The Forgotten Female Cosmonaut Class

By Amy Shira Teitel | June 8, 2018 3:51 pm
Valentina Tereshkova. NASA.

Valentina Tereshkova. NASA.

On June 16, 1963, Valeriy Bykovsky had been orbiting in Vostok 5 for a little under a day when he gained a companion: Valentina Tereshkova in Vostok 6. After more than a year of intensive training, she became, on that Sunday afternoon, the first woman in space. 

Tereshkova’s story starts towards the end of 1961 with Sergei Korolev. Korolev was the Soviet space program’s Chief Designer and the mastermind behind the nation’s earliest space triumphs; he’s sometimes referred to as the Soviet equivalent to Wernher von Braun. He’d already orchestrated launching the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin, and in thinking of another first came up with the idea of launching a woman. He knew it would be a significant win for his nation, a way to send the message that the Soviet Union valued all citizens equally and give little girls hope that they too could go into space someday. The Central Committee of the Communist Party okayed Korolev’s idea and the search for the right woman began.

The first step was figuring out what skill set female cosmonauts would need. Officials looked at women in the military, acrobats, athletes who flew or sky-dived, and even parachute jumpers. On the practical side, candidates had to be small enough to fit into the cramped Vostok. As a point of reference, Yuri Gagarin, in spite of the towering statues built in his honour, was only five foot two. Al Shepard, by comparison, was five foot eleven.

Fifty-eight women’s files reached Nikolai Kamanin, the head of thRIAN_archive_837790_Valentina_Tereshkova_and_Neil_Armstronge cosmonaut training centre, midway through January 1962. He wasn’t horribly impressed by the candidates but also knew that the Vostok spacecraft was so automated that they didn’t need to be amazing pilots. Twenty-three women made the cut, eighteen of those passed the medical testing to begin training. Those 18 women were split into two groups of nine and subjected to extensive interviews and medical exams. Eleven made it through this round but only five, all experienced parachutists, were ultimately selected to train: Tatyana Kuznetsova, Valentina Ponomareva, Irina Solovyova, Valentina Tereshkova, and Zhanna Yorkina, though Kuznetsova dropped out early on.

When the remaining four women joined the cosmonaut training crew on February 16, 1962, they received a somewhat frosty reception from the men. Many felt that women had no business in space, they didn’t feel there was any inherent value in launching a woman. Some made the argument that the risk was too great for the fairer sex.  

But the women soon showed they were just as competent as the men. The trained and worked just as hard as their male counterparts, and were soon vying for the big prize: the spot as the pilot of Vostok 6. The mission would be a tandem flight with Vostok 6 reaching orbit after Vostok 5, the two spacecraft merely orbiting near each other before returning, separately to Earth.

Finally, in May of 1963, Kamanin gathered the female cosmonaut trainees and announced that Valentina Tereshkova would be the pilot of Vostok 6. She’s been selected as much on the strength of her qualifications as her background. A textile factory worker by trade, she’d been working to help support her family since she was 10. In spite of hardships she worked hard and ended up training and qualifying as a parachute jumper, and all the while she remained an outspoken proponent of the Communist system. She was, like Yuri Gagarin before her, the picture of success in the Soviet Union.

The other women were told they would fly eventually. At the time, the rough schedule for the end of the Vostok program included a 30-day animal flight on Vostok 7, and 8-day manned mission on Vostok 8, and a 10-day tandem mission for Vostoks 9 and 10. Any of these last three missions could be flown by a female pilot. 

Tereshkova's wedding to fellow cosmonaut Andriyan Nikolayev. Ria Novosti.

Tereshkova’s wedding to fellow cosmonaut Andriyan Nikolayev. Ria Novosti.

But the extended Vostoks never flew. Accounts vary but either Korolev or Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev wanted to fast-track a new program that could compete with America’s tw0-man Gemini spacecraft. The remaining Vostok missions were cancelled and attention shifted to turning it into the Voskhod that could hold multi-man crews and developing the all-new and far more capable Soyuz spacecraft.

Tereshkova’s flight was the last Vostok. She spent three days in space running biomedical experiments and gathering data on living and working in space. She returned to Earth after completing 48 orbits in about 70 hours. 

Tereshkova has been lauded since her flight as a trailblazer for women in space – and indeed, she’s been an advocate of both women’s rights and space exploration in her post-cosmonaut career. But it’s worth remembering that she was launched as a political move, which is the same reason men launched into space when they did, too. For all the innovation of the 1960s, it was also the era of politically-charged decisions. 

Sources: “The First Soviet Cosmonaut Team” by Colin Burgess and Rex Hall; “The Rocket Men” by Rex Hall and David Shayler. Also, an earlier version of this article appeared on Discovery News Space in about 2012, which no longer exists… sigh… 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics
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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    She spent three days in space running biomedical experiments and gathering data on living and working in space.” We have accumulated man-centuries of human-in-space data. So what?

    The next great NASA breakthrough, milestone, evolved task will be subletting ISS FUBAR to Los Angeles’ homeless. More studies are needed.

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