First female astronauts reflect on shattering space's glass ceiling

Posted at 4:06 AM, Jul 19, 2019

COCOA BEACH, Fla. -- That small step for man on the Moon 50 years ago, helped inspire future female astronauts who shattered the glass ceiling in the sky and made history in space.

For Dr. Anna Fisher, one of the first U.S. women to serve as an astronaut, her initial interest came in 1961 when Alan Shepard became the first American to leave Earth for the stars. Though Fisher was only 12 at the time, she realized making it to space wouldn't be easy, partly due to her gender.

“It didn’t seem like a very realistic goal," Fisher said. "At that point, it was just the Mercury astronauts. There were seven. They were male and they were test pilots.”

Fisher was speaking in Cocoa Beach, Sunday, at an Astronaut Scholarship Foundation event celebrating the anniversary of the Moon landing.

Her dream of joining the ranks of space pioneers like Neil Armstrong did come true, but took decades to achieve.

The Gemini missions were made up of men. Apollo, men. Skylab, also men.

Then, in 1978, NASA selected its first six females for space. Fisher was among them.

“I guess looking back," she said, "the six of us have become role models.”

Sally Ride was America’s first woman in space, taking part in the seventh U.S. shuttle launch in 1983. Fisher headed up a year later, becoming the first mother to reach orbit.

“I wanted to be sure that I was successful," Fisher said. "So that those that came after me would have the same opportunities or more.”

Fisher's success paved the way for women like Eileen Collins. In 1995, she became the first female shuttle pilot, despite facing some resistance from male colleagues while training.

"Most of the guys were very supportive," Collins said. "There were a few of the guys who didn’t want the women there. I wasn’t going to change their mind. The goal I set for myself, I’m going to be the best pilot I can be.”

It’s taken more than 60 years, but now at least 50 women have flown with NASA. And more are expected in the future.

In 2017, at least five were selected by NASA to participate in upcoming space missions. The group would have to spend two years in training before launch.

“People who love exploration and space don’t really care who you are, where you come from, what you look like," Fisher said. "If you’re passionate about space, it’s something that bonds us all together.”

Though the Apollo lunar flights ended in 1972, and no human has returned to the surface of the Moon since, plans are in the works to change that. NASA would like to have astronauts return by 2024-- meaning the next person taking that "leap for mankind" could be female.