MAKERS: Women in Space

WOMEN IN SPACE traces the history of women pioneers in the U.S. space program. Some passed the same grueling tests as male astronauts, only to be dismissed by NASA, the military, and even Lyndon Johnson, as a distraction. It wasn’t until 1995 that a woman piloted a spacecraft. The program includes interviews with a number of first women in space as well as the next generation of women engineers, mathematicians and astronauts. Narrated by Jodie Foster.

Video Transcript


- T minus 10, 9, 8.

- It was the question every time was, OK, are we actually going to launch? I mean, you're just waiting there, and you just want it to go.

- 7, 6.

- In T minus 6 seconds, the engines light. The shuttle's moving a little bit.

- Ignition.

- When the boosters light, you know you're going. And it starts shaking. It's like you're in a room that's on fire.

- I think you're prepared until it feels like the whole world's just exploded. A lot of the noise, vibration, acceleration, and that's probably the first five, 10 seconds.

- You got 70,000 horsepower pumps pulling fuel through those engines with high speed turbines. So when you're sitting on 8 million pounds of thrust, you're paying very close attention to all those dials.

- Luckily, I was on the flight deck for my first launch, so I could look at the computer screens. So I could see that we were still flying and that we were going in the right direction and everything was OK.

- The launch didn't surprise me as much as when the SRBs-- you know, they come off with the pyros after about 2 minutes and 40 seconds.

- Standing by now for solid rocket boosters separating.

- Pyros felt like they were right underneath my feet. I wasn't expecting that. It felt like they were-- the bottom of the floor was going to fall out away from me.

- And indeed, it sounds like they exploded. And they separate, and then it gets very quiet and very smooth. And you're thinking, are we still going? And I can see the numbers counting up that says, yep, your speed is increasing. You're going the right direction.

- And then, 8 and 1/2 minutes, then you're on orbit and then floating.

- And I lifted my gaze above the interim panel and looked over. And we're inverted, of course, so I see this arc of the earth in the upper part of the window. We are just barely west of England. And so, clouds and blue ocean, just a spectacular view.

- I can still remember, wow, this is absolutely glorious. This is just what I thought it would be like. I was absolutely thrilled.

JODIE FOSTER: A little over a half century ago, America looked to the stars and decided it could conquer space.

- Landing a man on the moon--

JODIE FOSTER: We would, in the words of President Kennedy, "commit ourselves to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth." But even as this great endeavor inspired a generation of Americans, it did not represent America. From Mercury to Gemini to Apollo, one thing remained consistent. Our astronauts were men-- white men.

Women, when they were to be found, played supporting roles-- computerists, secretaries, wives. It would take over two decades and the full flowering of the women's movement before America would send its first women into space and several generations before the first woman pilot astronaut launched into orbit. This is their story.

The history of women in the US Space Program begins not with the launch of an American rocket, but a Russian satellite.

RHEA SEDDON: My father took me out in the backyard, and we watched Sputnik go over. And it was just awesome to think that there was something manmade up there going around.

MIKE MULLANE: Sputnik was the 9/11 of the moment. We were in the depths of the Cold War. Everybody was paranoid about Russia's military and nuclear might. It really shocked the country, and the entire population was consumed with the space race that followed.

JODIE FOSTER: Sputnik's Cold War message was simple. The Soviet Union could now launch a nuclear weapon into orbit, and soon, a human being as well. America, for all its confidence, wealth, and power, had no such capability.

MARGARET WEITEKAMP: The United States was better able to miniaturize nuclear weaponry and therefore was building much smaller launch vehicles. So one of the ironies is that because the United States had become more proficient technically in developing nuclear weaponry, they had smaller launch vehicles. And they were playing catch-up with the Soviet Union's ability to have a heavy lift launch vehicle.

JODIE FOSTER: The sophistication of the American nuclear program, at least when compared to the Soviets, created a unique problem. Our ICBMs were not powerful enough to launch a man into orbit. But even as the newly formed NASA raced to build bigger, more powerful rockets, others argued for a different approach-- women.

AMY FOSTER: There's valid reasons for wanting to fly a woman as an astronaut versus a man. To put anything into space requires fuel. Anywhere you can cut weight is good. Well, women tend to weigh less than men. Women tend to eat less food than men. Women use less oxygen than men. So, from a weight savings, it really makes a lot of sense.

JODIE FOSTER: The calculation was simple. For every additional pound of payload put on top of a rocket-- in this case, a male astronaut-- additional fuel was needed to achieve lift, plus more fuel to launch that additional fuel.

Any savings in weight at the top of the rocket-- say, a female astronaut-- cascaded down throughout the entire launch vehicle. When it came to rocket science, women were a logical choice. But before NASA could send anyone, man or woman, into space, they first needed to figure out who would make a good candidate.

AMY FOSTER: At that point, no one knows what space is like. What's going to happen to the physical body? Will you go blind because your retina detaches? No one knows what a microgravity environment is going to do to the human body. So you test everything you can possibly imagine. And if there's any concern, then you weed those people out.

JODIE FOSTER: The man who devised NASA's test to select America's first astronauts was Randy Lovelace.

MARGARET WEITEKAMP: The Project Mercury test that Lovelace had developed was probably the most complete physical that you could do on a human being at that time. And using that same test, he then was wondering how women would fare.

JODIE FOSTER: For the Mercury program, Lovelace tested jet pilots from the Air Force and the Navy. But since neither branch of the service allowed women to fly, Lovelace independently had to look elsewhere for his female candidates.

WALLY FUNK: There were not that many girl pilots in the United States at that time-- I think under 1,000. I got my license in 40 hours. The flying part was just easy. I could do anything I wanted to do. I was free from the Earth. I could see things. I mean, it was absolutely gorgeous.

AMY FOSTER: Lovelace starts going through all of these records to find who might be good candidates to do medical testing.

GENE NORA JESSEN: They did 75 different tests. And obviously, they had no idea what in the world they needed to test for. So they did lots of strange things.

JODIE FOSTER: Each of the women brought to the Lovelace clinic were subjected to the very same tests as the military pilots who were selected for the Mercury program.

AMY FOSTER: These tests were extensive, exhaustive, certainly unbearable at times.

WALLY FUNK: There was not one hair, tooth, skin, fingernails, to my whole body that was not tested, poked, prodded. They were finding out what every girl in that program was made of, just like they did to the guys.

Probably the most painful was when I was strapped into a dentist chair, and 10-degree water is injected in my ear for 20 seconds. And I was to be looking at a object on the wall. And your eyes start going like this, and you just-- you have no control of yourself. Then it starts to come down as your ear's warming up.

MARGARET WEITEKAMP: Lovelace sent some women also to a site in Oklahoma City and had them go through a series of isolation tests.

WALLY FUNK: It's like a tank in a room. It's a round swimming tank in a room. I'm in the tank with all my senses taken from me. My ears are plugged. The lights are down. I'm kind of getting into my [INAUDIBLE]. I'm laying out in the water like I should just lay there and stay still.

AMY FOSTER: The question is, how long can you stay in this environment before you start to get uncomfortable or claustrophobic?

WALLY FUNK: I stated in 10 hours and 35 minutes, which was the longest anybody had stayed.

AMY FOSTER: What we see from these medical tests is, the men actually didn't tolerate it very well. They wanted the stimuli. They needed the stimuli. A number of the women actually felt very calm. This kind of chamber was actually ideal for the women candidates where it really was something that made the men very uncomfortable.

JODIE FOSTER: In the end, Randy Lovelace tested 19 women in his private clinic. 13 of them passed, many with scores higher than those of the Mercury astronauts. All of them, it was noted by researchers, complained less.

AMY FOSTER: The women passed with flying colors. In fact, the numbers on the women who passed were-- usually exceeded the numbers of the men who passed.

JODIE FOSTER: But physical qualifications were not enough. In many ways, they were irrelevant. In the darkest days of the Cold War, every launch, every mission of the American Space Program not only had military and security implications, but propaganda ones as well. And while putting a woman in space may now seem like an obvious goal, at the time, it was interpreted by many as a sign of American weakness.

AMY FOSTER: There is the argument to be made that putting a woman into one of these spacecraft and having her fly is comparable to putting a chimp in a capsule and having it fly. That there is nothing spectacular about the technology, There's. Nothing risky about the technology. And the feat itself is not that extraordinary if a woman can do it.

- Astronauts of Project Mercury, test pilots now training for the first flight of a man into space--

JODIE FOSTER: Even as the first Mercury astronauts became national heroes, Randy Lovelace pushed forward with his private program. The last phase of testing was set to take place at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida.

MARGARET WEITEKAMP: Lovelace is very interested in getting these women into really what would be the next level of aerospace medical testing, which would require using jet aircraft. And that is really where the plug gets pulled.

JODIE FOSTER: In anticipation of this final phase of testing, some of the Lovelace women quit their jobs. A few made arrangements for their young families. All were training hard.

GENE NORA JESSEN: This was more astronaut stuff. So whatever it was, it was going to be exciting. It was going to be fun. And I wanted to see how I could do. No woman had ever done that. So I quit my job to go down to Pensacola.

JODIE FOSTER: But at the last minute, the US Navy denied them access to their base.

GENE NORA JESSEN: The Navy told Dr. Lovelace that if he could get a piece of paper saying that NASA supported this, that they would go forward. But there was no piece of paper. And so it was canceled. Three days later, [LAUGHS] I got the telegram that said, "canceled." So there I was, an astro-not.

AMY FOSTER: When the medical testing comes to an end, Jerrie Cobb, in particular, along with Janey Hart, take their case to Congress.

JODIE FOSTER: Central to the argument against women astronauts was an early decision made by President Eisenhower that only jet test pilots would be considered for the Astronaut Corps, a requirement that immediately excluded women. It was this injustice that Jerrie Cobb and Janey Hart, two Lovelace candidates, challenged in their testimony before Congress.

MARGARET WEITEKAMP: You cannot be an astronaut without jet test piloting experience. That's really where NASA is drawing its candidates. And when the public hearings are held investigating whether NASA is discriminating on the basis of sex, it's a hurdle that the women simply cannot clear.

- Ms. Cobb, do you think women are being discriminated against in the space program?

JERRIE COBB: I don't think necessarily they're being discriminated against. I think that the rules have been established to where it makes it impossible for women to meet the qualifications of astronauts.

LYNN SHERR: Women were not eligible to get the qualifications. So it was this total catch-22.

- These qualifications should be accepted for women having equivalent experience, instead of having to meet the same qualifications as the male astronauts do.

LYNN SHERR: NASA never specified gender in any of its calls for astronauts. They didn't have to because the qualifications were such that women simply were not eligible. It's as if NASA was a giant clubhouse, and they had scrawled, "no girls allowed," on the clubhouse door. That's just the way it was.

WALLY FUNK: Girls couldn't be astronauts because they wouldn't let us fly jets or be in the military. I had one chance at Fort Schiller as an instructor there, but I was not able to get into the military to fly jets because they weren't allowing girls to do this. So I was disappointed that I couldn't participate in the program further. They weren't ready for us.

JODIE FOSTER: In the summer of 1962, Randy Lovelace's Women in Space Program died a quiet death.

MARGARET WEITEKAMP: No one wanted to be responsible for the end of the Lovelace program. Literally no one wrote it down, except for Lyndon Johnson. And Lyndon Johnson, in this case, has his interest in seeing the Space Program succeed trumps his interest in supporting women. And he literally sprawls across the bottom of this memo in giant handwriting, for him, uncharacteristically large handwriting, "Let's stop this now," exclamation point.

- We interrupt this program to present another in a series of onboard television transmissions from the Apollo 8 space capsule.

JODIE FOSTER: Six years later, on Christmas Eve, 1968, man orbited the moon for the first time.

- The astronauts are now less than 35,000 miles from the moon and about to be pulled in by the moon's gravity.

POPPY NORTHCUTT: That was the most exciting thing that was happening in the world. There's no doubt about it. I was working on the most exciting thing in the world.

JODIE FOSTER: Despite the demise of the Lovelace program, women did find their way into NASA. Among them, Poppy Northcutt, a 25-year-old systems engineer working in mission control.

POPPY NORTHCUTT: They called my job a computerist. The computerists were all women. All of the engineers were dudes. But the problem they were working on is, how do you get back to the Earth from the moon? I mean, that was really a problem worth solving. So I started asking a lot of questions. And before long, I was asking better and better questions, including some that would show up that there's a mistake in here.

I started looking around at these dudes that were working with me. And I thought, you know, I'm as smart as they are. So I started taking the computer program home with me every night and reverse engineered them. Before long, I'm maybe the only person there who's actually read every line of code in this program.

- Poppy, what do you do during a mission?

POPPY NORTHCUTT: My job is to return the astronauts safely back to the Earth from the moon.

- How do you do that?

POPPY NORTHCUTT: The tasks that I worked on, on Apollo 8 designed the return to earth trajectories, the problem that brought you back to the Earth from the moon. You know, you can't go to the moon if you're not going to be able to get back. That's a really important thing.

- Apollo 8, this is Houston. Your goal for LLI.


- You're riding the best bird we can find.

JODIE FOSTER: As mankind fell into lunar orbit for the very first time, everyone at mission control, including Poppy Northcott, waited for Apollo 8 to emerge from the far side of the moon.

- See you on the other side.

POPPY NORTHCUTT: They were going to fire the engine to go into orbit around the moon. For the first time, they're really losing communication, and they're doing a major maneuver when they're outside of communication. And if they had over burned, for example, they might be crashing into the moon.

Everyone in the room, they're not breathing. Nobody is breathing. There's no sound, except countdown sounds. And you can hear the capcom calling out. Nobody's heart is even beating. We're just totally still waiting. And they were late, which was really heart stopping, because in my function, that meant we might have to do an abort. We might have to be able to put together how you fire the engines to get home really fast.

- Now mission control and the world could only wait, wait for the first contact with Apollo 8 as it emerged from behind the moon.

POPPY NORTHCUTT: Every second that they're late, you know, is just terrifying.

- Apollo 8, over.

- We've got it. We've got it. Apollo 8 now in lunar orbit. There's a cheer in this room. This is Apollo control, Houston, switching now to the voice of Jim Lovell. Good to hear your voice.

POPPY NORTHCUTT: It was a miracle.

- The Earth from here is a grand oasis in the big vastness of space.

POPPY NORTHCUTT: And boy, did we have a splashdown party.

- The landing was right on target. A huge and patriotic celebration broke loose in mission control.

POPPY NORTHCUTT: And I was in the staff support room. And I was the only woman. I think I was the only female in the room throughout Apollo. I mean, I was the first woman that had ever walked in and put on the headset. There just never had been a woman in there. Zero.

- It's been charged that when you walk into the mission operations control room, the mission grinds to a screeching halt.

POPPY NORTHCUTT: That's not true.

I felt a lot of pressure because I was the only one. I would have much preferred to have been the 10th or the 20th. Because you do have to worry that people are going to say, oh, well, you know, she couldn't cut it, so other women can't come through this. That was part of my consciousness raising. That's part of why I became involved as a feminist.

JODIE FOSTER: From Mercury to Gemini to Apollo, NASA had always been a bastion of men-- white men. But in the '60s and '70s, as the civil rights, anti-war, and women's movements remade the nation, NASA, like many other American institutions, began to change.

LYNN SHERR: The reason NASA finally reached out to include women was not because of love or because they felt sorry or because they felt ashamed. It was mostly for the reason that every other corporation, agency, and big organization in America opened up things to women in the 1970s. And that's because of political pressure, pressure from women, and because of the possibility of lawsuits.

JODIE FOSTER: Technology also played a role in NASA's transformation. In the mid 1970s, a radical new era in space travel was ushered in with the shuttle, a fleet of reusable space planes carrying up to eight astronauts at once. The shuttle promised to make space safe, routine, and a platform for innovative science. It also dramatically expanded the Astronaut Corps.

Alongside the shuttle pilots, who still had to be military jet pilots, would be a new category of astronaut, the mission specialist-- researchers, engineers, and physicians who didn't need test pilot training. NASA issued its first new call for astronauts in a decade. The message was clear. Women and minorities, please apply.

MAE JEMISON: In the 1970s, when NASA decided there was going to be a shuttle program and they were going to make sure that they brought in women and people of color in to the astronaut program, they found that they were not getting women and people of color flying. Now it shouldn't have been any surprise because, for years, NASA didn't allow women to be in so nobody believed them.

JODIE FOSTER: Ironically, to reach women and people of color, NASA had to turn to science fiction for an ideal vision of space exploration.

NICHELLE NICHOLS: I said, I'll do it under one condition. I said, I will bring you the top people, men and women of color. And if NASA still have some excuse, I said I will be your worst nightmare.

JODIE FOSTER: Nichelle Nichols, "Star Trek's" Lieutenant Uhura, became the public face of NASA.

NICHELLE NICHOLS: I went to the top universities who had strong science and engineering programs, because I wanted people whose qualifications were so strong and so powerful that they could not dismiss them.

JODIE FOSTER: In the end, Nichelle Nichols would be vital to NASA's recruitment efforts, bringing in women and minorities for many years to come. But the first six women astronauts selected by NASA needed no such recruitment.

ANNA FISHER: I know exactly when I decided I want to be an astronaut. It was in May of 1961. I was 12 years old. I was in seventh grade. And it was 7:30 in the morning, and we were outside. And our teacher was holding a little transistor radio, and we were listening to Alan Shepard's launch.

- All right, to lift-off and the clock has started.

ANNA FISHER: And I just remember saying, I want to do that.

SHANNON LUCID: The refrain I heard my whole life was, you'll never be able to do anything because you're a girl. And I just thought, they're wrong. It just dawned on me. I said, I can grow up and I can explore the solar system because surely, by the time I grow up, everything won't be explored yet. So that'll be something that I can do. There's something left for me to do.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: We'd get "Life Magazine," and every one of those issues seemed to have a major feature about the space program and a major feature about the undersea program side by side. So I was absorbing a sense of, there are people in this world whose daily life is this kind of amazing adventure of trying to do something that's never been done before and figuring out how to do it.

RHEA SEDDON: I got interested in science after Sputnik, believe it or not. So I think when the government said, you know, it's a national imperative that our young people get more into engineering and science, to me, that meant me, too, although they were really talking about men.

JODIE FOSTER: In 1978, NASA announced its first class of shuttle astronauts, who called themselves the 35 New Guys, even though they included six women.

LYNN SHERR: When the class of 35 New Guys got to NASA in January of 1978 for their first press conference, they had never seen anything like it.

- Kathryn Sullivan, a mission specialist. Her current residence is Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: I can remember everybody marshaling up behind stage and being marched out in sort of like the class photograph moment. Then, lots of press bulbs.

- And that's the 35 new astronauts.


KATHRYN SULLIVAN: By 10:15, the rest of the day was blocked for media availability. By 10:30, that meant most of the guys were out of the building. And the six of us were there until well after the evening news, just going through interview after interview.

MARGARET WEITEKAMP: The press really descends on the women astronauts. And the rest of the men kind of stand around for a few minutes and then decide, well, I guess they're done with us.

MIKE MULLANE: They were true celebrities. I mean, they were unique. And that continued.

JODIE FOSTER: Included in the '78 class was Rhea Seddon, a surgeon, Kathryn Sullivan, a geologist.

- Hey, Kathy, if you'd look right here. Judy Resnik, scene 33, take 2, sound 47.

JODIE FOSTER: Judy Resnik, an electrical engineer.

JUDY RESNIK: I certainly feel that in future selections, with women training as pilots, that there will be women selected as pilots. I think we're here to stay.

JODIE FOSTER: Anna Fisher, a physician, Shannon Lucid, a biochemist, and Sally Ride, a physicist.

SALLY RIDE: Well, my feeling is that I want to get up as soon as I can. So that means that I'd like to be the first woman up. But I don't have any great desire to be the first woman.

JODIE FOSTER: None had known each other before applying to NASA. But once selected, they would share a unique bond.

AMY FOSTER: The media wanted to know their opinion on anything and everything. And I think, in many ways, that was overwhelming. It was also uninteresting.

RHEA SEDDON: They wanted to know if we ever planned to marry. Had we thought about having children? How will you feel if you have to go into space with a group of men?

- What happens when you meet a man who doesn't know who you are and you say, I'm an astronaut. Does he say, hey, you're too cute to be an astronaut, little lady. You can't be an astronaut.

- I just tell him I'm an engineer.

JENNIFER ROSS-NAZZAL: For Shannon Lucid, she was the only one who was married and had children when she was selected. One of the reporters stood up and admitted that it was a male chauvinist pig kind of question, but had NASA considered the fact that she had three kids, and how was she going to schedule her work when she clearly had other responsibilities at home?

- Shannon Lucid, scientist, astronaut, and mommy.

SHANNON LUCID: Whenever the press talked to you and if they wanted to talk about your family, I just steered away from those kind of questions. I tried to talk about the job and talk about what I was going to do and what I was doing with NASA and what NASA was doing.

AMY FOSTER: In 1978, NASA is not a whole lot different than it was in 1968. And it's still very white and male.

MIKE MULLANE: I use the term that the male military astronauts were from planet Arrested Development. We'd never worked professionally with women. And now here we are, thrown in with pioneers. We didn't know how to act around them. We had never worked professionally with women. And, you know, it was kind of-- you know, some of us still were kind of frat boy, I guess. We'd pull jokes on some of the women.

One joke was-- I didn't do this, but I certainly laughed at it, is some male military guys were out jogging, and they saw a grass snake slither across the path found by the astronaut gym. And one of them grabbed that grass snake and went into the ladies' locker room, found Judy Resnik's purse, opened it up, and shoved a live snake in it, and then hovered around the door after she got back, waiting to hear what's going to happen when she finally opened that purse. And of course, we hear this scream, and then people just disappeared like smoke.

The divide was too big in experience. Just at that moment to just embrace these people with some camaraderie, you know, that developed. That certainly developed. I learned that there were some of those postdocs could run circles around me certainly with their abilities.

JODIE FOSTER: For the engineers at NASA, integrating women into the Astronaut Corps approved surprisingly easy. In the weightlessness of zero gravity, gender simply didn't matter. There were, however, a few problems they found uniquely challenging.

SHANNON LUCID: There was some discussion about how the females were going to use the bathroom. And, you know, my take on it was, we just do what you normally do. And I just didn't see it as a big problem like some of the people were trying to engineer or think of.

JOE KOSMO: A lot of us scratched our heads. Well, how do they go to the bathroom? You know, they don't have an appendage like we got. You know, we used to strap a bag on and go, you know, literally.

MIKE MULLANE: For males, they had a condom type device. You had a bladder that you velcroed around your waist, and you're connected to this condom type device into that bladder. So when you urinated, it would fill that bladder. Clearly, it was a big engineering challenge for, you know, how are you going to collect urine from a woman in weightlessness.

JOE KOSMO: Some of them got very angry when you start talking about it. I wouldn't want to hear about that. I had some managers who had no-- I mean, I couldn't believe it-- had physically no idea how a-- what a female's system even looked like. I'm talking about married gentlemen. And I was just dumbfounded.

RHEA SEDDON: They tried to figure out some way that you could have a device that would be close to your body that would be attached to a hose. And you would have to wear some sort of device to hold it up against your body. And they were very uncomfortable. And they didn't function very well. They leaked. And the women are going, this is just-- this is terrible, you know? And we didn't want to say, no, we can't do that for fear they'd say, well, then, you can't fly.

AMY FOSTER: And what NASA ultimately comes up with is a diaper.

ANNA FISHER: That was an interesting experience. All your life, you've been taught not to go to the bathroom in your pants. And try laying on your back with a diaper and try going to the bathroom. It is not easy.

JODIE FOSTER: From the start, the shuttle program benefited from everything we had learned about space in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, which meant there was one question unique to women NASA had never addressed.

LYNN SHERR: When it came to menstruation, the poor engineers just really didn't have a clue.

JOE KOSMO: Yeah, they didn't even want to address that issue. That was even further beyond urinating, you know? Well, maybe we don't fly them during that period of the month. I don't know. [LAUGHS]

RHEA SEDDON: The question came up, what if you had your period in space? How would that work? And there were a lot of people saying, oh, gosh, menstrual blood will go back out the fallopian tubes, and you'll get peritonitis and inflammation. You'll die. Well, you know, most of us thought, that's a bunch of baloney.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: There was an initial presumption that that won't be an issue because we'll just put them on medication and suppress it. And we briefly looked at each other and said, really? So that ended pretty quickly.

RHEA SEDDON: Finally, we convinced the physicians just not to worry about it until it happened.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: About a month before a flight, there's what's called a bench check. And Sally was going over for her final bench check and went through the hallways to grab one of us to have just a second opinion.

LYNN SHERR: Sally opens up the kit, and she pulls out-- she has her fingers on a string, and she pulls out like a string of sausages a string of tampons.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: And she just keeps pulling this out of the box like a magician, pulling 200 feet of crepe paper out of a hat. And it's-- and we're now looking at each other, going, it's a 7-day flight.


MIKE MULLANE: Remember Judy Resnik on my flight opened up her locker, and here was this bandolier of shrinkwrapped tampons that were, you know, just floating there. I'll never forget it. She looked at it and said, I can tell you for sure a man packed this locker.

JODIE FOSTER: In 1982, after four years of training, NASA selected Sally Ride to fly on STS-7, permanently setting her apart from the rest of her class.

LYNN SHERR: Chris Kraft was then the director of the Johnson Space Center. And Chris Kraft sat her down and said, you're going to be the first American woman in space. Do you understand what this entails? And Sally said yes. I don't believe for a minute she understood, nor do I believe you could understand. I don't think you can grasp this. And the truth is that when this opportunity comes, of course you take it.

- Dr. Ride, have you felt that the extensive coverage of the first American woman in space has been disproportionate or heavy handed?

SALLY RIDE: I think that it's maybe too bad that our society isn't further along and that this is such a big deal. But if the American public thinks that it's a big deal, then it's probably good that it's getting the coverage that it's getting. And it's time that people realize that women in this country can do any job that they want to do.

- Now are you going to be watched more closely than other astronauts because you're a woman? You don't feel under any particular spotlight.

SALLY RIDE: Actually, I do. I think that I feel pretty strongly that it's important that I don't do anything dumb while I'm up there.

LYNN SHERR: She understood that she was taking along the hopes and dreams of women all over the country. And she understood that if she performed any less than perfectly, then it would be said that no woman could fly in space.

- Liftoff of STS-7 and of America's first woman astronaut. And the shuttle has cleared the tower.

MIKE MULLANE: If she had made any mistake up there, any of the early women had made a mistake in orbit on a mission, that's all the press would have picked up on. That's all the public would've picked on. But that was the reality, and I'm sure it weighed heavily on Sally when she took her first mission.

- And as soon as we get it, what we'll be showing you is the starter mechanical sequence. And you can see the sun shield opening up on the [INAUDIBLE]. It's a little bit of a jump there that we saw yesterday.

- We saw that.

JODIE FOSTER: Sally Ride's historic flight would garner most of the public's attention. But for the first group of women astronauts, there were many noteworthy missions to follow.

- There was another first today-- a woman's walk in space, the first by an American. Kathy Sullivan was out there, 138 miles above the Earth, as the space shuttle Challenger whipped around at more than 17,000 miles an hour.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: My first flight, I was going to get to do a spacewalk. We never should really call spacewalks around the space shuttle or the Space Station a walk because you don't actually walk. It's a lot more like swimming.

And so you're maneuvering with your hands and your arms more than with your legs. In fact, you only use your legs and feet to set yourself at a workstation, anchor your feet in platform so that you can use all the major muscles of your body. Otherwise, if you twist on a wrench, you're just going to spin the other way.

There was one really fabulous moment. I remember taking my eyes off of my hands and looking around to sort of take everything in. And all of South America is going by right beneath me and a little bit of-- I just looked down between my feet and saw Venezuela sliding between my boots.

I was shocked some months later to discover there actually was-- "The New York Times," on the front page, ran a very grainy picture taken off the closed circuit TV system of me coming out of the hatch. And vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro is on the same front page in some story. It was October leading up to a November election. So those were the times.

- Today--

JODIE FOSTER: In 1984, President Ronald Reagan announced that the frontier of space was going to be open to all.

- And to choose as the first citizen passenger in the history of our space program, one of America's finest, a teacher.

AMY FOSTER: When Americans think about women astronauts, they tend to think of Sally Ride because she was the first American female astronaut. The other person they think of is Christa McAuliffe, which is interesting because she wasn't an astronaut. She was a high school teacher. This was NASA's way to try to create excitement about the space program again.

CHRISTA MCAULIFFE: I would like to humanize the space age by giving a perspective from a non-astronaut because I think the students will look at that and say, this is an ordinary person. This ordinary person is contributing to history. And if they can make that connection, then they're going to get excited about history. They're going to get excited about the future. They're going to get excited about space.

JODIE FOSTER: The public was captivated by Christa McAuliffe, so much so that it took little note of the other astronauts on her mission, including the second American woman to fly in space, Judy Resnik.

- I'd like to introduce Judy Resnik. She's our center seeder and keeps [INAUDIBLE] on the system problems. Judy.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: Judy was really fabulously fun and very vivacious, very dynamic.

JUDY RESNIK: Well, I, too, am glad to be here one more time.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: Concert pianist, engineer with a big bouffant head of curly black hair.

RHEA SEDDON: She was tough. I'm one of those southern girls that was taught not to be tacky. Now don't say anything rude. Be polite, be sweet. And Judy was just in your face. And she would just tell you what she thought. I'm going, whoa! Did she just say that? But she was smart. She knew the right things to say. She did a great job at whatever she did.

JODIE FOSTER: On a freezing January morning in 1986, after multiple delays, STS-51-L Challenger finally was scheduled to launch.

- Pilot Mike Smith followed by Christa McAuliffe, teacher in space.

CHRISTA MCAULIFFE: Well, I am so excited to be here. I don't think any teacher has ever been more ready to have two lessons in my life. I've been preparing these since September. And I just hope everybody tunes in on day four now to watch the teacher teaching from space.

- 10, 9, 8, 7, 6.

RHEA SEDDON: We were in a training facility. And most of us, you know, if there's a launch happening and there's a TV nearby, we'd all stop and watch. So we stopped our meeting, and we're watching to make sure they were going to get off that day.

- And liftoff, liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission. And it has cleared the tower.

- Liftoff.


RHEA SEDDON: They got off the ground. Everybody's going, oh, yay, they launched. Everything looks great. And then something happened. And I said, oh, look, it's a clear enough day. You can see the boosters come off. And one of our payload specialists looked at his watch, and he says it's too soon.

- Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.

RHEA SEDDON: It was kind of like, what happened? Where's the shuttle? It must still be going because there's something out there. And then, you know, pieces start falling down in the ocean. And once big pieces started hitting the ground, I knew something bad had happened.

- We have no downlink.

MIKE MULLANE: And it was just this crushing overwhelming sense of loss, of tragedy, of ache. I can't exaggerate how terrible it was, to know that these people that you had known so well were now dead.

LYNN SHERR: I don't think that Christa McAuliffe on Challenger says much about gender, except the fact that her death and the death of Judy Resnik, along with the rest of the crew, proved for the first time that women were equal in a way we never wanted them to be equal. Women have lived in space, and they have died in space. And there's probably no better equalizer than that.

- OK, now we can see you coming down the ladder now.

JODIE FOSTER: On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

- That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

JODIE FOSTER: It was, and remains, humanity's greatest technological achievement, a feat of unparalleled engineering. Three short years later, Eugene Cernan became only the 11th astronaut to walk on the moon and the last.

MAE JEMISON: Growing up during the Apollo era, I assumed by the time I got old enough to go into space and had the qualifications, that we'd be going to Mars or something, that I would be, you know, just a person who worked on Mars.

JODIE FOSTER: In the decades that followed Apollo, our horizons were limited. Low Earth orbit was as far as the shuttle program ventured. And yet, even as we remain constrained by Earth's gravity, our vision of who should travel in space broke new bounds.

MAE JEMISON: I was really irritated that I was the first African-American woman in space or the first woman in color in the world in space. I was irritated because there should have been many more before me. But I would have gone into space if there had never been any kind of person have gone into space. I don't care. I would have been volunteering. If there had been thousands of every kind of people going into space, I would have been part of it.

JODIE FOSTER: Mae Jemison, who was raised in Chicago's far south side and grew up to be a physician and Peace Corps worker, was part of this new generation of explorers.

MAE JEMISON: I remember having this huge grin on my face because I was doing exactly what I wanted to do. One of these things that people talk about is something called the overview effect. But that wasn't the part that struck me. The perspective that stuck with me is that I am as much a part of this universe as any speck of stardust. I have as much right to be here. It connected me with this greater universe. That perspective of belonging was what was important to me.

JODIE FOSTER: By the 1990s, we had reached a new milestone. The public took little, if any, note when a woman flew in space, which, in its own way, was an accomplishment as significant as landing on the moon.

PEGGY WHITSON: Things have changed a lot in the perception of having a woman or a female astronaut. One morning, I had woke up. I was hanging in my sleeping bag on the wall of my sleep station. And I had gotten on the computer and read all the messages from the ground team and printed off a couple of things that I needed for the day and had floated through the lab and picked up the paper off the printer that was hanging on the wall. And I'm like, I live in space. It was like, all of that, you know-- it was like, this is my place of work. This is phenomenal.

ELLEN OCHOA: The exciting thing about being at NASA and being on a space shuttle mission was to be able to participate in research that you just really couldn't do on Earth. I was thrilled I was able to contribute to science that was done in space because that was sort of the motivation for thinking about this as a career. But also I was on two flights that were part of the assembly of the International Space Station. And that, to me, is thrilling that I have gotten to be a part of that.

CADY COLEMAN: I actually grew my hair to go to space for the Space Station, partly because I really did want it to be really clear in any picture that there was a woman up there. Because I think this kind of picture speaks to girls.

JODIE FOSTER: In the years since man last walked on the moon, women became an integral part of the space program. Every barrier to entry was broken, even the first.

- There's our first women pilot, Eileen Collins.

GENE NORA JESSEN: After the Lovelace program, it was 17 years before we had female astronauts. And they were scientists and doctors and engineers. And then, of course, we got Eileen Collins. And Eileen was a military test pilot. We've got one.

JODIE FOSTER: In 1995, over 30 years after Randy Lovelace's Women in Space Program was shut down, Eileen Collins became America's first woman pilot astronaut.

EILEEN COLLINS: Obviously, you got the pressure of being the first woman pilot. So there is a little bit of anxiety with that. I didn't have time to really reflect that, oh, I finally made it here after a lifetime of wanting to be an astronaut. I'm finally here. No, I didn't think about that. I thought about I got to shut the APUs down. I've got to secure the main propulsion system. I've got to vent this system. I've got to do this hydraulic system. And so I'm busy.

JODIE FOSTER: Then, in 1999, four years after her first historic mission, Eileen Collins made history once again.

- Colonel Eileen Collins will take one big step forward for women and one giant leap for humanity.

JODIE FOSTER: NASA, which began life as an exclusive boys club, now had its first woman commander.

EILEEN COLLINS: Since I was a child, I've dreamed about space. I've admired pilots, astronauts, and I've admired explorers of all kinds. And it was only a dream of mine that I would someday be one of them.

JODIE FOSTER: Once young girls looked to the stars, but could not see themselves. Now, hundreds of miles above the earth, they were in command.

- History was made in space today, an unprecedented rendezvous in orbit. The shuttle Discovery docked with the International Space Station. The historic part was the meeting that took place between the two people in command of those spacecraft.

PEGGY WHITSON: During Expedition 16, I was the first female commander of the station, and then the second female shuttle commander actually arrived to the station. So we had the first two female commanders on orbit at the same time, Pam Melroy. So it was a really exciting time, mostly because it was a coincidence.

I think it was much more historic in the fact that it just felt normal. I don't think I understood the impact necessarily. When I got back, I had received in the mail a cartoon. And that cartoon had a little girl who was looking at the computer, and it said two space commanders. And her mom was holding up a princess costume. And she says, no, I want to go this Halloween dressed up as a mission commander. [LAUGHS]

- We were driving in the car one day, and we were passing Johnson Space Center. And my son was in the backseat. I think he was about five. And he said, mom, can boys be astronauts or just girls? And it was just so funny, you know, knowing the history of our culture and everything that's happened to hear him say that. And I had to remind him, oh, yes, you know, boys can be astronauts, too.

- Landing here down in [INAUDIBLE].

JODIE FOSTER: In 2011, after 135 missions in space, the shuttle program came to an end. But its demise did not mark the end of human space flight. In fact, we have once again lifted our gaze beyond Earth's orbit.

GWYNNE SHOTWELL: The industry moved at an incredible pace in the '60s and '70s, and then it stagnated quite a bit. And so we were all kind of mavericks, and we wanted to do something.

JODIE FOSTER: The next generation of space travel will not happen within NASA alone. It will instead be public, private partnerships, like the one with SpaceX that will take us back out into space. And engineers like Gwynne Shotwell, the president of SpaceX, will be at the vanguard.

GWYNNE SHOTWELL: I think it takes almost an entire generation to kind of flush out the old ways and bring in the new. In the late '70s or early '80s, when I was considering a career in engineering, I didn't have any good role models. Engineers are nerds, right? I'm a geek. I'm a total nerd. And it wasn't OK to be nerds then.

Engineers are creators. They're makers. They build things, they test things, and they make life a better deal. There's this enormous sense of satisfaction that comes from that.

MARLEEN MARTINEZ: Growing up, I do remember people telling me that engineering wasn't really a girl's field, that there was other things you could do. So when people found out that I was become an engineer, I think a lot of them are taken aback. And especially being a Hispanic female, it's not something that you really run into very often. It's actually very rare.

JODIE FOSTER: While SpaceX and other private companies work on carriers to the International Space Station, NASA has focused its attention on more distant frontiers. Orion, its next generation spacecraft, is designed to take astronauts back to the moon and eventually to Mars.

MARLEEN MARTINEZ: My job on the Orion program is to write all the scripts and all the procedures that test the actual spacecraft.

JODIE FOSTER: Marlene Martinez grew up the daughter of migrant workers, who picked sugar beets in the fields of Washington state. Among the first in her family to graduate from college, she is today one of hundreds of women engineers working on Orion.

MARLEEN MARTINEZ: My interest in space started when I was five years old. And my kindergarten teacher had us singing a song called "Mission Control" for Mother's Day. And I remember the words to this day. It was, "I may be small, but I'm growing. Watch one day, and you'll see space is wide open and waiting for me."

Growing up, it's not really a secret to anyone who knows me that I want to be an astronaut. So the opportunity to work on Orion kind of gets me just a little bit closer to that dream. And the way I figure it is, if I work on Orion and I build it and I test it and I know every single little detail about Orion, it kind of gives the NASA people selecting the astronauts another reason to look at me and say, hey, if something goes wrong up there, you kind of want someone who actually knows where everything is.

JODIE FOSTER: Time will tell whether or not we have the will or the resources to reach Mars and beyond. But if we do, one thing is certain. Women will not be relegated to the old roles of computerists and secretaries. This time, we will be engineers, commanders.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: I don't particularly think the first part matters, except to the spectator crowd. It's the work. Come be part of this adventure. Look what you can do. I don't want someone saying, well, the first has already gone, so there's no reason. It's not about the first. That's a moment in time. That's an artifact in history books. It's an artifact on the TV shows.

The exploration, the discovery, the scientific opportunities, the chance to make such a difference in the world is still all there. You are still a part of it. You can be a part of it. An endless frontier, your endless frontier. And go after that endless frontier.