Inspirational women working as scientists, chemists, and pilots are paving the way for future generations of girls to believe they can do anything they put their minds to.

Although the statistics for women working within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics - or STEM-related jobs - have improved in the last years, with female workers now making up the 24% of the total scientific workforce in the UK, the gender gap is still important.

Many record-breaking women had to fight for their space in a field that would, later, celebrate them with plaques and accolades for their extraordinary achievements.

To celebrate International Women in STEM Day, we want to honour inspirational figures such as Peggy Whitson (USA), Zara Rutherford (Belgium) and Mary W. Jackson (USA): record breakers who shaped their fields despite the rampaging gender disparity, and who are screaming to the world that women can be astronauts, pilots, and mathematicians.

Because women were, are, and will always be part of the equation.

Zara flying over Hollywood

The youngest person to circumnavigate the world by aircraft solo (female)

In January 2022, Zara Rutherford (Belgium) made history by becoming the youngest person to circumnavigate the world by aircraft solo (female), completing her flight around the world at 19 years and 199 days.

The journey took three months of preparation, but Zara earned herself the coveted Guinness World Records certificate, which was waiting for her as she landed.

Zara’s lonely route above earth and sea spanned 52 countries and 5 continents, with various stops in between to document her journey.

Her flight started in Belgium, and then headed west. 

During her initial route, Zara travelled above Iceland, USA, Europe, Greenland, Canada, and from Latin America to Colombia. In the second half she headed north, before her solitary journey ended once again in Belgium, Europe, after six months of cruising. 

With her incredible feat, Zara aimed to encourage women to pursue a career either in flying or in STEM. 

By addressing the gender disparity within the STEM world, Zara proved that girls can challenge – and are actively dismantling – all gender stereotypes.

“Only 5% of commercial pilots are women, and 15% of computer scientists are women! That’s an extremely low number considering these are amazing careers with wonderful opportunities," writes Zara on her website.

"Girls are often encouraged to be beautiful, kind, helpful and sweet. With my flight, I want to show young women that they can be bold, and ambitious and make their dreams come true." - Zara Rutherford

Zara Rutherford after landing

Reaching a cruising speed of 300 km/h (186.4 m/h) with permission to only travel during the day, Zara was also trained on how to abandon her aircraft, an ultralight model called Shark Aero, in case of emergency. 

Born into a family of aviators, this young pilot flew her first plane solo at 18 and has never stopped since, becoming a true inspiration and a beacon for girls in STEM.

Her family was incredibly encouraging of her achievement and her brother, Mack Rutherford, tried a very similar adventure. 

Mack was 16 years and 74 days old when he became the overall youngest person to circumnavigate the world by aircraft solo.

The first woman to command the International Space Station

NASA astronaut and Guinness World Records Hall of Famer, Peggy Whitson (USA) made history as the first woman to serve as the commander of the International Space Station (ISS).

The ISS is the largest modular space station in low Earth orbit and unifies the force of five space agencies across the globe: United States' NASA, Russia's Roscosmos, Japan's JAXA, Europe's ESA, and Canada's CSA.

The space station was first launched in 1998, and Peggy took over as commander at the beginning of Expedition 16, on 10 October 2007 - thus establishing herself as the very first woman at the command of the ISS. 

She remained in the position for 181 days before handing the baton over to fellow cosmonaut and space-walker Sergey Volkov on 8 April 2008.

Throughout her work on the International Space Station (and specifically on Expedition 50/51/52, taking place between 2016 and 2017 between 28 October 2016 and 2 September 2017) she also conducted some extravehicular activities (EVAs) that took her on several spacewalks. 

She racked up a total of 10 strolls among the stars, an unprecedented first for any other female astronaut! 

Nasa picture Peggy with space suit

Can you imagine going for a stroll in the endless immensity of the universe? 

Such an incredible experience also allowed Peggy to break an important first: her 10 spacewalks rewarded her with the record for most spacewalks by a female astronaut

Simultaneously, Peggy also smashed the record for most accumulated time on spacewalks by a female (with over 60 hours). 

She overall spent more time in space than any other female astronaut, with an extraordinary time of 665 days, 22 hours and 22 minutes spent among the stars. 

Such an incredible result was reached by the Iowa-born astronaut between 2002 and 2017.

May her incredible achievements inspire women and girls to think big, aim for the moon and reach for the stars. 

WallyFunk after accepting the 2022 Michael Collins Trophy for Lifetime Achievement, March 2022.

The oldest woman to fly into space

Guinness World Records Hall of Famer Wally Funk (USA) is an inspiration and a reminder that it’s never too late to make your dreams come true. 

After training all her life and never giving up her dreams, she participated in her very first space mission at the age of 82 years old, as part of Bezos's Blue Origin expedition.

A pilot, a dreamer, and a teacher who shaped generations of pilots thanks to her skills, Wally never stopped fighting for her dreams. 

In July 2021, exactly 52 years after Armstrong and Aldrin's record-breaking stroll on the Moon, Wally joined the NS-16 mission as an honoured guest of the four-member crew, and became the oldest woman in space ever.

Although undoubtedly a great achievement, Wally's mission comes from a lifetime of powering through the hardships of gender discrimination.

Despite graduating top of her class and becoming an officer at the renewed “Flying Aggies” aviation club, in the 60s Wally was forced to become a civilian flight instructor. Whilst dreaming about space missions, she taught male pilots how to fly in an era when piloting was a male-only career path.

Wally was part of the group known as "Mercury 13" - 13 women who underwent and passed piloting tests which, back in the 60s, were only open to men. Although she passed all the tests with flying colours, often outranking her male colleagues, sadly the project was disbanded before it could become a reality.

She also became the first female inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration and the first female air safety inspector for the National Transportation Safety Board.

But women like Wally never stop striving and, after a lifetime of flying, she finally achieved her dream of being part of a space mission.

On 1 July 2021, American tycoon Jeff Bezos personally invited the 82-year-old pilot to be part of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital flight crew.

“I felt so charged," she said during the press conference after the mission. "I wasn't nervous. I was just a normal, normal person going up in space - and that's exactly what I wanted to feel."

First female African-American engineer at NASA 

“For Mary W. Jackson, science and service went hand in hand.” – Margot Lee Shetterly for NASA

From her very first steps in science to a flourishing career at NASA, Virginia-born mathematician and aerospace engineer Mary Winston Jackson always relied on her abilities, a love of science and an unfaltering commitment to improving the lives of the people around her.

Her story of success kicked off after Mary graduated from Hampton Institute in 1942. 

Her dual degree in Math and Physical Sciences took her first to a school in Calvert County, Maryland, where she taught maths. After years of career changing, she would land at the NASA Langley Research Center.

Her continuous hard work allowed her to make history as the first female African-American engineer at NASA in 1958.

During the year of her promotion, Mary also co-authored the first of her many reports. 

At the time, female engineers – and female professionals in the field more widely speaking, especially women of colour – were rare creatures navigating a majorly male-led universe. Positions of power were gatekept, and career progression seemed impossibly slow. 

Thriving seemed an impossible battle, and Mary was called to slay the scariest dragon of all: society.

Up to her retirement in 1985, Mary always battled for a more fair inclusion. 

Along with her incredible work and record-breaking achievement, she always invested herself in “the hiring and promotion of the next generation of all of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists.”

After she passed in 2005, NASA honoured her many achievements and accolades.

They say: "Among her many honors were an Apollo Group Achievement Award, and being named Langley’s Volunteer of the Year in 1976. 

"She served as the chair of one of the center’s annual United Way campaigns, was a Girl Scout troop leader for more than three decades, and a member of the National Technical Association (the oldest African American technical organization in the United States)." 

Other than being a record breaker and an inspiration, Mary was also one of the protagonists of Shetterly's 2016 non-fiction book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race.

First woman to reach the Challenger Deep

On 7 June 2020, 68-year-old Dr Kathryn Sullivan (USA) set an unprecedented first and became the first woman to reach the Challenger Deep, the deepest known point in Earth's oceans, situated in the south-eastern end of the Mariana Trench.

Kathryn was the eighth person overall to complete the incredible journey.

After descending in the DSV Limiting Factor, piloted by Guinness World Records Hall of Famer Victor Vescovo (USA), the crew spent about an hour and a half at their arrival point and collected pivotal scientific data on the seafloor in the deepest part of the earth.

About 200 miles southwest of Guam and plunging about 10,934 metres (35,872 feet) beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean, the Challenger Deep is one of the most fascinating and dangerous places in the world. 

Deeper than Everest is tall, since the peak rises 8,848.86 m (29,031.7 ft) above sea level, and about five times the length of the Grand Canyon, the Mariana Trench remains a tale-inspiring mystery.

Few have been courageous enough to undergo the journey, even fewer have reached it, and Kathryn Sullivan - in near-freezing water and under enough pressure to easily crush human bones - was the very first woman to step on this outlandish seafloor.

Vescovo, an explorer and retired naval officer has visited the Challenger Deep eight times as of 2020 - more than anyone else in the world.
Read more about his journeys here.

A former astronaut and NOAA administrator, Kathryn also broke another record with her journey: the greatest vertical extent travelled by an individual (within Earth’s exosphere).

In fact, when she’s not exploring the very, very bottom of the sea, she has her eyes well set on the sky: Sullivan took part in Space Shuttle missions with NASA between 1984 and 1992.

She has covered the greatest vertical distance ever achieved by any other individual without leaving Earth's atmosphere, collecting a total of 622.085 kilometres (386.546 miles).

First she reached an apogee of 330 nautical miles (611.16 kilometres; 379.8 miles) above Earth during the STS-31 Hubble Space Telescope deployment mission on 24–29 April 1990 and, 30 years later, she descended at the very bottom of the Challenger Deep with the DSV Limiting Factor crew.

An extraordinary triumph that will be remembered forever.

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