Flight after the Cold War

The Voyager aircraft was used by Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan in their non-stop, round-the-world flight. See more pictures of flight.
Peter M. Bowers Collection

As the e­ighth decade of the twentieth century began, the world's political situation seemed to have stabilized. The Cold War contenders, the United States and the Soviet Union, though still armed to the teeth with enough weaponry to­ destroy civilization, were somehow becoming, if not friendly, at least not as overtly hostile. There were new players on the world scene -- Japan and a slowly unifying Europe and China -- but, for the most part, the main concern was that no war break out between the United States and the U.S.S.R.

The Soviet Union was continuing its long and outstanding series of space flights. Cosmonauts were spending lengthy periods in space, shuttling back and forth on their Soyuz vehicles as if they were space commuters. New Soviet aircraft were introduced, including advanced versions of the superb Sukhoi Su 27 and MiG-29, and Soviet vertical-lift fighters operated off a Soviet aircraft carrier. Then on December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union was split apart, dissolving like a cube of sugar in hot coffee. The communist system that had led the world in space, whose military might was renowned, never learned how to feed, clothe, or house its people, and, ultimately, the people spoke. Fortunately for the world, the Soviet Union went out with a whimper -- not with a nuclear bang.

Flight Pictures

­While the collapse of the Soviet Union might have been the defining event of the decade, it was only one of the many dramatic and exciting situations that kept people everywhere glued to their television sets as good and bad news poured forth.

­On the good side, women achieved an ever increasing prominence in aerospace occupations. Captain Lynn Ripplemeyer flew a 747 across the Atlantic for People's Express. Sheila Widnall became the first female Secretary of the Air Force. Svetlana Savitskaya made the first EVA by a woman from the Salyut7/Soyuz T-12 for three hours. She was also the first woman to fly twice in space. The United States quickly countered when Sally Ride became the first American woman to go into space twice and Kathryn Sullivan made the first EVA by an American woman, both onboard the Space Shuttle Challenger.

The ebullient Jeana Yeager set a world record with Dick Rutan in their epochal nonstop, unrefueled flight around the world in the Voyager. But such progress was not without its costs. In a moment that remains etched in memory, the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up on January 28, 1986. Among the crew were veteran astronaut Judith Resnik and teacher Christa McAuliffe. Then, in 1991, Major Mari T. Rossi crashed in a Chinook helicopter, becoming the first American woman to die in aerial combat.­