Two Women Walk in Space Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya and American astronaut Kathryn D. Sullivan were the first women to conduct extravehicular experiments and repair equipment in space, proving that women have sufficient strength and capability to perform such activities, which are necessary to maintain satellites and other aerospace equipment orbiting Earth.

Summary of Event

During the Cold War, a space race between the United States and the Soviet Union began after the successful 1957 orbit of the Soviet Sputnik satellite. Both powers vied to be the first to land space travelers on the moon. During the early 1960’s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration National Aeronautics and Space Administration;astronouts (NASA) focused on training male astronauts for Project Mercury; NASA’s gender discrimination frustrated skilled female pilots who aspired to travel in space. The Soviets politicized gender in space, asserting their perceived superiority by sending the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova, in June, 1963. Two years later, the Soviets achieved another first when Aleksei A. Leonov exited the orbiting Voskhod 2 and spent twenty-four minutes outside that spacecraft performing the first extravehicular activity (EVA, or space walk) on March 18, 1965. The United States responded by launching Edward H. White II on the Gemini 4 mission, during which White conducted the first U.S. EVA on June 3, 1965. Space walks Astronauts and cosmonauts;women [kw]Two Women Walk in Space (July 25 and Oct. 11, 1984) [kw]Women Walk in Space, Two (July 25 and Oct. 11, 1984) [kw]Space, Two Women Walk in (July 25 and Oct. 11, 1984) Space walks Astronauts and cosmonauts;women [g]North America;July 25 and Oct. 11, 1984: Two Women Walk in Space[05470] [g]Soviet Union;July 25 and Oct. 11, 1984: Two Women Walk in Space[05470] [g]Central Asia;July 25 and Oct. 11, 1984: Two Women Walk in Space[05470] [g]United States;July 25 and Oct. 11, 1984: Two Women Walk in Space[05470] [g]Kazakhstan;July 25 and Oct. 11, 1984: Two Women Walk in Space[05470] [c]Spaceflight and aviation;July 25 and Oct. 11, 1984: Two Women Walk in Space[05470] [c]Science and technology;July 25 and Oct. 11, 1984: Two Women Walk in Space[05470] [c]Women’s issues;July 25 and Oct. 11, 1984: Two Women Walk in Space[05470] Savitskaya, Svetlana Sullivan, Kathryn D. Dzhanibekov, Vladimir Leestma, David Tereshkova, Valentina Ride, Sally Leonov, Aleksei A. White, Edward H., II

Official designation of American women as astronauts was delayed until 1978, when NASA accepted six women, including geologist Kathryn D. Sullivan, into the U.S. astronaut corps as mission specialists. Meanwhile, the Soviets continued training female cosmonauts more for political purposes than for supporting gender equality. Many male Soviet space personnel considered female cosmonauts inferior. After being named a cosmonaut in 1980, Svetlana Savitskaya, an aeronautical engineer and test pilot, became the second Soviet woman in space when she flew on the Soyuz T-7 mission on August 19, 1982. Her crew traveled to the Salyut 7, Salyut space stations the Soviet space station, with two cosmonauts and stayed eight days. Savitskaya conducted medical experiments.

In 1984, Kathryn D. Sullivan became the first American woman to conduct a space walk.


Within a year of Savitskaya’s flight, Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space, on June 18, 1983. In November, 1983, NASA officials scheduled a mission for Ride to return to spaceflight in 1984. NASA administrators stated that Sullivan would accompany Ride on that flight to become the first American woman to conduct a space walk. Not wanting to be upstaged, Soviet space agency officials decided to launch Savitskaya again before Sullivan and Ride were sent into space. The Soviets planned for Savitskaya to become the first female to make two spaceflights and the first woman to conduct a space walk.

Savitskaya prepared for a mission in which she would perform an EVA to evaluate how the Universalny Rabochy Instrument (URI), a handheld electron beam, functioned in space. Assigned to the Soyuz T-12 mission (the seventh expedition to Salyut 7) as flight engineer, Savitskaya flew into space with two male colleagues, Vladimir Dzhanibekov and Igor Volk, on the night of July 17, 1984, then docked with the station. Savitskaya wore an Orlan-D protective suit, which previous spacewalkers aboard the Salyut 7 had used. Although engineers had adjusted that space suit for Savitskaya, she found it difficult to move while wearing it. On July 25, Savitskaya became the first woman to perform a space walk.

After Dzhanibekov exited through the spacecraft’s hatch, Savitskaya gave him two URI tools and metal plates for conducting tests, then followed him outside the station to participate in the fifty-seventh EVA ever undertaken. Savitskaya maneuvered to the work area platform outside the station, placing her feet in restraints. She and Dzhanibekov alternated testing the URI, which Soviets planned to use to build a larger space station, and filming that process with a television camera. Savitskaya tested the URI with several metals, including steel, titanium, tin, lead, and aluminum. She carefully used the electron beam to weld, solder, cut, and spray, wary of the dangers of its heat.

While Dzhanibekov worked, Savitskaya observed thunderstorms on Earth. She commented how sunlight interfered with her vision, and she measured her pulse at 140 beats per minute. Near the conclusion of her space walk, Savitskaya assisted Dzhanibekov to secure a container of biopolymers for nucleic acid synthesis experiments on the outside of the station. After three hours and thirty-five minutes, Savitskaya and Dzhanibekov entered the station. After the cosmonauts returned to Earth on July 29, the Soviet press agency TASS praised Savitskaya’s research skills while she had worked outside of the spacecraft. Savitskaya emphasized women’s technical abilities in space.

Within three months, Sullivan, assigned to her first spaceflight, STS-41-G, joined Ride on the space shuttle Challenger, Space shuttle program;Challenger the first crew with two females. On October 5, 1984, the seven-member crew launched into orbit from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Sullivan joined David Leestma for an October 11 space walk, which was also his first EVA. The space walk had originally been scheduled for the flight’s fifth day but was delayed because of unexpected complications with equipment.

Sullivan and Leestma prepared to begin their space walk after 11:00 a.m. eastern standard time. Wearing a space suit designed for men, Sullivan followed Leestma from the airlock into the shuttle’s payload bay. Tethered to the shuttle, they used a station in the bay for their work. The weightless environment forced Sullivan to use her strong upper body to hand tools to Leestma.

Sullivan and Leestma’s most significant task involved testing a procedure, known as the orbiter refueling system, to refuel orbiting satellites. The spacewalkers put a valve and hose in place for fuel transfer, which they later tested after they returned inside the shuttle, because the explosive hydrazine fuel was too dangerous to contact directly. Their work demonstrated that it was possible to refuel satellites remotely, enabling satellites to stay in space and not be discarded when they ran out of fuel. An April space walk had shown that astronauts could repair satellites in space.

During their EVA, Sullivan and Leestma fixed a radar panel and secured an antenna so that it would survive reentry. Remaining outside the shuttle for almost three and one-half hours, Sullivan and the shuttle orbited Earth twice while she completed her EVA. Inside the shuttle, Sullivan joined her crew in mapping part of Earth and placing the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite into orbit.


In 1985, both Savitskaya and Sullivan were selected for inclusion in the International Space Hall of Fame with Tereshkova and Ride. Both pioneer spacewalkers received honors from their countries. Although response to Savitskaya’s feat initially was supportive, some men later falsely claimed that she had been scared during her space walk and had needed assistance to return to the space station.

Sullivan was not confronted with any false statements regarding her space walk. She succeeded in demonstrating that astronauts of both genders were capable of working externally from spacecraft to support their mission and other NASA objectives, such as servicing satellites and the space station. In particular, her space walk, which demonstrated that orbiting satellites could be refueled, emphasized the commercial and defense possibilities of the shuttle for satellite deployment by businesses and the military.

After the space race had cooled and the Soviet Union had collapsed, Russian space officials did not promote women cosmonauts. Savitskaya never flew into space again after her space walk. Sullivan traveled into space again in 1990, then a third time in 1992, prior to retiring later that year for a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration assignment. She later served as executive of the Center of Science and Industry Museum and was selected for the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2004.

Although NASA had overseen forty-three EVAs with male astronauts before Sullivan’s achievement, she participated in the sixth space walk associated with a shuttle mission. She established a precedent for other U.S. women spacewalkers, including Linda Godwin, Tammy Jernigan, Peggy Whitson, and Susan Helms. American astronaut Kathryn Thornton set duration records for female EVAs while repairing the Hubble Space Telescope in 1992 and 1993. Despite such achievements, in 2002 NASA halted a sixteen-million-dollar project for the development of a space suit for smaller women. Space walks Astronauts and cosmonauts;women

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Covault, Craig. “Challenger Crew Obtains Significant Science Data.” Aviation Week and Space Technology 121 (October 15, 1984): 16-19. Thorough description of the mission, placing Sullivan’s EVA in context with other activities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hooper, Gordon R. The Soviet Cosmonaut Team: A Comprehensive Guide to the Men and Women of the Soviet Manned Space Programme. Woodbridge, England: GRH Publications, 1986. Picturing Savitskaya on the cover, this thorough early history of Soviet space endeavors includes cosmonaut biographies and EVA details.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kevles, Bettyann. Almost Heaven: The Story of Women in Space. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006. Excellent history of female astronauts that provides details, photographs, and quotes concerning Sullivan and Savitskaya and their pioneering astronautic accomplishments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kidger, Neville. “Above the Planet: Salyut EVA Operations.” Spaceflight 31 (April, 1989): 139-141. Detailed essay in the series Soviets in Space discusses Savitskaya’s EVA, describes a URI, and includes a photograph of her space walk.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Portree, David S. F., and Robert C. Treviño. Walking to Olympus: An EVA Chronology. Washington, D.C.: NASA History Office, 1997. Provides information regarding every space walk in aerospace history through the mid-1990’s, contrasting how U.S. and Russian EVAs are conducted.

Russians Launch the Salyut Space Station

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project

Challenger Accident

First Permanently Manned Space Station Is Launched

Categories: History Content