Space Exploration Milestones: Americans and Women

John Glenn Jr. made history for the United States when he became the first person from the United States to orbit the Earth. In this article, you will also learn about more American firsts in space, as well as one that is important to women’s history.

First American in Orbit

On February 20, 1962, Glenn made three orbits aboard the Friendship 7 capsule. He completed three orbits in 4 hours and 55 minutes. In addition to being an astronaut, he was also a pilot for the U.S. Marine Corps and later became a United States senator , serving as a Democrat in the Senate from 1974 to 1999. However, he is best known for his orbit of Earth and being the third American into space. Before joining the Mercury program, Glenn was a fighter pilot for the Marine Corps. Glenn also became the oldest person to fly in space, as well as the only one to fly in both the Mercury and Space Shuttle programs. He was 77 years old at the time when he flew on Discovery.

First Woman in Space

The USSR was also the first nation to send a woman into space. On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova flew into space aboard Vostok 6. She spent 2 days, 22 hours, 50 minutes and 8 seconds in space. To this day, she is still the youngest woman to have gone into space. She was 26 years old, 3 months, and 10 days old at the time of her flight. The cosmonaut was selected out of more than 400 applicants to become the first woman into space. Five finalists were chosen where she became the pilot chosen to fly the spacecraft Vostok 6.

She was also the first civilian to fly into space, as she was only inducted into the USSR’s Air Force as a condition of her joining the Cosmonaut Corps. Before entering space, she was an assembly worker in a textile factory. Her mission lasted three days, where she performed various tests on herself to collect data on how the female body reacts to spaceflights. In 1969, the first group of female cosmonauts was disbanded and she later entered politics as part of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, she retired from politics.

First Walk in Space

The first spacewalk was accomplished by the USSR when Aleskei Leonov left his spacecraft Voskhod 2 on March 18, 1965. He walked for 24 minutes. Before the mission, Leonov underwent about 18 months of intensive weightlessness training to prepare for his flight. However, the mission still did not go without any complications. His spacesuit ballooned and he was unable to return through the airlock until he reduced the pressure in his suit to a dangerously low level.

Following his space exploration days, Leonov served as the commander of the cosmonaut team (as he was called “Chief Cosmonaut”) and deputy director of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, where he watched over crew in training. In 1991, Leonov retired.