Almost Heaven by Bettyann Holtzman Kevles (part 2)

America may have missed out on being the first to send a woman into space, but they did manage an alternative, tragic first: the first female deaths in a space mission.

c mcauliffe

Christa Mc Auliffe

Both “teacher in space” Christa McAuliffe and Judy Resnik lost their lives when the shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift-off.

judy resnik

Judy Resnik

It was later determined that Resnik survived long enough to activate her personal emergency air-pack, so for some time was aware of the crew’s dire situation and her inevitable fate.
Resnik had been the second American woman in space and this Challenger mission was her second flight.

The tragedy could have set back the opportunities for female astronauts, but eventually, on the post-enquiry resumption of shuttle missions, only one class of female astronaut was affected.

In addition to the flight crew (none of which at this time had been a woman) and mission specialists (NASA employed engineers, scientists and technicians), Payload specialists had been a category of one-off crew members from the corporate world, who were accompanying satellites or science work, on behalf of their corporate employer.

Christa McAuliffe had been a payload specialist, chosen to be the first teacher into space, from where she would conduct educational broadcasts to the school children of America.  After Challenger, the involvement of American female payload specialists  came to an end, although the allocation of women to that role from other nations continued.

Shuttle pilots were restricted to those with military flight experience, and specifically test pilots.

E Collins.jpg

Eileen Collins

Those opportunities had not been open to female pilots, an outcome that also prevented opportunities in the space program.

The first to break through that barrier was Eileen Collins, who after being the second woman to attend the US air force test pilot school, not only became the first woman to pilot a shuttle, she progressed to be the first woman commander of a shuttle mission.

The possibilities available for Russian women to venture into space remained far more restrictive than it was for Americans, and American women even had more opportunity than Russian women  to join Russian missions. Russian men apparently had a harder time accepting their own countrywomen as colleagues in space than accepting foreign nationals.

To date, only four Russian/Soviet women have been flown into space, only one,Yelena Kondakova, made it to the Russian Mir space station, and one other, Yelena Serova, stayed aboard the International space station (the latter in 2014, long after this book was written).

The first Briton into space was a woman. Helen Sharman won a competition to fly to the Russian Mir for a 7 day trip. Working for the Mars confectionary company, she (to her dislike) was often referred to as the “woman from Mars”.

Another female resident of Mir was American Shannon Lucid, who spent 179 days aboard the station in 1996, at the time setting a record for the most continuous hours in space by a woman, as well as by a non-Russian.

Overall this was a fascinating book about a little-told part of the space program story, but could have been improved a little with more attention to factual detail.

I came across a few basic errors – such as naming John Glenn as the first American in space (he was the third) and that NASA’s T-38 jet were used to give astronauts an experience of weightlessness. That’s a role of much larger aircraft with abundant empty space where passengers experience short periods of weightlessness as the plane flies a series of steep, parabolic climbs and dives.

The T-38 is a two seater jet used for flight training as well as personal astronaut transport between workplaces.




Laurel Clark

Published in 2003, its Epilogue brings the book to a close with the deaths of two more female astronauts. Laurel Clark and Kalpana Chawla (KC) were part of the STS-107 crew. Their shuttle, Columbia, broke apart on re-entry during their return home from a 15 day mission.

almost heaven

For a list of female “spacefarers” – see

Almost Heaven by Bettyann Holtzman Kevles (part 1)

almost heavenWith the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing only a few days away, this book addresses an overlooked aspect of the space race.

While America and the world were following the achievements of an all-male astronaut cadre, most of us were unaware of attempts to have a female contingent added to their number.

A group of hopeful women submitted themselves to AND PASSED exactly the same selection interviews, medicals and physical tests taken by the men; and yet their candidacy was dismissed.

When asked about the possibility of the inclusion of women in space missions, the responses from senior men ranged from the predictable comments about space exploration being “men’s work”, to the acknowledgement that women would have to be included at a later stage to cook the meals and keep house on any prospective space station.

Those were the more savoury responses. Others were along the lines of a comment from rocket genius Werner von Braun, who agreed to the inclusion of women because there should be room for 110 lbs of recreational equipment on any mission.

sally ride

Sally Ride

The Russians weren’t quite as reticent to fly a woman into space, but they had no altruistic, gender-equality, reasons for doing so. All they wanted was to check another first off the list. After they’d already achieved the first man in space, they wanted to beat America again with flying the first woman into orbit. Once that was done, women were sidelined again, until many years later when America eventually announced that Sally Ride would become the first American woman in space aboard the shuttle Challenger.
The Russians hurriedly rearranged their launch schedule to include their second female cosmonaut in a mission to their Salyut space station.


Rhea Seddon

Even after women had started to become accepted members of space shuttle crews, attitudes still needed change. When Rhea Seddon had to make an impromptu space walk to literally stitch up part of a damaged satellite, someone in  Mission control commented on the value of her home-maker skills. On hearing that, Sally Ride corrected the man’s suggestion, advising him that Seddon’s stitches “were the work of a heart surgeon”.