NASA’s ‘Six’ Took Women to New Heights

The first women astronauts endured discrimination to clear a path for other women to follow.

By Peter F. Meiksins, Ph.D.

CREDIT: Scribner | Simon & Schuster

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of Sally Ride becoming the first American woman in space. The idea of a female astronaut no longer seems strange, as dozens of women1 from a variety of countries have now ventured into space. But as Loren Grush’s The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Women Astronauts2 reveals, the first American women in space had to overcome a formidable array of policies, politics, practices, and cultural beliefs to break into what had been an all-male preserve.

When the U.S. space program began in 1958, there was general opposition to the idea of female astronauts. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act and established the administration known as NASA, was opposed. Early on, NASA required that recruits have experience as military-trained test pilots, and women had been barred from flying military planes after World War II.

Some scientists at NASA were interested in finding out if women could do the job, since they were generally smaller and might fit into cramped spacecraft more easily. Preliminary tests were conducted and 12 women passed, but further testing was discontinued after NASA officials (including John Glenn) argued before a Congressional hearing that experience as a test pilot was vital.

Push to change

The astronaut corps remained entirely male until the mid-1970s, when NASA came under social and congressional pressure to change. Grush, a science and space reporter for Bloomberg, notes that the activities of the feminist movement had led many institutions to implement policies promoting equal opportunity. Events inside NASA were also important. In 1973, Ruth Bates Harris — who had been hired originally as NASA’s director of equal opportunity but was quickly downgraded to deputy assistant administrator of equal employment opportunity programs — wrote a report with two colleagues describing NASA’s “near total failure”3 to recruit women and minorities.

Harris was fired after the report came out, but this led to a public outcry that increased the pressure on the agency to implement changes.4

So, when NASA began recruiting for the new space shuttle program in 1977, it made a conscious effort to increase diversity. Because the new program had added the role of “mission specialist,” having military test pilot experience was no longer an eligibility requirement. Twenty-one women were among the 208 candidates selected, and “the six” were among those to make the final cut in January 1978.

Breaking ground

Grush argues that, in general, NASA was accepting of the six female astronauts, but she also acknowledges the various problems they encountered. The agency did make some adjustments to accommodate female trainees (e.g., separate locker rooms, hair dryers, etc.) and made no issue of the fact that astronauts such as Anna Lee Fisher became pregnant.

At the same time, women had recurring problems obtaining clothing that fit, and even those with piloting experience were not allowed to ride in the “front seat” during training flights, although a male trainee with similar experience could. NASA medical personnel were initially hesitant about letting a female astronaut conduct a spacewalk, based on problematic research suggesting women might be more likely to get “the bends,” a dangerous reaction to sudden changes in pressure. (Kathy D. Sullivan, who was the first American woman to walk in space, was actually an experienced diver.)

The space shuttle program could seem like a “boys club” in which men cracked sexist jokes and played pranks on one another, occasionally with sexist overtones. Some male astronauts were reluctant to fly with a woman because their wives had expressed concern about the close proximity this involved. Engineers weren’t accustomed to women questioning their decisions and, at times, seemed unaware that the women in the room were actually astronauts.

The women also had to contend with external press coverage that was frequently disparaging and stereotyping. While the media were fascinated by the fact that there were now women in the space program, reporters talked about their height, weight, age, and marital status, sometimes referred to them as “girls” or “ladies,” and peppered them with questions about romance, social relationships, and motherhood. Some press coverage raised questions about the appropriateness of a mother being an astronaut.

Rising above

How did the six react to the various forms of sexism they encountered? According to Grush, they did not project feminist attitudes and remained focused, above all, on blending in and on being accepted. They tolerated, at least up to a point, adolescent pranks and jokes because doing so was part of being “one of the boys.” They were acutely aware of being pioneers and anxious not to do anything that would persuade NASA or the public that women couldn’t cut it. Grush describes astronaut Judy Resnik as a clear example of this approach:

“She never really got mad, not seriously, anyway. Just like Sally [Ride], Judy didn’t want to make a big deal of her gender. She didn’t want people to think that she’d gotten to her position based on some predetermined trait that was out of her control. She felt that she’d worked unbelievably hard to get to the level she was at. ‘I think I’m where I am because I just happened to make the right decisions at the times when the decisions were presented to me,’ she told a reporter once. When asked if she credited the women’s movement with her success, Judy said she didn’t credit anyone.”

Grush concludes the book with a largely positive assessment of the progress toward gender equity in the American space program. NASA’s initial refusal to allow women to participate has been overcome, many firsts have been achieved, and public acceptance of female astronauts is firmly established. The current NASA program that plans to return human beings to the lunar surface includes a number of women astronauts and is named after the goddess Artemis. Still, much remains to be achieved.

Grush notes that various forms of sexist behavior continued well after the first American female astronauts successfully completed their flights. It wasn’t until 1995, almost 20 years after the six were recruited, that Eileen Collins became the first American woman to pilot a NASA spacecraft. And it remains true that men have been the vast majority of the people to travel in space and remain the majority of currently active astronauts.5

Moving forward

The six faced a dilemma that confronts any outsider trying to break into an environment in which they have not historically been welcome. Should one openly protest exclusionary policies and offensive behaviors and demand that conditions change? Or does one put one’s head down and get on with the job, hoping a demonstration of competence and a team orientation will lead to gradual acceptance and, eventually, equity?

The first American female astronauts generally adopted the latter attitude and were able to succeed in a male-dominated world that gradually accepted them but didn’t always do enough to adapt to their different lives and needs. Perhaps they were right not to rock the boat too much and to prefer to succeed on their own individual merits.

Still, one must ask: Has the rate and extent of change been limited by their reluctance to make more explicit their desire for gender equity and their criticisms of the status quo? And would NASA have been willing to recruit female astronauts at all had it not been for the activism of the feminist movement and the willingness and courage of Ruth Bates Harris to document the exclusion of women from the space program?


  1. As of June 2023, 77 women had flown in space, of which 59 were American.
  2. Grush, Loren. 2023. The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Women Astronauts. NY: Scribner.
  3. Quoted in Grush, p. 77.
  4. For a contemporary account of this incident, see Holden, Constance. “NASA: Sacking of Top Black Woman Stirs Concern for Equal Employment.” Science. New Series 182:4114 (Nov. 23, 1973), pp. 804-7.
  5. NASA’s website lists 38 current astronauts, 16 of whom are women. The first Artemis mission will have a crew of four, one of whom is a woman.

About the author

Peter Meiksins, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of sociology at Cleveland State University and a contributing writer to SWE Magazine.