Only 566 people have ever travelled to space. Sixty-five of them, or about 11.5%, were women.

NASA recently proclaimed it will put the “first woman and next man” on the Moon by 2024. Despite nearly 60 years of human spaceflight, women are still in the territory of “firsts”.

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space

The first woman in space was cosmonaut Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, who orbited Earth 48 times from June 16 to 18, 1963.

Her flight became Cold War propaganda to demonstrate the superiority of communism. At the 1963 World Congress of Women, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev used Tereshkova’s voyage to declare the USSR had achieved equality for women.

Women across the world took heart and dreamed they too might travel to space. Ekaterina Ergardt, a Soviet state farm worker, wrote to Tereshkova:

I am eighty years old. I started to live in the years of the beginning of women’s struggle for a life of freedom and equality … now the road to space is open for women.

Earthbound again

Despite this optimism, it was 19 years before another woman was allowed to venture beyond Earth.

In the United States, women were excluded from space by the restriction that astronauts had to be military test pilots – a profession barred to them.

While the first American astronauts – known as the Mercury 7 – were training in the 1960s, aerospace doctor Randy Lovelace recruited 13 women pilots and put them through the same paces as the male astronauts. The “Mercury 13” outperformed the men on many tests, particularly in how they handled isolation.

But NASA wasn’t convinced. A congressional hearing was held to investigate whether women should qualify to be astronauts. In her testimony, Mercury 13 astronaut candidate Jerrie Cob said:

I find it a little ridiculous when I read in a newspaper that there is a place called Chimp College in New Mexico where they are training chimpanzees for space flight, one a female named Glenda. I think it would be at least as important to let the women undergo this training for space flight.

She was prepared to take the place of a chimp, if that was the only way to get into space.

Message in a bottle

Historically, even those like Lovelace who believed women should go to space have seen their role as helping men, acting as a civilizing influence, or providing sex.

In one sense the first women on the Moon were Playboy playmates, in the form of pictures jokingly included in the Apollo 12 astronauts’ checklists. Their names were Cynthia Myers, Angela Dorian, Reagan Wilson, and Leslie Bianchini. The women’s bodies were likened to the lunar landscape: both the object of male conquest.

In popular culture in the 1960s, women were often associated with magic and emotion rather than science and technology.

The sitcom I Dream of Jeannie depicted the relationship between a US astronaut and a magical djinn or genie, imaginatively named Jeannie. NASA was an advisor for the series, which mirrored real space events. Jeannie represented seductive oriental femininity in opposition to the strait-laced, masculine, all-American astronauts.