A Cog in a Political Machine: The Career of Svetlana Savitskaya

Savitskaya's July 1984 EVA has been described as the last of the Soviet Union's politically motivated space stunts. Had circumstances been different, Savitskaya would have secured another stunt in 1985-86, by becoming the first woman to command a space mission. Photo Credit: Roscosmos.

Late last year, Internet chatter hinted that a female Russian engineer – Yelena Serova, selected for cosmonaut training in October 2006 – might be in the running for a long-duration position on a future International Space Station crew. This speculation has since been confirmed and Serova is scheduled to form part of Expedition 41 and will launch towards the station in September 2014, shoulder to shoulder with crewmates Dmitri Kondratyev and Barry Wilmore. In doing so, she will become the fourth female Russian spacefarer and only the second to attempt a long mission. However, there remains speculation in some areas that Serova’s assignment is just the latest in a long history of cynical propaganda used by Russia to score political points over the United States. Some observers even convinced themselves that she would be launched in 2013, for no other reason than to be in orbit for the 50th anniversary of Valentina Tereshkova’s pioneering flight. Although that has proven not to be the case, it nevertheless spotlights the reality that the Soviet Union and today’s Russia still seem to apply disproportionate levels of political importance on their female cosmonauts.

Of course, in the second decade of the 21st century, it is easy to convince ourselves that such propagandist tricks no longer apply and the determination of the early Soviet space programme to secure a string of ‘firsts’ – the first man in space, the first woman in space, the first EVA – has faded into history. Still, others continue to wonder at the convenient timing of each female flight. Valentina Tereshkova flew for three days in June 1963, demonstrating that an ‘ordinary’ factory worker could not only travel into space, but stay there for more than twice as long as all of her degree-educated Mercury Seven counterparts, combined. Yelena Kondakova flew a five-month mission to the Mir space station between October 1994 and March 1995, immediately before Norm Thagard became the first American astronaut in two decades to participate in a long-duration flight. It is unsurprising that much scepticism was expressed at the news of Yelena Serova’s assignment.

Nowhere are the political machinations of the Soviet space hierarchy more clearly evident than in the career of another Soviet female cosmonaut, Svetlana Savitskaya, much of whose star-studded career was used as little more than a pawn in a game of political point-scoring at the height of the Cold War. NASA’s selection of six women astronauts and the technological abilities of the shuttle – together with a steady decline in East-West relations in the early 1980s – prompted the need for ‘something’ to be done to restore the sense that the Soviets were ahead in space. When Sally Ride was named to a Shuttle flight in April 1982, Savitskaya appeared, as if by magic, on the crew roster for Soyuz T-7, a mission scheduled for August of that same year. As circumstances transpired, Savitskaya’s career would accomplish two space firsts – and come close to a third: in July 1984, she was the first woman to perform a spacewalk and the first to undertake two space missions and, but for a quirk of fate, might have commanded the first all-female crew in the autumn of 1986. For each mission, she would be rightly praised, but each mission was dominated by a single maxim: to be first.

Savitskaya was no Tereshkova. She had not been chosen as a cosmonaut on the whim of a boorish General Secretary, like Nikita Khrushchev. She was not a factory worker, nor was she uneducated or inexperienced. Rather, she was a veteran test pilot, an accomplished parachutist, a former member of the Soviet Union’s National Aerobatics Team – becoming World Champion in 1970 – and had established records in supersonic and turboprop aircraft. (Doubtless it also did not hurt that she was a staunch, unbending and steely member of the Communist Party and currently serves in the Russian State Duma.) At the time of her most recent election in 2007, one Western journalist who met Savitskaya referred to her as exhibiting a “deadly serious, cosmetically unretouched image…what one political analyst calls an ‘imitation of a monument to the peasant worker’.”

She was born in Moscow on 8 August 1948, the daughter of Yevgeni Savitsky, a veteran flying ace from the Great Patriotic War, twice decorated as a Hero of the Soviet Union and one-time commanding general of aviation for the Soviet Union’s Air Defence Forces. In her late teens, Savitskaya entered the Moscow Aviation Institute and later attracted international renown at the Sixth FAI World Aerobatic Championship, held in the United Kingdom, as a member of the Soviet National Aerobatics Team. She won first place and was nicknamed ‘Miss Sensation’ in the British press. After graduation from the aviation institute in 1972, she pursued a career as pilot, flying 20 different types of aircraft, including a record as the first women to attain 2,683 km/h in a MiG-21.

Her fascination with aviation also extended to parachuting and, as a girl, she had hidden these activities from her father and was only discovered when he found a parachute knife in her school bag. By the age of 17, she had already logged 450 jumps and in 1965 she jumped from 14,252 m, opening her chute a mere 500 m above the ground. In 1968, she soloed in a Yak-18 training aircraft. With such impressive credentials, it is perhaps little surprising that Savitskaya made the cut in the July 1980 selection of nine female cosmonauts. She was the only test pilot in the group; her group also included four physicians, three engineers and a physicist. Seven of the women, including Savitskaya, completed training in February 1982, whilst the others graduated in July 1984.

Svetlana Savitskaya, the first woman to fly into space twice and the first woman to perform an EVA. Photo Credit: Roscosmos.

When she was named as a member of the Soyuz T-7 crew, Savitskaya was under no illusion as to the importance of her role…as a woman and as as a competent cosmonaut. “Americans were preparing to send women into space,” she told an interviewer, years later. “I was called to our Ministry. The question was: What about us? Would we be able to do it? Was there enough time? I said ‘Why not?’ We had to keep our priority positions, where possible.” Still, even within the all-male cosmonaut corps, there was discrimination. In early 1984, whilst preparing for an EVA on her second mission, Savitskaya was asked why women needed to perform welding and other tasks in orbit – surely, they might burn each other’s suits or even the exterior of the space station, it was argued – but she remained confident in her own capabilities: “After my space flight, everyone had to shut up!”

Her steely resolve was matched by an uncompromising stance. In an 2009 interview, she was asked about a recent EVA by American astronaut Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper, who had lost a bag of tools whilst working outside the International Space Station. In Savitskaya’s mind, watching Stefanyshyn-Piper did little to help the cause of women in space. “Well, they should be thankful that it was just a closed bag,” she laughed. “It could have been worse if she scattered instruments! But, of course, we would consider it as a disadvantage and a work-performance defect. It’s just not professional…no matter the sex.”

Her work ethic clearly originated from her father and mother, as did her staunch support for the Communist Party…and ingrained distrust of the motives of the West. Even years later, when talking to Baltimore Sun journalist Clara Germani, she insisted on being interviewed in a darkened room, in overcoats and boots, and recorded on two tape recorders, “so she can be certain that her words are not twisted”. Germani described Savitskaya as exuding a strong, patriotic image of the old regime and she certainly spoke for many Russians in her desire to abandon the failed free market economy of the post-Soviet era and return to the predictable stability of the past, with its ‘decent’ salaries and pensions and social welfare mechanisms. She told Germani that her parents (her mother was a Moscow Communist Party leader) would suffer “a second death” if they had lived long enough to see modern Russia.

To Savitskaya, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc was perhaps the greatest calamity to befall the state – and the most unforgivable – and she saw it as a betrayal of her parents’ generation, who had fought and bled in the Great Patriotic War, endured unimaginable hardship, had been first into work and first into battle and had sidelined their personal lives to take on responsibilities to the party and to the nation. (Left to one side were the violent purges of Stalin, catastrophic economic policies of Khrushchev and Brezhnev and a string of failed Five-Year Plans.) On the other hand, her words are understandable, for the Russians had endured perhaps more than any other nation the brutality and wholesale destruction of their country at the hands of Nazi Germany. “It’s difficult for Americans to understand,” she told Germani, “because no other country saw such ruin as this one after the war. And Communists managed to build the country to conquer the virgin lands and we were the first to reach outer space.”

Her words are true enough. If America’s salt of the earth, its average people, past and present, were dismantled into 50 separate countries and their entire social structure was changed, overnight, Savitskaya asked, how would they feel? Even today, support for the bygone days of a one-party state and a renewed sense of nostalgia for its dependability, remain strong. In a fascinating BBC television documentary, Russia, narrated by the British writer Jonathan Dimbleby, many Russians, including today’s youth, continue to yearn for an era of ‘strong leadership’, to establish firm foundations for the state and its people. “We want our country to be strong,” one pretty female student told Dimbleby in a Vladivostok coffee bar, “so we can be proud of it. We can have really tough, strong leaders of our country, so that our country will be strong in the world.” Strength, certainly, is the name of the game in modern Russia and it is certainly personified in the characters of political leaders like Vladimir Putin and the steely Svetlana Savitskaya. Strength first, democracy later, was another student’s view. “You need someone strong to lead you out of the dangers,” he said, “then you can play democracy.”

For only the second time in two decades, a Soviet woman heads for space on 19 August 1982. Photo Credit: Roscosmos.

It was too early for democracy of any kind on 19 August 1982, when Soyuz T-7 speared for the heavens, kicking off the second ‘visiting expedition’, or expeditsya poseshchenya (EP), to the Salyut 7 space station. Leonid Brezhnev had three months left to live and two more uncompromising General Secretaries – Andropov and Chernenko – would assume power, before Gorbachev arrived to begin his efforts of reform. In a sense, Soyuz T-7 was one of the last Soviet attempts to secure a propaganda ‘first’…and its significance was not overlooked in the astronaut offices in Houston, Texas. Many of the chauvinistic military pilots, including Mike Mullane, jokingly asked why Soviet female cosmonauts were so ugly and were quickly rebuffed by their female colleagues, who insisted that, perhaps, Savitskaya was good at her job. Indeed, she was.

For Savitskaya, the launch was one of the highlights of her first mission: the grumbling, groaning and shuddering of the rocket, she later told a journalist, left her in no doubt of the enormity of the events occurring outside…although the expected colossal overloads did not materialise. Maybe it was her steely feminism talking, but she was convinced that physically healthy and properly trained individuals could withstand the stresses of launch and ascent to orbit, without the slightest inconvenience. She anticipated weightlessness and tested it, firstly by releasing a pencil from her logbook, and watched it float in front of her eyes. It was already late into the evening by the time orbital insertion had been achieved and, in words possibly chosen to make Soyuz appear ‘larger’ than it actually was, she later commented that “to prevent myself from sailing into another compartment…I tied myself with a belt”. A day after launch, Soyuz T-7 commander Leonid Popov docked his ship onto Salyut 7…and Savitskaya was met by bear hugs and a lighthearted, though undeniable, example of Soviet chauvinism: Valentin Lebedev insisted that she get straight to work on the housekeeping duties! The steely female pilot assured him that she would do no such thing. “Housekeeping chores,” she said, firmly, “are the responsibility of the host cosmonauts!”

Experiments were undertaken over the next few days, including use of the French-supplied equipment to examine Savitskaya’s adaptation to the microgravity environment, and the Tavria investigation into the separation of biological mixtures, but the primary objective of Soyuz T-7 was twofold: to score a triumph over the United States, by flying another woman into space, ‘proving’, yet again, the superiority of the beautiful socialist state. As if Savitskaya’s mission was not enough to upstage the 1983 flight of Sally Ride, there were plans to push the lead even further. When Soyuz T-8 launched in April 1983, many in the West were perplexed to note that its crew included cosmonaut Alexander Serebrov, who had also flown with Savitskaya and Popov on Soyuz T-7.

It would appear that his place was originally assigned to a female cosmonaut, Irina Pronina, who had served as Savitskaya’s backup, and whom the Soviets wanted to fly in order to gather data on a woman’s adaptation to long-duration flight…and, doubtless, score another coup over the West. Her mission, to be flown during the late spring and into the summer of 1983, would conveniently overlap – and hopefully overshadow – the flight of Sally Ride in June. Sadly, Pronina’s chance did not come to pass. Space historians Dave Shayler and the late Rex Hall have commented that in March 1983 – only weeks before launch – “the internal politics of the Soviet programme” led to “heavy pressure” to remove Pronina from the Soyuz T-8 crew. She was replaced by Serebrov. “Several Western accounts,” Hall and Shayler wrote in Soyuz: A Universal Spacecraft, “suggest that Pronina was supposed to participate in EVAs.” At length, this was dropped and the EVAs were assigned to the other Soyuz T-8 cosmonauts, Vladimir Titov and Gennadi Strekalov…but this created another problem. It would appear that senior management were worried that Pronina would be left alone aboard Salyut 7 during the EVAs and, if something went wrong, she would not know how to return to Earth aboard the Soyuz capsule.

Hall and Shayler inferred that this pointed to a certain lack of training on the part of the female cosmonauts in Soyuz systems and operations. Still others have argued that the predominantly military leadership of the cosmonaut corps simply opposed the idea of women flying into space and their voices thus reinforced the call for Pronina’s removal from Soyuz T-8. Not until the end of 1994, in fact, would a female cosmonaut perform a long-duration space voyage…and it is interesting that an American woman, NASA astronaut Shannon Lucid, had also begun training for her own long-duration mission, a few months earlier. The convenient timing, say the cynics, cannot be entirely coincidental.

The Salyut 7 space station, twice visited by Svetlana Savitskaya. Had the station's fortunes turned out differently in 1985, she might have visited a third time...becoming only the second cosmonaut to do so. Photo Credit: Roscosmos.

If Svetlana Savitskaya’s first flight was done entirely for propaganda purposes, then so too was her second: the Soyuz T-12 mission in July 1984, during which she and fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Dzhanibekov made an EVA outside Salyut 7. She was selected for the mission in December 1983 – three weeks after Kathy Sullivan had been named to her flight and assigned her own EVA – and there was little hiding the disgust in the West that the Soviets were up to their own tricks. Hall and Shayler pointed out that Savitskaya had the “physical strength” to perform an EVA and it would appear that Valentin Glushko, the veteran rocket engine designer and head of the Energia organisation, who ordered her to fly in order to explicitly upstage Kathy Sullivan.

It was under this cloud of cynicism that Soyuz T-12 roared into orbit on 17 July 1984 and reached Salyut 7 a day later. The highlight came on the 25th, when the station’s hatch opened and Dzhanibekov and Savitskaya emerged into the brilliance of orbital sunlight for their historic EVA. Dzhanibekov set up foot restraints, a work lamp and an external power outlet, in order to test a piece of hardware known as the Universalny Rabochy Instrument (‘Universal Hand Tool’, or ‘URI’). This consisted of a portable electron beam device, weighing some 30 kg, for cutting, welding, soldering and brazing. Before the flight, the URI had caused great concern on the ground: some engineers felt that its high operating temperatures and heat production might damage the cosmonauts’ space suits. However, the instrument worked perfectly. Savitskaya began work with the URI just as Salyut 7 drifted out of radio contact with the ground; after the reacquisition of signal, she used the device to perform cutting, coating and soldering.

With Savitskaya’s return to Earth, two records had been accomplished – the first woman to make a second flight, ahead of Sally Ride, and the first to make an EVA, ahead of Kathy Sullivan – but more was to come. In the spring of 1985, Savitskaya’s name was suggested in command of an all-female crew, probably Soyuz T-14, scheduled for November of that year…conveniently coinciding with the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. She would have been joined by engineer Yekaterina Ivanova and physician Yelena Dobrokvashina. The crew would have spent a week or so exchanging Soyuz craft with the resident Salyut 7 crew of Vladimir Vasyutin, Viktor Savinykh and Alexander Volkov…but all of this came to nothing in early 1985, when all contact was lost with Salyut 7. The station had been unmanned for several months and a hasty rescue mission, flown by Savinykh and Vladimir Dzhanibekov, was executed in June to bring it back to life. The inevitable delays in the flight schedule pushed the all-female mission into the spring of 1986.

At length, Vasyutin and Volkov were launched in September, joining Savinykh for what should have kept them aboard Salyut 7 until mid-March 1986. It would appear that Savitskaya’s crew would have flown a couple of weeks ahead of the landing of Vasyutin’s crew, perhaps deliberately timed to coincide with International Women’s Day on 8 March. Savitskaya’s last chance to fly again came to nothing when Vasyutin fell ill aboard Salyut 7 and the crew was obliged to return to Earth in November 1985. The possibility of the all-female flight lingered on the horizon for a time, then faded away.

Officially, it was cancelled due to the birth of Savitskaya’s son, Konstantin, in October 1986, although rumour has abounded for years that strong opposition existed in the higher echelons of the Soviet space hierarchy against the idea of an all-female flight. (Ironically, the backup crew for the mission was all-male, further underlining the hypocritical reality that the all-female flight had little practical merit.) Today, it is hard for many in the West to understand Savitskaya’s motivations in supporting the ideals of a regime which used her as a pawn in a political game, whose primary objective was to beat the United States. On the other hand, the work ethic of her parents and generation factored strongly into Savitskaya’s thinking. As the daughter of a leading Soviet military officer, a man for whom duty to his country overruled all else, who had seen the devastation wreaked upon his motherland by outsiders, and a mother whose central focus was upon the united strength of her people, Savitskaya’s outlook is unsurprising.

It is easy to view the actions of the Soviet Union during this period as wholly political, in their ‘use’ of women to further the aims and ideals of senior leaders. At the same time, the actions of the United States have been seen by many through the same prism of positive discrimination: the selection of Sally Ride and Guy Bluford – a woman and an African-American man – to two consecutive missions (and the first two missions to feature members of their astronaut class, at that) was similarly viewed with a healthy helping of cynicism, as was the rumoured ‘dropping’ of five qualified pilots by NASA in January 1978 to make way for five more women. “Political bullshit,” as Deke Slayton called it, has made pawns of many astronauts and cosmonauts; the finest, bravest and most upstanding individuals that the world has ever known. When Yelena Serova ventures into orbit in September 2014 as the fourth female Russian cosmonaut, we can only hope that her countryfolk will see her not as a political token, but as the qualified and competent cosmonaut that she is.

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