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Female Aerospace Pioneers

 “Flying is the best possible thing for women.” — Baroness Raymonde de la Roche

Female Aerospace Pioneers

Although men were the first aviators, women quickly took to the air as well.  Most early flight schools did not accept female students, but determined women learned from friends or paid for private lessons. Since the early 19th century, women have been making strides in the field of aviation. From flying the first airplanes to walking in space, women have been accomplishing aviation and aerospace milestones for more than 100 years. Let’s take a look at the lives of seven female aersopace pioneers:

Baroness Raymonde de la Roche

The first woman pilot, Baroness Raymonde de la Roche, was licensed in 1910 in France.  She was taught by her friend, Charles Voisin.  In 1919 this talented engineer and pilot set a women’s altitude record by flying at a height of 4,785 meters.  In the summer of that year she decided to become the first female test pilot.  The new aircraft went into a dive and crashed, killing her and the pilot.

Baroness Raymonde de la Roche

The Baroness, always comfortable behind the wheel of her Voisin, c1909

Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman

In 1921 Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman, a Texan, became the first civilian (non-military) licensed African-American pilot in the world.  Elizabeth “Bessie” ColemanShe went to France to learn to fly after her brothers, who served in World War II, told her French women were allowed to fly. When she returned to the United States she did air shows: barnstorming, parachute jumping, and giving demonstrations. Coleman would only perform if the audience was not segregated and all people got to enter the show through the same gate.  This courageous and adventurous woman fell from the open cockpit of a plane during a test flight which ended her life on April 30, 1926.  She was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006.

Madame Therese Peltier

Born in France in 1873, Madame Peltier was a well-known sculptor in Paris. She became interested in aviation when her friend and fellow sculptor, Leon Delagrange, took an interest in flying. Madame Therese PeltierShe was Delagrange’s constant passenger, observing how his airplane works and studying the mechanics of aviation. She began to take lessons from Delagrange, and in 1908, she completed her first solo flight. With this flight, Peltier became the first woman to pilot a heavier-than-air craft. Despite her successful flight, Peltier never applied for her pilot’s license. In 1910, Delagrange died in an airplane crash in Bordeaux, and Peltier lost interest in aviation. In a time when most women were thought unable to drive a car – much less pilot an airplane – Peltier’s accomplishments as an aviator are truly remarkable.

Amelia Earhart

Amelia EarhartAmelia Earhart was born in 1897 in Kansas and fell in love with airplanes while attending an air show in Toronto as a teenager. As a college student, Earhart convinced her father to pay for flying lessons. After just one ten-minute lesson, Earhart was hooked and worked a variety of jobs, including photographer, truck driver and stenographer, to raise the money needed for her remaining lessons. In 1923, Earhart became the 16th woman to earn a pilot’s license. In 1932, after years of flying with male pilots, Earhart wanted to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in a solo flight. She set off from Newfoundland and landed in a pasture at Culmore in Northern Ireland. She had hoped to make it to Paris, but strong winds shortened her journey. Nevertheless, with this flight, Earhart became the first female pilot to complete a solo transatlantic flight.

Valentina Tereshkova

Valentina Tereshkova is a former Soviet cosmonaut who became the first woman in space. Her career, though, started out on a different path. As a young girl, Tereshkova was interested in parachuting and later took skydiving lessons. She completed her first jump at the age of 22. At the time, she was an assembly line worker with barely a high school education.

Valentina Tereshkova

Valentina Tereshkova

In 1961, the Soviet Union wanted to put a woman in space and began a search for the country’s first female cosmonaut. Tereshkova applied and was selected out of more than 400 candidates, based largely on her expertise as a parachutist and skydiver.

Valentina Tereshkova

Valentina Tereshkova

In 1963, at the age of 26, Tereshkova boarded the Vostok 6 and began her three-day space journey, orbiting the earth 48 times. After her flight, Tereshkova studied at the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy and earned a doctorate in engineering.

Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock

In 1964 Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock became the first woman to fly solo around the world.  Her flight took 29 days and was completed April 17, 1964.  According to her obituary, Mock thought her flight was no big deal.  She said she did it mostly “to have fun.”  Although she enjoyed flying, she obviously took it seriously, too–she did, after all, live to the age of 88.  When she did her around-the-world flight, she was a full-time mother of three children and had been a licensed pilot for only seven years.  During her famous flight she once had to land in Saudi Arabia.  After she exited the plane, the crowd waited for a man (the pilot) to come out, too.  When no man emerged, they realized she was the pilot and many cheered.  Her plane, the Spirit of Columbus, is in a museum in Chantilly, Virginia.

Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock

Moments before she took off from the Port of Columbus Airport on her 1964 flight, Mock posed in front of Three-Eight Charlie, also known as the Spirit of Columbus. According to her memoir, Mock wore her “blue, drip-dry outfit” throughout the flight.

Dr. Sally Ride

Dr. Sally Ride, a physicist, became the first American Woman to fly in space.  Her first space shuttle mission took off on June 18, 1983.  She flew a second mission in 1984.  One of her specialties on the mission was to operate the robotic arm used to place satellites in orbit.  She became part of the astronaut Hall of Fame in 2003.  Until she died in 2012, Sally Ride worked hard to encourage young people to study science and math.  She had college degrees in both English and physics, and went on to earn a Ph.D. (the highest degree one can earn in a field) in physics.  Dr. Ride knew how important education is and wanted to help students in any way she could. She often shared her space experiences in schools and in interviews.  Her company, Sally Ride Science, especially encouraged girls to develop their interests in science and technology.

Dr. Sally Ride

Female Aviation Timeline

How much do you know about female aviation pioneers? Here’s a timeline of female aviation and aerospace accomplishments to inspire your future aviator:
1906 – E. Lillian Todd became the first woman to help design and build an aircraft
1908 – Madame Therese Peltier became the first woman to fly an airplane by herself
1910 – Baroness Raymonde de Laroche got the first women’s pilot license
1910 – Bessica Raiche became the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license
1911 – Harriet Quimby was the first American woman fly across the English Channel
1913 – Katherine Stinson was the first American woman to operate a flight school
1921 – Bessie Coleman was the first African American to earn an International Pilot’s License
1928 – Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean
1930 – Amy Johnson was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia
1934 – Jeanette Picard was America’s first female licensed balloon pilot and America’s first woman to enter the stratosphere
1934 – Helen Richey was the first woman to be hired to pilot a U.S. commercial airline
1936 – Jean Batten was the first pilot to fly solo from England to New Zealand
1937 – Sabiha Gokcen of Turkey was the first female pilot to fly combat missions
1938 – Hanna Reitsch was the first woman to fly a helicopter
1938 – Willa Brown was the first African-American woman to earn her pilot’s license and commercial license
1953 – Jacqueline Cochran became the first woman to break the sound barrier
1963 – Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to fly in space
1964 – Geraldine Mock was the first woman to fly solo around the world
1974 – Barbara Allen Rainey was the first female pilot in the U.S. military
1976 – Emily Howell Warner was the first female to command a major American passenger flight
1980 – Lynn Rippelmeyer was the first woman pilot to fly a Boeing 747
1983 – Sally Ride became the first American woman to go to space
1984 – Svetlana Savitskaya was the first woman to ever perform a space walk
1992 – Dr. Mae Jemison was the first African American woman to go to space
1995 – Martha McSally was the first woman to fly combat missions for the United States
1996 – Shannon Lucid is the American astronaut who has been in space for the longest period of time and the American woman with the most missions to space
1997 – Eileen Collins was the first woman to command a U.S. space shuttle mission
2001 – Polly Vacher became the first woman to fly around the world in a small plane
2001 – Vernice Armour became the first African-American combat pilot
2012 – Liu Yang was the first Chinese woman to launch into space
2012 – Col. Jeannie Flynn Leavitt became the U.S. Air Force’s first female wing commander
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STEM for Girls Making Headlines

The movement to engage more girls in STEM is in full force and has the backing of the White House.  In fact, at its annual science fair in May, girls made up more than half of the participating students!  The 2014 White House Science Fair theme focused on girls in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The science fair is what the White House calls a “day-long showcase of innovative projects, patent-worthy inventions, and potentially life-saving discoveries made by America’s brightest young minds.”  Among student exhibitors included a young researcher working to develop an anti-flu vaccine and a group of girl coders who built an app to help their visually impaired classmate.


President Obama explained the focus was to inspire girls and young women who are excelling in science.  Plus, he noted that “fewer than 3 in 10 workers in science and engineering are women … we’ve got to change those numbers.”

The Science Fair also was a great place to kick off what will be a series of role model roundtables between the young girls and female White House STEM leaders.  Young female participants met in the Roosevelt Room to discuss STEM with various Administrative Leaders. Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, and Girls Executive Director Tina Tchen, will lead the charge on the roundtable discussions in the coming year.

Since the beginning of his Administration, the President has been committed to getting more underrepresented groups, including women and girls, excited to excel at STEM subjects. According to its Website, the Administration continues to engage in the Equal Futures Partnership—an international collaboration to promote women’s economic and political participation, citing opening doors to women and girls in STEM fields as a major priority area for the U.S. domestic commitments.

The White House initiative isn’t the only one making headlines recently.  Even the Girl Scouts are researching and talking about bridging the gap in STEM for girls in the Girl Scout Research Institute’s report, Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  Disturbing is the fact that young girls don’t know a lot about STEM careers and the opportunities afforded by STEM fields—60 percent of STEM-interested girls acknowledged that they know more about other careers than they do about STEM careers.  The report also found that girls were drawn to the creative and hands-on aspects of STEM, which is no surprise. Girls enjoy the hands-on exploration and discovery. Plus, they recognize the benefits of a challenge: 89 percent of all girls agree that “obstacles make me stronger.”

The Discovery Channel and Discovery Education recently announced they will increase their focus on engaging and increasing the number of women and girls in STEM. Plans are underway to air public service announcements focused on the need to recruit STEM mentors to help encourage younger students to get involved in STEM, particularly girls.  The host of Discovery Channel’s MythBusters, Kari Byron, began filming at the White House Science Fair talking with girls participating in the fair.  A virtual field trip to the White House Science Fair also was filmed for the webinar series, Of the People: Live from the White House.

Lastly, the American Association of University of Women (AAUW) expanded their Tech Trek Summer Camps.  Originally developed to engage and support girls in STEM, the first camp was held at Stanford University in California fifteen years ago.  The camps expanded to 10 throughout the state, and in 2013,  Florida, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Washington offered Tech Trek Summer Camps. Three additional states, New Mexico, Oregon, and Alabama, will host their first Tech Trek Summer Camps this year. The weeklong camp immerses girls in an environment where they feel empowered and are encouraged to think of themselves as future scientists, engineers, mathematicians and computer specialists.   One camper from Washington said, “I had always been worried about going into a male-dominated field. Tech Trek has made me feel more confident about my abilities in STEM and has made me want to follow my dreams of becoming a medical engineer.”

So many public and private organizations are finding the need to engage girls in STEM a top priority for our future.  Parents and teachers also can inspire girls at a young age through STEM-related events and educational projects like Groovy Lab in a Box.  Get your STEMists excited about STEM by ordering your Groovy Lab in a Box subscription today!

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