Women of Discovery

Women spearheaded breakthrough scientific missions and helped shape the Space Shuttle era.

By Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Mission Specialist Judith Resnik by NASASmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Judith Resnik
Judith Resnik, an engineer, was a member of the first class of NASA astronauts to include women in 1978. She served as a mission specialist aboard STS 41-D, Discovery’s first mission in 1984. She logged 144 hours and 57 minutes in space and became the second American woman in orbit, preceded by Sally Ride in 1983.

Resnik was a specialist on the 1986 Challenger mission. She, along with the other six Space Shuttle crew members, died just 73 seconds into their ascent on January 28, 1986. Resnik was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

Astronaut Ellen Ochoa STS-96 mission specialist by NASASmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Ellen Ochoa
When STS-1 Columbia, the first spaceflight of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, launched on April 12, 1981, the world was watching—including Ellen Ochoa, an engineering student who would go on to become the first Hispanic woman in space.

Ochoa joined the crew of the STS-56 mission aboard Discovery in 1993, studying the Earth’s ozone layer. This was the first of four separate space missions Ochoa would fly, experience that led her eventually to become the first Hispanic director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Of her time aboard Discovery, Ochoa said: “It was not just about experiencing space. We were up there for a purpose. We had people counting on us. We had a job to do and we needed to work together to do it.”

Astronaut Eileen Collins by NASASmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Eileen Collins
The first woman pilot of a Space Shuttle, Eileen Collins was selected for the astronaut program in 1990, while she was still in the Air Force’s test pilot school. (She was groundbreaking in the Air Force, too. Collins was the second female pilot to attend the USAF’s pilot school.)

Collins served as Discovery’s pilot for STS-63 in 1995. The mission kicked off the then-new joint Russian-American Space Program, and involved a rendezvous with Mir, the Russian Space Station. Four years later, Collins served as commander of Columbia's STS-93 mission, launching the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and becoming the first woman commander of the Space Shuttle era in the process.

Interview With Astronaut Anna Fisher Explains Why Getting Rejected from Medical School Paid Off, Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum
Show lessRead more

Anna Lee Fisher When Anna Lee Fisher took off on STS-51-A, Discovery’s 14th mission in 1984, her daughter Kristin was nine months old, and Fisher became the first mother to travel to space.

Fisher, a chemist and medical doctor, was recruited for NASA’s first class of astronauts to include women in 1978. She was assigned to her first flight just two weeks before she gave birth to her daughter. Her daughter was born on a Friday, and Fisher was back at NASA for their weekly astronaut meeting on the following Monday. “I wanted to make a statement that, 'Yes I had a child, but I’m committed to this and I'm going to be here,'" she later said.

Astronaut Stephanie Wilson by NASASmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Stephanie Wilson
Stephanie Wilson went on her first mission to space in 2006, on STS-121. It was the first of three missions she served on Discovery to the International Space Station. Wilson would go on to spend more than 42 days in space, the most of any African American astronaut.

Wilson, an engineer, worked as a robotic arm operator for all three of her missions. On her last mission in 2001, she worked on installing the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module to the ISS.

Astronaut Sunita L. Williams Runs Boston Marathon by NASASmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Sunita Williams
Astronaut Sunita Williams traveled the 220 miles from Earth to the International Space Station aboard Space Shuttle Discovery in December of 2006. In April, she added another 26.2 miles to her journey by running the Boston Marathon while in space, the first to do so!

Williams joined the astronaut corps in 1998, and traveled to the ISS with STS-116 eight years later. While aboard the ISS, Williams completed four spacewalks.

Astronauts High Five in Space, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum
Show lessRead more

A total of 28 women also served on Discovery mission crews.

Nancy Currie, Jan Davis, Susan Helms, Joan Higginbotham, Tamara Jernigan, Janet Kavandi, Wendy Lawrence, Shannon Lucid, Sandra Magnus, Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenberger, Shannon Lucid, Lisa Nowak, Karen Nyberg, Rhea Seddon, Nicole Stott, Kathryn Sullivan, Kathryn Thornton, Janice Voss, Mary Ellen Weber, Canadian astronauts Roberta Bondar and Julie Payette, and Japan’s astronaut Chiaki Mukai. 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Google apps