Imaging Women in the Space Age

By Michael Forte

The Apollo 11 mission made its landing on the moon on July 16, 1969. The three-person team of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were the first people in history to step foot on the moon’s surface. Armstrong, upon landing, proclaimed this was “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Effectively ending the “Space Race,” the three men were given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Nixon. While this was a giant leap for mankind, the giant leaps for “womankind” often go unnoticed.

Fifty years after the Apollo 11 mission, curator Dr. Jolie Wosk is showcasing the achievements of women in space missions both on and off screen in her “Imaging Women in the Space Age” exhibit. Hosted at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) in Queens, the exhibit runs July 13, 2019 – March 29, 2020 and is free to access with museum admission. The exhibit “showcases the achievements of American’s pioneering female astronauts and highlights the fascination with space women in movies, television, advertising, fashion design and today’s toys,” according to the NYSCI site.

Wosk is a professor emerita of English, art history, and studio painting at SUNY Maritime in New York City. The author of four books, Wosk gave a presentation of My Fair Ladies: Female Robots, Androids, and Other Artificial Eves at Harvard University.

“(The exhibit) was inspired by the anniversary of the moon landing,” Wosk said in an interview with NYSCI. “I wanted to show how this idea of women and the moon has a long history and continues to the present day. I wanted to show how it inspired young women to become astronauts.” Though it wasn’t until 1969 that humans landed on the moon, the first man to travel in space was cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin in 1961; the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, followed soon after in 1963.

Sally Ride was the first American woman to enter space in 1983. After attending Swarthmore College and the University of California, Ride graduated from Stanford University with degrees in English and physics. Being the third woman in space after two USSR cosmonauts Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya, Ride served as a mission specialist aboard the Challenger spacecraft. She was 32 years old at the time and remains the youngest American astronaut to travel into space.

Mae Jemison is an engineer, physician, and was the first black woman to travel into space in 1992. Serving as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor, Jemison worked for NASA for five years. She graduated from Stanford University with degrees in chemical engineering, and African and African American studies. After earning a medical degree from Cornell University, Jemison served as a doctor for the Peace Corps in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Space women have made an impact on toys and merchandise. Barbie created two figures, the Barbie Career Astronaut and Barbie Space Scientist dolls. LEGO released the Women of NASA set, featuring figures of Mae Jemison, Sally Ride, Nancy G. Roman, and Margaret Hamilton. Roman is famous for her role in planning the Hubble Space Telescope. Hamilton helped develop the on-board flight software for NASA’s Apollo program.

Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, in the Alien film series was praised and notable for challenging gender roles in film, particularly in science fiction. Ripley is often mentioned as one of the most important female protagonists in film.

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