degree in math. After teaching for a few years, she moved to Virginia with her family to join an all-black computing squad. As the U.S.-Soviet space race kicked up, Johnson ciphered flight targets and other data for Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong; later she worked on the International Space Station and multiple satellite programs. She won the Presidential Medal of Honor in 2015. Vera Rubin’s insight on particle physics and how it shaped—and was shaped—by galactic forces helped spawn the discovery of dark matter. Yet the female pioneer, who launched her career in California’s Palomar Observatory in the 1960s, never received a call from the Nobel Prize committee. In January, the National Science Foundation named a newly constructed telescope in Chile in her honor. The 1960s rocket race between the U.S.S.R and US had its perks: one of which was the first woman in space. At 26, Valentina Tereshkova broke the milestone for the Soviet Union, circling Earth 48 times in 78 hours before drifting back down to land. The factory worker had little cosmonaut training, but her parachuting skills put her ahead of dozens of other women eventually sent into orbit. Tershkova herself never stepped on a rocket again. Chiaki Mukai had her mind set on being a heart surgeon, but the call of interstellar travel won out. She joined Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency in 1985 and built up her muscles for zero gravity by swimming every day. After the Challenger explosion, she almost bowed out of the program, saying, “watching the cutting edge of human technology turn into a giant orange ball of flames made my knees shake. It felt like a slap in the face for our arrogance, placing too much faith in technology.” But she made it into orbit twice, and is now the vice president of Tokyo University of Science. Of the seven astronauts that died on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, Kalpana Chawla was the farthest away from home. She grew up and studied aeronautical engineering in India, and eventually relocated to California to work for NASA. The doomed Columbia space flight was her third: She served as a mission specialist on two other research trips, specializing in robotics. Chawla also had a commercial pilot’s and flight instructor’s license. India sent an orbiter to Mars in 2014 and nearly set a lander on the moon last fall. Ritu Karidhal, deputy operations director at the nation’s space agency, helmed both missions with her colleague Muthayya Vanitha, and she’ll likely be orchestrating India’s next big launch, Gaganyaan, which is set to circle the Earth in 2022. Karidhal’s work even inspired a Bollywood movie, “Mission Mangal.”