The United States might have put a man on the moon first, but it was the Russians who first sent a woman to space. The Vintage Space star and author Amy Shira Teitel joins the geeks this week on a supporters-only livestream recording session and Q&A about Valentina Tereshkova, a woman 20 years ahead of her US counterparts.
Russia won the female space race 57 years ago
by G&B Senior Segment Producer Amber Healy
From the early days of the space race, research supported the idea of women serving as astronauts and cosmonauts. Women tend to have smaller bodies in every measurable way, and since spaceflight often has to account for every ounce considering the price of rocket fuel, it just made sense to send lighter, smaller bodies into orbit.
But in the 1950s and 1960s, sexism was still king in both the USA and the USSR. So women waited.
The first woman in space, on June 16, 1963, was Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova. She was 26 at the time and one of several women recruited into an aggressive cosmonaut training program due to her early enthusiasm and skill for parachute jumping. The effort was backed by Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev, who ordered a small group of women be selected and trained for a women-in-space program.
Fearless female leadership
Let’s not mince words here: Tereshkova was a badass from the word go. She joined a paramilitary flying club without telling her mother, spending her weekends training and completing 90 jumps before she caught the Kremlin’s eye. “I did night jumps, too, on to land and water — the Volga River,” she told The Guardian. “I learned to wait as long as possible before pulling the cord, just to feel the air; 40 seconds, 50 seconds… it’s not really falling; you experience enormous pleasure from the sensation of your whole body. It’s marvellous.”
She joined the Communist Party in 1962, as would’ve been customary for the time.
The Soviets, of course, sent Yuri Gargarin into space in 1961, but the director of cosmonaut training, Nikolai Kamanin, heard shortly thereafter that the Americans were preparing to train female pilots to be astronauts. Not wanting to be outshined, the Soviets started their program with five women, including Tereshkova, and had their training start before their male counterparts.
The rules stipulated that the women had to be a parachutist and under the age of 30, standing less than 170 cm (5 ft 7 in) tall and weigh no more than 70 kg (154 lbs).
Of the small class of specially trained women, only Tereshkova went to space, selected to pilot Vostok 6, while cosmonaut Valeri Bykovsky piloted the sister mission on Vostok 5. He launched on June 14; she launched two days later. Over the course of 70 hours in space, they came within 5km (3 miles) of each other while in orbit and exchanged messages. Tereshkova orbited the Earth 48 times, with European and Soviet TV beaming back images of her smiling from space.
At the time, both Tereshkova and Bykovsky were record holders: she for being the first woman in space; he for spending more time in space alone than anyone — a record he still holds at just five days.
Hers was not a flawless flight, however. The full details of her stressful journey became apparent when her flight log was released to the public in 2013, including that she failed in her original attempt at manually orienting the spacecraft while in orbit. The vehicle kept listing to one side, with warning lights indicating things were off kilter along all three axes. When she activated manual control, she heard an empty knocking noise. On the second day of her flight, she tried again but was unsuccessful, meaning she couldn’t complete her mission of photographing the Earth from above.
It was during her 45th orbit that she successfully completed a breaking maneuver, holding it for 25 minutes.
Later, as she was returning into Earth’s atmosphere, she and her vessel had no communication with the ground and she wound up in the wrong place. The team on the ground blame Tereshkova for the failure; she says the equipment failed.
Once she was collected by her countrymen, she was named a Hero of the Soviet Union. She never went to space again, but none of the women she trained with ever made it that far.
Life on Earth
In November 1963, Tereshkova married a fellow cosmonaut, Andrian Nikolayev. There was much fanfare about their marriage and the birth of their daughter, Elena, as she was the first child born to parents that had both been to space. In 1980, Tereshkova and Nikolayev divorced. There’s speculation that the marriage was basically propaganda, because, y’know, Soviet Russia.
Tereshkova received the United Nations Gold Medal of Peace, directed the Soviet Women’s Committee in 1968; from 1974 until 1991 she was a member of the Supreme Soviet Presidium. She was appointed deputy chair of the parliament of Yaroslavl, her home area, and was elected to the Duma in 2011. She has also been awarded the Order of Lenin twice.
NASA does better — sorta…
The United States didn’t launch a woman into space until 1983, when Sally Ride went into orbit on STS-7 aboard the Challenger. (Yes, that Challenger.) This was almost a year after Russia sent its second woman, Svetlana Savitskaya, into space. Savitskaya, by the way, was the first woman to walk in space and the first woman to go to space twice (1982 and 1984).
Ride joined NASA’s astronaut corp in 1978. She was one of the first six women to join NASA as an astronaut.
The U.S. has taken a few strides toward leading the space race for women in recent years.
In 1992, Mae Jemison became the first African American woman in space when she flew on the Space Shuttle Endeavor.
In 2008, Peggy Whitson became the first woman to command the International Space Station; eight years later she became the first woman to command the ISS twice, also earning the title of the oldest woman in space at the age of 57.
It wasn’t until last year, October 2019, that NASA celebrated its first all-female space walk, when astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, spent seven hours and 17 minutes replacing a power controller outside the ISS. But it wasn’t something NASA went out of its way to organize — instead, the agency said it was “bound to happen eventually” given the increasing number of female astronauts.
…but has a lot to make up for
Granted, the first all-female space walk was supposed to happen a few months earlier, in March, but there was only one medium-sized space suit available on the ISS and the other woman on the ISS at the time, Anne McClain, felt she’d be safer and more comfortable in a smaller size instead of wearing a larger suit. Instead, astronaut Nick Hague joined Koch on the walk. That incident prompted lots of angry comments and parodies, of course.
NASA might feel confident about the number of women in its astronaut corps, but they still don’t fully account for women in space. The lack of properly fitting space suits is just the most recent head-scratcher from the agency, which at one point was hesitant to put women in space because they weren’t sure how to accommodate them going to the bathroom in space, let alone having their periods in space, should things synch up that way, because the agency was afraid the women might not be able to perform their jobs properly. No joke: When Sally Ride was preparing for her mission, NASA asked her if 100 tampons would be enough for a seven-day trip to space. (There are now ways to prevent a woman from having her period in space, simply by using the Pill. And if you don’t know, 100 tampons would last most women way more than one period.)
In the early days of the space programs, scientists knew women had an advantage for leaving Earth’s orbit. “Scientists knew that women, as smaller beings on average, require less food, water and oxygen, which was an advantage when packing a traveler and supplies into a small spacecraft,” wrote historian Margaret Weitekamp for the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. “Women outperformed men on isolation tests and, on average, had better cardiovascular health.”
But by 1962, NASA scrapped its First Lady Astronaut Trainee (FLAT) program. Sexist jokes were made about astronauts being all for women in space — as recreational partners.
The Soviets, it seems, were ahead of their time by seeing their female cosmonaut trainees as people capable of doing great things, not just sex objects.