These Incredible Women Were ‘Firsts’ in Space Travel
The interviews with Mae Jemison, Kathryn Sullivan, and Eileen Collins are part of TIME Firsts, a multimedia project featuring 46 groundbreaking women. Watch the rest of the videos at Time.com/Firsts. Buy the book at the TIME Shop.
“I decided I wanted to be an astronaut in fourth grade,” Eileen Collins told TIME. But at the time, she didn’t realize she was dreaming the impossible.
Even knowing that she would be faced with adversity, Collins persisted as she grew up, never once imagining herself as anything but an astronaut.
Collins eventually joined the Air Force — one of four women in the first class at Vance Air Force Base to have women in pilot training.
“It was important for us to excel in training and for the test program to succeed,” Collins said. “If the first women did poorly, that could have caused the cancellation of the program.”
It was here that she decided to apply for NASA’s space-shuttle program. “I [knew] that to be a shuttle pilot you had to be a test pilot. So I applied to test-pilot school. That’s when I knew I could be the first woman shuttle pilot,” Collins said, noting that there were very few women ahead of her for this honor.
Collins’ childhood vision came true when John Young, the commander of the Apollo 16 mission, told her she would be piloting a space shuttle. “You will be the first woman pilot of the space shuttle,” Young told her.
Collins was a pilot or commander on four spaceflights, before retiring from NASA in 2006.
Like Collins, Mae Jemison also imagined going to space as a small child. “Growing up,” she told TIME, “I always assumed I would go to space.”
Despite growing up in the 1960s, Jemison never believed the color of her skin would prevent her from achieving all of her wildest, extraterrestrial dreams.
And she attributes this determination — this sense of knowing that it could be — to her ability to become the first woman of color to go to space in 1992.
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Before Collins and Jemison, there was Kathryn Sullivan — one of America’s first six female astronauts and the first woman to walk in space.
“We certainly realized that we were going to be watched carefully,” Sullivan said in an interview with TIME. “We also, in an extra way I think, wanted to be sure we did a good job, a classy job, a smart job, so that the question was firmly settled and the runway was well paved for other women to follow us.”
On Oct. 11, 1984, Sullivan left the space shuttle Challenger, and preserved her place in history as the first female spacewalker.
“All six of us in that first batch of women felt a self-imposed pressure,” Sullivan said. They all knew they could be the first woman to fly, or the first to do a spacewalk. “We knew our performance would have a big influence on the prospects of the women who would come after us,” she added.
Sullivan, Collins, and Jemison all had a hand in making the future of space travel possible for women today.
“Being ‘first’ gives you a responsibility,” Jemison said. “You have a public platform, and you must chose how to use it ... People say you can have everything. No, you can’t. But you can have a lot more — and do a lot more — than you think.”
In 2013, NASA announced a new class of eight astronauts, of which half were women — the largest percentage in history.