Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Valentina Tereshkova, Cosmonaut

Cosmonaut Tereshkova, 1963. Photo courtesy of Jeff Overs, BBC.
Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space, and spent longer in orbit than all US astronauts combined up to that time. Neither the Soviet Union nor the US would send another woman into space for the next 20 years.

"Hey sky, take off your hat, I'm on my way!"~ Valentina Tereshkova aboard Vostok 6 during blast off, June 16, 1963.

Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova was born in 1937 in a poor farming community in Maslennikovo, Russia. Her mother was Elena Tershkova and her father was Valdimir, but he would die in Finland when she was just two.

Looking back on that time in an appearance at London's Science Museum in 2015, she recalls, "Every child thinks about what they would like to be. I was from a war generation, we dreamt about peace - we wished for a time when we didn't have to see our parents cry."

Valentina's family lived near a train station when she was little, and she would comment to her mother as the trains went by that the driver of the train "must be so lucky," as they were able to see so much. She told her mother she wanted to be a train driver, but Elena encouraged her to dream of more - "Maybe something different?" she suggested.

Valentina began work at a textile factory when she was 18. She first learned about parachuting at a local aviation club run by her factory, and at 22, she made her first parachute jump.

Two years later, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to travel into space, the imaginations of the pilots, sky-divers, and parachutists that Valentina knew were consumed: they all thought they should be the next person to go into space.

When there was a call from the USSR's space program for women interested in going to space, Valentina applied. As a potential candidate, she was sent to Moscow to undergo a series of physical check-ups and tests. The operation was confidential so Valentina lied to her mother, telling her she had to travel for a skydiving tournament.

Valentina. Photo courtesty of Jeff Overs, BBC.
From a pool of 400 applicants, Valentina was chosen for her physical qualification, expertise with parachuting, and her father's Russian war hero status; all elements that made her an attractive applicant with a story that would play well in the press.

Competition with the US

During the 1960, tensions were high between the United States and USSR, with the spirit of confrontation and competition extending even to space - of course. Neither country wanted to be seen as being outdone by the other.

Still, it was a cosmonaut that was the first person to launch into space and orbit the Earth, and American Alan Shepherd would follow into space just 23 days later (May 5th, 1961).

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren would not walk on the moon until July 20th, 1969. In the meantime, both countries considered how to outdo the other with another first: sending a woman into space.

Some have argued that gender would have been less of an issue in the USSR, which was communist following the revolution of 1917 and had preached about the equity of men and women. Statistics from the field of medicine in the USSR reflect that 74% of doctors and surgeons were women at that time; a statistic that would be unheard of in the United States.

Further reports suggest that while gender equality was preached in the USSR, it was not always practiced. Women were still paid less then men for the same jobs, and were given lower-level jobs than their male peers. Still, the onset of communist did open up the field of opportunities to women so more could become doctors, engineers, scientists - in this aspect they were ahead of the US, where these jobs for woman were far less accessible.

Valentina would sum up this feeling of equality in the USSR by saying "On Earth, men and women are taking the same risks. Why shouldn't we be taking the same risks in space?"

When it came to the space program, both the US and USSR interviewed and screened female candidates with the view of sending them to space. Valentina described this as an important test, "showing that a women's body would react the same as a man's body."

In the US however, the idea of sending a women into space was nixed. Regarding that decision, astronaut John Glen maintained that “so far we felt the qualifications we were looking for … were best taken care of by men.” As reported by BBC News, one unidentified NASA spokesman said the idea of a woman in space made him physically ill.

The USSR held a different view when it came to women as doctors, engineers, scientists - why not astronauts?


Once selected for the program, Valentina spent two years in training, in a city 40 km from Moscow. "It was very difficult, a lot of work," she described. "There were no weekends, and no entertainment."

The training program would pay off for Valentina, not just physically, but also technically - it was her training that allowed her to spot a mistake in the landing algorithm during her flight, a mistake that would have meant she kept launching further and further into space, with no way back. As she spotted the mistake in time she was able to alert the head of the Soviet Space Agency, and a new algorithm was sent, which she inputted.

The name of the engineer who made the error remained a secret for over 30 years, when he decided to come forward himself. Valentina had sworn never to tell anyone and was "horrified" when he did so. As a group, they had agreed that they would not reveal his name, and that he would not be punished.


On June 16th, Valentina was launched into space aboard Vostok 6. She would spend three days in space and pass by Vostok 5, on a different orbit with male cosmonaut Valeri Bykovsky aboard, and when they came within three miles of each other the cosmonauts were able to exchange words.

"Valeri, let's show them that we are ok and are enjoying the view, let's sing them a song," Valentina encouraged Valeri as they passed each other.

"I am not a singing bird. You sing, I will be listening," was Valeri's good-humored response.

After three days in space (a total of 71 hours), Vostok 6 reentered the atmosphere. Valentina's body experienced a force of 9.5 Gs upon reentry - "it's heavy going," she would later say. Her parachuting skills would come in very handy at this stage, as she ejected at 20,000 feet. She landed safely in a field.

Political maneuvering

Following her return from space, Valentina was invited to a ceremony with Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev in Red Square. She was presented with awards, including two called the Order of Lenin and Hero of the Soviet Union.

Krushchev mocked the US for what he viewed as sexual discrimination."The bourgeoisie always claim that women are the weaker sex. Now here you can see a typical Soviet woman who in the eyes of the bourgeoisie is weak," he said."Look at what she has shown to America's astronauts. She has shown them who is who!"

Clearly, for Premier Khrushchev, the flight was a symbol of the USSR and communism's superiority over the US not only in technology, but when it came to gender equity.

Future missions

For all their political posturing and views of gender equity (both real and imagined), the Soviet Space Program's approach towards women in space would take a sharp dive several years later.

Though there were plans to send additional female cosmonauts into orbit as soon as 1965 or 1966, those plans were scrapped after the death of Sergey Korolev, the head of the Soviet Space Agency. After his death, Valentina reports that people looked at his plan for an all-female flight crew and "there was pure chauvinism - we were pushed aside. It was unthinkable to send women."

Valentina protested in writing to the central party communist committee, but the decision would not be overturned. Of the five other women who were training for the mission, one had a family and children, and it was seen as "too dangerous," especially following the death of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, who died somewhat mysteriously on a spacecraft in 1967.

The USSR would not send another female to space for another 19 years, when they would again beat the US into space as the American team prepared to send Sally Ride into orbit (1983).

As for Valentina's family, her mother only became aware of her mission after she had landed - Valentina kept it a secret from her mother the whole time, pretending that she was on a trip to a skydiving event.

Elena would be informed of her daughter's mission by a neighbor, who saw a news report of her accomplishment on TV, and who ran to Valentina's house shouting "Elena! Elena! Your daughter is in space!"

Elena replied to this with "You must be dreaming, she is skydiving."

After flight

In 1966, Tereshkova became a member of the Supreme Soviet, the USSR’s national parliament, and served as the Soviet representative to numerous international women’s organizations and events. She never entered space again, though she retained fond memories of that time.

Fifty-two years after her orbit, Valentina would attend the opening for an exhibition about the Soviet Space Program in London's Science Museum. At the exhibit was Valentina's capsule, the one that she flew in and ejected from. The capsule was on loan for the exhibition and was otherwise housed in the cosmonaut training facility in Star City near Moscow, where Valentina saw it frequently.

"I reunite with it every day. I never stopped reuniting with this module. Not for a minute, not for an hour, not for a day," she said. "Every time I meet it, I stroke it and say 'hello my darling' and then go back to work."

London's Science Museum exhibition, Jeff Overs, BBC

"It is such a shame that time flies."

"One cannot deny the great role women have played in the world community. My flight was yet another impetus to continue this female contribution."

To young women who wanted to follow in her footsteps: "Work hard and you will get there. I am very jealous of you!"

On going to Mars: "It was my dream to go to Mars. I'd be happy to go there one-way - to stay there."

On seeing their hero, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in the hallway in the Moscow screening center: "We looked at him as though he were God. We tried to touch his sleeve. He asked, 'Why are you trying to stroke me?!'"

  • Valentina Tereshkova: USSR was 'worried' about women in space, Pallab Ghosh, BBC News. September 15, 2015.
  • First Woman in Space - June 16, 1963, The History Channel, 2016.
  • Why the Soviets Beat the U.S. in Sending a Woman to Space, Eliza Berman, Life, June 16, 2015.
  • Amazing Encounters: Valentina Tereshkova, Spacekate, September 27, 2015.

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