I keep checking to see how far away New Horizons is from Pluto (459,770 km at 0235 GMT) even though I know there's nothing to see at the moment, but I am a space junkie.
The first space launch I can remember seeing is the last of the Mercury missions, launched in May of 1963. I was 5 and I was hooked on space. In retrospect, I suspect my hours watching rockets erect on their launch pads, the vapor streaming off the only sign this was live TV, fed my desire to do science as much as the biography of Marie Curie I chewed through while ill one summer or my parents' careers.
I'd be glued to the TV for every launch I could for the next decade, and I confess I can still be found streaming a launch in the corner of my screen while grading. I'm still hooked on space.
S o I was delighted to discover the first woman to leave the atmosphere — at least the breathable part of it — was both a chemist and an alum of the college where I teach. In October of 1934, Jeannette Ridlon Piccard, a licensed balloon pilot, flew a balloon with her husband on board to an altitude of 17.5 km, well into the stratosphere. Her altitude record (for women) would not be broken until Russian astronaut Valentina Tereshkova's flight in June 1963. You can watch the Piccards take off in this video and see the wreckage of the gondola after they crash landed. Her first person account of the trip was published in the New York Times the next day, including her chagrin at such an inelegant landing.
Ridlon's entry in Bryn Mawr's Undergraduate Catalog of 1916, she
would concentrate on chemistry and physics over the next 2 years.
Piccard's grand-nephew Bertrand Piccard is one of the pilots on the Solar Impulse, a solar powered plane attempting to circumnavigate the globe.
My thanks to Bryn Mawr College's registrar, Kirsten O'Beirne, for figuring out how "majors" worked in the early 20th century.