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Integrating Women into the Astronaut Corps

Politics and Logistics at NASA, 1972–2004

Amy E. Foster

Publication Year: 2011

Why, Amy E. Foster asks, did it take two decades after the Soviet Union launched its first female cosmonaut for the United States to send its first female astronaut into space? In answering this question, Foster recounts the complicated history of integrating women into NASA’s astronaut corps. NASA selected its first six female astronauts in 1978. Foster examines the political, technological, and cultural challenges that the agency had to overcome to usher in this new era in spaceflight. She shows how NASA had long developed progressive hiring policies but was limited in executing them by a national agenda to beat the Soviets to the moon, budget constraints, and cultural ideas about women’s roles in America. Lively writing and compelling stories, including personal interviews with America’s first women astronauts, propel Foster’s account. Through extensive archival research, Foster also examines NASA’s directives about sexual discrimination, the technological issues in integrating women into the corps, and the popular media’s discussion of women in space. Foster puts together a truly original study of the experiences not only of early women astronauts but also of the managers and engineers who helped launch them into space. In documenting these events, Foster offers a broader understanding of the difficulties in sexually integrating any workplace, even when the organization approaches the situation with as positive an outlook and as strong a motivation as did NASA.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v

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pp. vii-ix

As a child and young adult, I wanted to be an astronaut. I grew up during the Shuttle era and watched intently each Shuttle launch on television that I could. I plastered my bedroom wall, not with posters of teen idols or pop stars, but with pictures of launches and newspaper articles about women...

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pp. 1-7

It was a hot Sunday morning in July, a typical summer morning in Houston, Texas. It was the kind of morning best spent relaxing and keeping cool, particularly if one were nine months pregnant. But today she was up on a stepladder, reaching for items on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet. After all, she and her husband were moving into their new home soon and they...

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1. Beyond Rosie the Riveter

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pp. 8-22

When NASA introduced the members of its Group XIX astronaut selection on May 6, 2004, the agency was also introducing a new kind of astronaut: the "educator mission specialist." For the first time, not every astronaut candidate had to possess a background in aviation, science (including...

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2. Wilma Deering Meets Captain Janeway

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pp. 23-45

The Soviet Union successfully launched Valentina Tereshkova, the world's first woman in space, aboard Vostofe 6 on June 16,1963. This event was the culmination of decades-old, perhaps centuries-old, ideas of women in space. Even though NASA is the American organization that put people into...

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3. "The Damn Crazy Things!"

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pp. 46-66

Between February 1960 and July 1961, thirteen women underwent, and passed, medical tests at the Lovelace Foundation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, physical and psychological examinations highly similar to those given at the clinic to the astronaut candidates who became the original Mercury...

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4. Making Space

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pp. 67-86

NASA designed its post-Apollo vehicle, the Space Shuttle, to make access to space routine. Its idea was to create "an integrated, efficient, economical space capability consisting of permanent space station modules and a low unit-mission cost space transportation system that will make earth...

Image Plates

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pp. PS1-PS8

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5. "The Strange Ones"

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pp. 87-105

On January 16,1978, NASA introduced its first new class of astronauts in nine years. Designated as Group VIII, the class of 1978 represented not only the largest class of astronauts in agency history but also the first to have the appearance of "a NASA affirmative-action poster."1 For the first time, the...

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6. Defying Gravity

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pp. 106-128

Even before Alan Shepard's suborbital flight on May 5,1961, NASA engineers and physicians spent a lot of time, energy, and resources trying to answer the question of how to put a person into space safely. With the Soviet Union's flights of Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova in the early 1960s,...

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7. "NASA Sutra"

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pp. 129-141

When NASA's administrators made the decision to include women in the astronaut corps, probably few people truly were aware of all the potential consequences of such a move. Developing the hardware and equipment was definitely challenging, but not nearly as controversial as the social...

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8. Uninvited Heroics

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pp. 142-152

When NASA selected the first six women astronauts in 1978, no one really knew how having women in the astronaut corps and on the upcoming Space Shuttle flights would work out. As much as the agency prepared for the eventuality of women serving as astronauts, it remained...

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pp. 153-159

On November 3, 2007, astronauts Scott Parazynski and Doug Wheelock performed a spacewalk to repair a torn solar array on the International Space Station (ISS). The tear formed when the array was being unfurled after its installation by the crews of STS-120 and Expedition 16.1 What...


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pp. 161-191

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 193-197

Because this work tells the story of integrating women into the astronaut corps from multiple perspectives, the sources are equally varied. The majority of the book discusses some of the everyday tensions and issues that arose during selection, training, and the actual flights of the first female astronauts, making oral histories...


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pp. 199-207

E-ISBN-13: 9781421403946
E-ISBN-10: 1421403943
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421401959
Print-ISBN-10: 1421401959

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 12 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Sex discrimination against women -- United States -- History.
  • United States. National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- Rules and practice -- History.
  • United States. National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- Officials and employees -- History.
  • Women astronauts -- United States -- History.
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