It is a quirk of historical coincidence that both the Soviet Union, the United States, and China sent their pioneering women into the heavens at exactly the same time, in mid-June. On 16 June 2012, Liu Yang became China’s first woman in space. On 18 June 1983, Sally Ride became America’s first woman in space. And on 16 June 1963—five decades ago this month—an “ordinary” Russian textile worker-turned-pilot named Valentina Tereshkova accomplished something quite “extraordinary” and roared into orbit aboard Vostok-6. For Premier Nikita Khrushchev, her flight was a triumph for Communism: it showed the world that in a socialist state women were equal to men and were encouraged to reach for the stars. The reality, though, was that Tereshkova’s three days in space were nothing more than a political stunt to upstage the Americans, and to underline this insincerity no more Soviet women would enter space until 1982. Yet the greatest achievement of Tereshkova’s mission is that it laid the foundation stone for the dreams of millions of girls and young women who would go on to carve their own niches in the annals of space history.
“History,” of course, is frequently at the whim of those who write it. Tereshkova was a staunch Communist with a war-hero father, and these two factors certainly played into her selection. Additionally, she proved herself to be a hard worker, an accomplished parachutist, and spoke appropriately. “Soviet women have had the same prerogatives and rights as men,” she once said. “They share the same tasks. They are workers, navigators, chemists, aviators, engineers, and now the nation has selected me for the honour of being a cosmonaut.” In the West, many observers agreed. The wife of Philip Hart, the Democratic senator for Michigan, saw Tereshkova’s flight as an opportunity which was barred to American women, whilst anthropologist Margaret Mead remarked that “the Russians treat men and women interchangeably. We treat men and women differently.”
Others were not so easily hoodwinked, but on the morning of 16 June 1963 it was clear to many radio enthusiasts in the West that something extraordinary was about to happen. Tereshkova was launched at 12:29 p.m. Moscow Time. Her liftoff, she reported, was “excellent” and her adaptation to weightlessness did not seem problematic. Already in space was a male cosmonaut, Valeri Bykovsky, aboard Vostok 5, and Tereshkova’s orbital parameters were such that the two craft could draw toward each other for a few minutes, twice daily, with a closest approach of about three miles. Within hours of launch, she was in radio communication with Bykovsky … but on the second day of her flight ground controllers experienced difficulties contacting her. It seemed that she was either tuned to the wrong reception channel or there was a problem with her receiver, but on the evening of 17 June the Enköping station in Sweden picked up a message from Tereshkova, in which she said that she felt “fine” and all was well.
In his now-famous diary, Nikolai Kamanin, the commander of the cosmonaut team at the time, wrote that Tereshkova’s communications were good. At one stage, Bykovsky even reported that his female counterpart was singing songs to him. Tereshkova’s televised image was broadcast throughout the Soviet Union and she spoke to Khrushchev and undertook most of her scientific experiments, recording images of land and cloud cover and describing Earth’s horizon as “a light blue, beautiful band.”
Reports soon emerged that the gamble of flying an “ordinary” Russian girl—albeit one with over a hundred parachute jumps to her credit—was not entirely successful. Accounts of the mission indicated that Tereshkova was unwell during the early part of her flight and she appeared tired and weak in her televised images. She reported nagging pains in her right shin, pressure points from the helmet on her shoulder and left ear, and irritation from the biomedical sensors on her headband. In fact, both she and Bykovsky recommended that future cosmonauts would be more comfortable if permitted to remove their space suits during missions. This suggestion proved ironic on the next mission, in October 1964, when three men flew without any space suit protection whatsoever. …
On a practical level, Tereshkova noted that flannels were too small and not moist enough to wash her face, there was no provision to clean her teeth, and she reported that she only ate a little more than half of her food supply. (This could not be confirmed because she apparently gave away the remainder of her food to onlookers at the landing site.) Conditions aboard Bykovsky’s Vostok 5 were even more unpleasant. He experienced an undisclosed problem with his waste management system—possibly a spillage—and the fan of his space suit’s oxygen supply tended to cut off whenever he released himself from his seat.
After three days aloft, on the morning of 19 June, the retrofire command was sent to Vostok 6 and executed satisfactorily. For some reason, Tereshkova did not call out each event, as required, and she reported neither a successful solar orientation or the progress of the retrofire or even the jettisoning of her craft’s instrument section. In fact, the only data which reached the control centre was downlinked telemetry. The world’s first female cosmonaut ejected on time, but apparently broke a mission rule by opening her visor and gazing upwards … only to be hit in the face by a small piece of metal. In the violently gusting wind, Tereshkova landed at 11:20 a.m. Moscow Time. Kind locals offered her fermented milk, cheese, flat cakes, and bread—a welcome relief from the bland fare of the past three days—but this ruined the flight doctors’ chances of properly analysing her dietary intake. Three hours after Tereshkova’s landing, Bykovsky also touched down safely.
Both were record-holders. Bykovsky had spent nearly five days in orbit, and even in 2012 he retains the record for having spent the longest period of time in space alone. Tereshkova’s 48 orbits and 70 hours aloft soundly surpassed all six Project Mercury missions, combined, and Nikita Khrushchev loved it. He proudly paraded her in Red Square and on 3 November 1963 gave her away at her marriage to fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev at the Moscow Wedding Palace. The real attitude of many cosmonauts toward the women in space came from Nikolayev himself. “We love our women very much,” he once said. “We spare them as much as possible. In the future, they will surely work on board space stations, but as specialists—as doctors, as geologists, as astronomers, and, of course, as stewardesses!”
Whatever Tereshkova’s own opinions, she became an instant celebrity. Tours of India, Pakistan, Mexico, the United States, Cuba, Poland, and Bulgaria opened her eyes to a wider world. She received the coveted Hero of the Soviet Union accolade, together with the Order of Lenin and the Gold Star Medal. After her marriage, a daughter—Yelena—was born to the couple in June 1964, becoming the first child whose parents had both flown into space, but Nikolayev and Tereshkova were not even living together by the end of that year. They divorced in 1982. To this day, speculation endures as to whether their union represented a genuine match or a cynical ploy, engineered by Khrushchev.
As for poor performance, Tereshkova has always argued against such allegations. Chief Designer Sergei Korolev had muttered under his breath that he would never deal with “broads” again, but at a private interview with her on 11 July 1963 he expressed severe displeasure with her performance. Korolev’s deputy, Vasili Mishin, shared his sentiment, claiming that Tereshkova had been “on the edge of psychological instability.” Two decades passed before another female cosmonaut, Svetlana Savitskaya, entered space, and even that was partly as a Soviet hedge against the upcoming flight of America’s Sally Ride.
Several years ago, in 2004, it was revealed that an error in Vostok 6’s control software had been identified and corrected by Tereshkova, although this fact went unacknowledged for decades. She remained an “honorific” member of the cosmonaut team and graduated in 1969 from the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy as an engineer, but she never received another mission assignment. For Korolev, the entire programme of putting a woman into space was a means of currying favour with Khrushchev: giving him another propaganda coup to beat the Americans, in exchange for signing off plans for the “real” space programme to continue. That space programme centred on an entirely new space vehicle, the Soyuz, whose descendants continue to transport astronauts and cosmonauts to the International Space Station. Aside from being a historic event in its own right, Valentina Tereshkova’s achievement served two purposes: it inspired a generation of young women and also helped to enable the development of a craft which has outlived Apollo and the shuttle, and upon which the International Space Station and its partners continue to depend for operational access to low-Earth orbit.
This is part of a series of history articles which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will continue the commemorative series of Women in Space by focusing on STS-7, the historic flight of Sally Ride, who became the first American female spacefarer back in June 1983.
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