Women Space Firsts: A Footnote to History
Tereshkova, Savitskaya, Ride, Sullivan

STS-41G Emblem There probably was no formal declaration of the space race, but from the time the first manmade object was put into orbit around the earth by the U.S.S.R, each 'first' was recorded and placed in someone's record book. There are all sorts of firsts: first living creature in space, first man to orbit the earth, first man to perform an EVA and so on. A brief review of the firsts credited to women is given here with a personal account related to one of them.

On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to orbit the earth. She flew in Vostok-6 launched by the U.S.S.R. According to the source at the link here, "she was not permitted to take manual control of the spacecraft as had been planned. Mishin later claimed she was 'on the edge of psychological instability'. Whatever the case, Valentina completed three days in space, more than the flight time of all the American astronauts put together."

Valentina had the opportunity to fly into space for political and social reasons and it was not until almost 20 years later that another woman flew into space. She was Svetlana Savitskaya . On August 19, 1982, she flew on Soyuz T-7 with Leonid Popov and Aleksandr Serebrov. According to the source " She was selected . . ., as part of a female team selected to upstage pending female astronaut flights on the space shuttle. She became the second woman in space . . ., seven months before Sally Ride became the first American female astronaut in space . . ."

On June 18,1983 Sally Ride became the first American woman to orbit Earth when she flew aboard Space Shuttle Challenger.

Kathy T
Kathy T
Kathy S. - Crew Training Kathy Sullivan was the first female astronaut to go through the vacuum chamber spacesuit training program required for performing an EVA. I think I was involved in one way or another with all her training runs. When she entered the EVA training program, the prebreathe for men was three hours. However, the conventional wisdom was that women, because of their extra body fat, needed a longer prebreathe and that was set at an additional hour. Kathy gamely accepted the four-hour prebreathe followed by the usual time at vacuum. It made an all day operation with 6 to 7 hours in the suit with nothing to eat or drink but a fruit bar and water from a plastic bag in the suit at body temperature. (A special undergarment had been developed for the women to wear. It was a high-tech version of those now worn by the general public to protect from incontinence.) I remember that I was the test director for the first run she made. The photos on the left show Astronaut Kathy Thornton preparing for her first vacuum suit test. It is representative of the first vacuum chamber suit test that Kathy Sullivan participated in. The right photo shows Kathy Sullivan in our Shuttle Airlock test compartment preparing for her training test of suit and airlock operations to get from normal conditions to vacuum operation.

A special prebreathe protocol had been developed for Shuttle operations. The crew members scheduled for the EVA prebreathed for one hour using oxygen masks then the Shuttle cabin pressure was reduced to 10.2 psia for 24 hours. Thus the crew could sleep during part of the prebreathe then don the suits after 24 hours. A final 75-minute prebreathe in the suits completed the prebreathe requirement.

Even though it was not mandatory, Kathy said that she would do another run using the '10.2 over-night' protocol. I was test director on the shift that got her settled into the chamber during the evening and got the chamber stabilized at 10.2 psia for the over-night sleep period.

Sally Ride and Kathy were scheduled to fly on STS-41G. That would make Sally the first woman in the world to fly in space twice and Kathy would be the first woman in the world to do an EVA. (It may have been the first flight with two women aboard.) We all were hoping the flight would be successful and so that we would be part of a world first. However, on July 25, 1984, Svetlana took both records: the first woman to fly twice in space and the first woman to do an EVA. Her EVA lasted 3.58 hours and was part of the Soyuz T-12 mission.

Kathy was at our facility for additional training after those records had been set and I told her that I had really hoped that she would have been the first woman to do an EVA. She said that if only the US space program hadn't been so open, the Russians wouldn't have known to plan to beat us to those two records. She was obviously disappointed. She went on to fly several missions. Svetlana didn't fly again.

Kathy's first mission, STS-41G, launched from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on October 5, 1984. Kathy and Dave Leestma conducted a 3-1/2 hour EVA to demonstrate the feasibility of actual satellite refueling, making her the first U.S. woman to perform an EVA. STS-41G completed 132 orbits of the Earth in 197.5 hours.

Walk Thru Dry Run Prep A series of prebreathe studies indicated that 3 hours was not long enough for a thorough prebreathe and so the prebreathe was extended to 3 1/2 hours. Kathy (with lots of support from the rest of the astronauts, I think) said that there was no way to justify a 4 1/2-hour prebreathe for women! Instead everyone agreed on a 4-hour prebreathe for both men and women.

In another situation, not related to prebreathe, most of the men decided to use the special absorbent undergarments instead of the 'relief tubes' they had used until that time.

The final two photos were taken during preparation for the Thermal/Vacuum Test of the tools to be used during the Hubble Space Telescope launch mission. The first shows the 'chamber walk-thru' during which the tool layout and procedure are reviewed. The other shows Kathy preparing for the 'dry run' which is a practice run to demonstrate that all the required chamber airlock operations can be performed in the pressurized suit.

In April 1990, Kathy served on the crew of STS-31, which launched on April 24, 1990. During the five-day mission, crew members aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery deployed the Hubble Space Telescope. The contingency EVA that she and McCandless had trained for was not required because the Space Telescope was released without problems. She and he had gone through the EVA procedure for suit donning and Airlock depressurization and were waiting in the Airlock at an intermediate pressure to continue the depress to vacuum and move to the cargo bay to help deploy the Space Telescope if necessary.

She served as Payload Commander on STS-45, the first Spacelab mission dedicated to NASA's Mission to Planet Earth. With the completion of that third mission, she had logged over 532 hours in space. She left NASA in August 1992 to assume the position of Chief Scientist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

We Encountered an Unexpected Gender Difference in Shuttle Suit Testing
When the female astronauts began space suit training for EVAs on the Shuttle, we decided that it was time to have female spacesuit test subjects. Several of the young female engineers were interested so they went through the test subject training program to be ready for space suit tests at vacuum conditions.
The astronaut training runs usually required only about 30 minutes of exercise on the treadmill, but runs with test subjects often continued for 3 hours or more to demonstrate the suit systems' capacities for a full EVA. We needed to do a series of tests involving about 3 hours exercise at vacuum and we started with one of the new female test subjects. All went well during the prebreathe and start of exercise at vacuum conditions but, after about 45 minutes of exercise, the test subject reported a "O2 Use High" alarm on the suit display panel. This was cause for some concern in the control room because the alarm message could have been the result of anything from a slight leak caused by a hair or thread in a seal to an incipient catastrophic failure of a major suit connection. We had the test subject stop walking on the treadmill and soon aborted the test.
No leaks or other obvious problems were found during post-test suit evaluation of the suit and its systems, so we tried again in a day or two. Again after about 45 minutes to an hour the "O2 Use High" alarm came on. A few trouble-shooting things were tried to no avail and the test was aborted.
We decided to let one of the other women give it a try; again the message "O2 Use High" after about an hour.
We decided to run the identical profile with one of the veteran male astronauts and this time there was no problem. He probably completed the series of runs, I don't remember. During that time someone began to suspect the suit's waist bearing. The hypothesis was that men usually didn't twist their lower torsos enough to rotate the waist bearing during exercise but the women did. The female astronauts had not been exercising long enough in a single test to get the effect apparently. This seemed like a long shoot, but the decision was made to run a test with the veteran male test subject and have him deliberately rotate the waist bearing during exercise by exaggerating the rotation his hips as he walked. Even though we suspected the waist bearing, we were still a little surprised to have him report the "O2 Use High" alarm after about 45 minutes!
I won't go into detail about the waist bearing design, but rotation of the bearing under the tension of the inflated suit caused the ball bearings to bunch up which wrinkled the seal and allowed it to leak slightly. As a result of this problem the bearing was completely redesigned and no problems of that sort occurred in later tests.

Test Subject in Shuttle Airlock Simulator
This is the test subject. In this photo she is donning the LTA (Lower Torso Assembly) in preparation for a Shuttle EVA evaluation test in the Shuttle Airlock Vacuum Facility. She has already donned the LCVG (Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment). She is sitting on a pad provided to protect the LTA from the aluminum floor of the facility. The HUT (Hard Upper Torso) connected to the PLSS (Primary Life Support System) is in the upper right of the photo. The HUT and PLSS are bolted together and weigh about 90 kilograms (200 pounds) total. They are supported by a special weight relief system suspended from the top of the facility. All these assemblies together make up the EMU (Extra-vehicular Mobility Unit). This is not the facility in which she made the long endurance record.
An Informal Time-In-Suit Endurance Record
One of the female test subjects was so enthusiastic and dedicated that she insisted on being given the opportunity to break the record for time in a suit at vacuum. This was our informal record for time in a single EVA simulation in a vacuum chamber test, not for total EVA time for multiple missions. It was an informal record that our test team and test subjects kept up with, not something that NASA promoted. Some of the actual Shuttle EVAs may have been longer. Our informal record was a little over 8 hours and until that time was held by a branch manager of the contractor supporting the space suit program.
Special permission had to be obtained from the flight medicine office and the safety office to exceed a safety limit of 6 hours at vacuum. Adequate justification based on the test objectives had to be provided to obtain permission. Occasionally there was a need to show that the space suit system had the capacity to operate for its maximum operational time. When the next long endurance test of that type came along, we obtained the required approval and scheduled the woman as test subject.
Of course, more time is required in the suit than just the time at vacuum. First is the pre-breathe period, (four hours for women at that time), then depressurization to vacuum (about 30 minutes) and repress back to normal pressure at the end of the run (another 30 minutes). So add at least 5 hours to the time at vacuum and our female test subject was in the suit for a little over 13 hours without a break and most of the time at vacuum was spent exercising. The only thing to eat in a shuttle space suit is a fruit bar (she requested that it be left out of her suit) and the only water available had to be sucked from a plastic bag at body-temperature. The test subject was exhausted at the end of the run and was ready for a pizza but was proud of her accomplishment.
The test safety officer and the medical officer almost didn't let us exceed the 8-hour limit by the few minutes we thought would be necessary to insure that we had exceeded the previous record. They knew that the extra few minutes were being added just to satisfy the test subjects whim and wanted to insist that we abide by the time we had requested permission for. We finally agreed to say that we had permission for 8 hours exercise and that the extra minutes were required for start-up at vacuum and for systems shutdown before chamber repressurization was started.
This video of a suit donning demonstration has been on YouTube for some time now.

NOTE: I have just read in The World Book Year Book for 2002 that Susan Helms and James Voss set a record for the longest spacewalk - 8 hours, 56 minutes - during their time on the Space Station in early 2001. That time would have been time at vacuum. They would have been in the suits for an additional hour or two for a total in-suit time of maybe 11 hours.
Added 1-1-2013 - I just found this video of a young women donning an Orlan spacesuit and going through some of the exercises at Zvezda. I recognize on of the men as an engineer who worked there back in 1998 when I visited there. He's older and grayer, but still working there.

STS-1 Post-flight EMU Test - The result was not what we had expected.
Skylab Medical Experiments Altitude Test (SMEAT)- My photos of the 56-day vacuum test with Bob Crippen, Karol Bobko, and Dr. Bill Thornton. Features Jessica Savitch on the news team that reported the chamber entry and presidential candidate George McGovern who visited during the test.
My Own Experience as a Space Suit Test Subject in preparation for Ed White's first U.S. EVA
STS-1 Award received for participation in the preparation for the STS-1 Shuttle Mission aboard the orbiter Columbia commanded by astronaut John Young and piloted by astronaut Bob Crippen. The miniature flag was actually flown aboard the orbiter during the mission and was returned to earth to be used for mementos such as this.
The First Gals has a good list of all the firsts.
Training of a Female Cosmonaut In the history of Soviet/Russian space exploration, there have only been three Russian women-cosmonauts: Valentina Tereshkova, Svetlana Savitskaya, and Elena Kondakova. Nadezhda Kuzhelnaya, 38, is currently training for her first space mission. So far she is the only woman to be seriously considered as a cosmonaut for near-term space missions. Read her story here.
The History of Spacesuits This is an About.Com article that begins with the spacesuit for use on Project Mercury.

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First posted in 2000
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