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Women of many nationalities have worked in space. The first woman in space, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, flew in 1963. Space flight programs were slow to employ women, and only began to include them from the 1980s. Most women in space have been United States citizens, with missions on the Space Shuttle and on the International Space Station. Three countries maintain active space programs that include women: China, Russia, and the United States of America. In addition, a number of other countries — Canada, France, India, Iran, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom — have sent women into orbit or space on Russian or US missions.
Women in space face many of the same challenges faced by men: physical difficulties posed by non-Earth conditions and psychological stresses of isolation and separation. Scientific studies on female amphibians and non-human mammals generally show no adverse effect from short space missions, although the effect of extended space travel on human female reproduction is not known.
Although the first woman flew into space in 1963, very early in crewed space exploration, it would not be until almost 20 years later that another flew.
And while a number of American women underwent the astronaut selection process in the early 1960s - and passed - they were not eligible to be astronauts: All astronauts were required to be military test pilots, a career not available to women at the time.
NASA opened the space program to female applicants in 1978, in response to the new anti-discrimination laws of the time. When Sally Ride, the first US astronaut first went to space, the press asked her questions about her reproductive organs and whether she would cry if things went wrong on the job.
Women with children also face questions about how they would compare to traditional expectations of motherhood.. Shannon Lucid, one of the first batch of female US astronauts, remembers questions by the press on how her children would handle her being a mother in space. Women are also often expected to be the ones mainly responsible for childrearing, which can impact their career.
The first woman in space was a Soviet cosmonaut. Valentina Tereshkova launched with the Vostok 6 mission on June 16, 1963. The first woman to walk in space was also a cosmonaut: Svetlana Savitskaya was on her second mission when she space-walked on July 17, 1984 as part of Salyut 7-EP2.
Russian Yelena V. Kondakova became the first woman to travel for both the Soyuz programme and on the Space Shuttle. Yelena Serova became the first female Russian cosmonaut to visit the International Space Station on 26 September 2014.
The Russian space program has also hosted international cosmonauts. Helen Sharman from the United Kingdom (1991), Claudie Haigneré from France (1996 and 2001), Anousheh Ansari from Iran (2006), Yi So-yeon of South Korea (2008) and Samantha Cristoforetti from Italy (2014) and six Amen have entered space as part of the Soyuz programme.
The United States did not have a woman in space until 1983, when astronaut Sally Ride launched with the seventh Space Shuttle mission. Since then more than 40 American women have entered space. Most served on the various Space Shuttle flights from 1983 to 2011.
Sally Ride was the third woman overall to go into space, launching on the Space Shuttle. Ride served on the STS-7 from June 18 to 24 in 1983. Judith Resnik was the second American woman in space, after Sally Ride, and the fourth woman overall in space, as a mission specialist on the maiden voyage of Discovery, from August to September 1984, dying less than a year and a half later when the Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed. The first U.S. woman to go on an EVA was Kathryn ("Kathy") Sullivan on the STS-41-G, which launched on October 11, 1984. The first woman to be on an ISS expedition crew was Susan Helms on Expedition 2, which lasted from March 2001 until August 2001. United States NASA astronaut Kathleen Rubins became the 60th woman to fly in space when she launched to the International Space Station on July 6, 2016, serving as a flight engineer on Expedition 48 and Expedition 49. She returned in October 2016, having spent 12 hours and 46 minutes on EVA and 115 days in space and 12 hours and 46 minutes in space as part of these missions. During her stay on ISS she also conducted numerous experiments including some in the area of biology. She was the first woman, and the first person, to sequence DNA in space.
In addition to U.S. citizens, US rockets have launched international astronauts. Roberta Bondar (in 1992) and Julie Payette (in 1999 and 2009) from Canada, Kalpana Chawla of India (1997 and 2003), and Chiaki Mukai (in 1994 and 1998) and Naoko Yamazaki (in 2010) of Japan flew as part of the US space program.
A number of other high-profile women have contributed to interest in space programs. In the early 2000s, Lori Garver initiated a project to increase the visibility and viability of commercial spaceflight with the "AstroMom" project. She aimed to fill an unused Soyuz seat bound for the International Space Station because "…creating a spacefaring civilization was one of the most important things we could do in our lifetime.”
Another Canadian woman astronaut is Julie Payette from Montreal. Payette was part of the crew of STS-96, on the Space Shuttle Discovery from May 27 to June 6, 1999. During the mission, the crew performed the first manual docking of the Shuttle to the International Space Station, and delivered four tons of logistics and supplies to the station. On Endeavour in 2009 for STS-127, Payette served as a mission specialist. Her main responsibility was to operate the Canadarm robotic arm from the space station. Payette was sworn in as the 29th Governor-General of Canada on October 2, 2017.
In 1985, Chiaki Mukai was selected as one of three Japanese Payload Specialist candidates for the First Material Processing Test (Spacelab-J) that flew aboard STS-47 in 1992. She also served as a back-up payload specialist for the Neurolab (STS-90) mission. Mukai has logged over 566 hours in space. She flew aboard STS-65 in 1994 and STS-95 in 1998. She is the first Japanese woman to fly in space, and the first Japanese citizen to fly twice.
Naoko Yamazaki became the second Japanese woman to fly into space with her launch on April 5, 2010, Yamazaki entered space on the shuttle Discovery as part of mission STS-131. She returned to Earth on April 20, 2010. Yamazaki worked on ISS hardware development projects in the 1990s. She is an aerospace engineer and also holds a Masters degree in that field. She was selected for astronaut training in 1999 and was certified by 2001. She was a mission specialist on her 2010 space shuttle flight, and spent 362 hours in space. Yamazaki worked on robotics and transitioned through the reorganization of Japanese spaceflight organization when 2003 NASDA merged with ISAS (Institute of Space & Astronautic Science) and NAL (National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan). The new organization was called JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency).
In 2012, the Chinese space program sent their first woman to space.
China's first female astronaut candidates, chosen in 2010 from the ranks of fighter pilots, were required to be married mothers. The Chinese stated that married women were "more physically and psychologically mature" and that the rule that they had have had children was because of concerns that spaceflight would harm their reproductive organs (which includes embryos). The unknown nature of the effects of spaceflight on women was also noted. However, the director of the China Astronaut Centre has stated that marriage is a preference but not a strict limitation. Part of why they were so strict was because it was their first astronaut selection and they were trying be "extra cautious". China's first woman astronaut, Liu Yang, was married but had no children at the time of her flight in June 2012.
Anousheh Ansari was the fourth overall self-funded space traveler, and the first self-funded woman to fly to the International Space Station. She flew to the station in 2006 on the Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft. Her mission launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on 18 September 2006 at 08:09 MSD (04:09 UTC), docked with the ISS at 09:21 MSD (05:21 UTC) on 20 September, and returned to Earth on 21 April 2007. Soyuz TMA-9 transported two-thirds of ISS Expedition 14 to the space station along with Ansari. Ansari performed several experiments on behalf of the European Space Agency.
Payload Specialist Christa McAuliffe and mission specialist Judith Resnik became the first women to die on a space mission when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded less than 2 minutes after launch with the loss of all hands.
Female astronauts are subject to the same general physical effects of space travel as men. These include physiological changes due to weightlessness such as loss of bone and muscle mass, health threats from cosmic rays, dangers due to vacuum and temperature, and psychological stress.
Both men and women are affected by radiation. However, due to the currently used risk models for endometrial, ovarian and breast cancer, women at NASA can currently only spend half as much time on missions as men, which limits their career options compared to men.
Exposure to radiation is a concern. For air travel, the United States' Federal Aviation Administration recommends a limit of 1 mSv total for a pregnancy, and no more than 0.5 mSv per month. Astronauts on Apollo and Skylab missions received on average 1.2 mSv/day and 1.4 mSv/day respectively. Exposures on the ISS average 0.4 mSv per day (150 mSv per year), although frequent crew rotations minimize risk to individuals. A study published in 2005 in the International Journal of Impotence Research reported that short-duration missions (no longer than nine days) did not affect "the ability of astronauts to conceive and bear healthy children to term." In another experiment, the frog Xenopus laevis successfully ovulated in space.
Radiation shielding has been noted as an issue for space colonization because children of female astronauts could be sterile if the astronaut were exposed to too much ionizing radiation during the later stages of a pregnancy. Ionizing radiation may destroy the egg cells of a female fetus inside a pregnant woman, rendering the offspring infertile even when grown.
The lack of knowledge about pregnancy and birth control in micro-gravity has been noted in regards to conducting long-term space missions.
While no human had gestated in space as of 2003[update], scientists have conducted experiments on non-human mammalian gestation. Space missions that have studied "reproducing and growing mammals" include Kosmos 1129 and 1154, as the Shuttle missions STS-66, 70, 72, and 90. A Soviet experiment in 1983 showed that a rat that orbitted while pregnant later gave birth to healthy babies; the babies were "thinner and weaker than their Earth-based counterparts and lagged behind a bit in their mental development," although the developing pups eventually caught up.
A 1998 Space Shuttle mission showed that rodent Rattus mothers were either not producing enough milk or not feeding their offspring in space. However, a later study on pregnant rats showed that the animals successfully gave birth and lactated normally.
To date no human children have been born in space; neither have children gone into space. Nevertheless, the idea of children in space is taken seriously enough that some have discussed how to write curriculum for children in space-colonizing families.
The United States FAA requires airlines to provide flight crew with information about cosmic radiation, and an International Commission on Radiological Protection recommendation for the general public is no more than 1 mSv per year. In addition, many airlines do not allow pregnant flightcrew members, to comply with a European Directive. The FAA has a recommended limit of 1 mSv total for a pregnant woman, and no more than 0.5 mSv per month.
Massive particles are a concern for astronauts outside the earth's magnetic field who receive solar particles from solar proton events (SPE) and galactic cosmic rays from cosmic sources. These high-energy charged nuclei are blocked by Earth's magnetic field but pose a major health concern for astronauts traveling to the moon and to any distant location beyond the earth orbit. Highly charged HZE ions in particular are known to be extremely damaging, although protons make up the vast majority of galactic cosmic rays. Evidence indicates past SPE radiation levels that would have been lethal for unprotected astronauts.
A trip to Mars with current technology might be related measurements by the Mars Science Laboratory which for a 180-day journey estimated an exposure approximately 300 mSv, which would be equivalent of 24 CAT scans or "15 times an annual radiation limit for a worker in a nuclear power plant". German standards for pregnant woman set a limit of 50 mSv/year for the gonads (ovaries) and uterus, and 150 mSv/year for the breasts. For pregnant woman, radiation increases the risk of childhood cancers for the fetus.
One of the problems with radiation exposure from spaceflight for pregnant women is that children they bear might not themselves be able to have children. When a child is still in the womb, the baby's developing reproductive organs are sensitive to radiation; a fetus of either gender could be rendered infertile. The female fetus is vulnerable in that the eggs that develop while her mother is pregnant can be damaged, so if she has children, they could be infertile due to the exposure in their maternal grandmother's womb.