‘The Common Touch’: Selecting the First Woman Cosmonaut

Right from the start, the training of Russia’s first female cosmonauts was as alien as the environment in which one of them would operate. Although all had flying or parachuting experience, the closeted military world of the cosmonaut team came as a huge cultural shock to them. Photo Credit: Roscosmos

Fifty years ago this month, the first woman flew into space. Since the launch of Sputnik, the Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a battle for technological supremacy, firstly in the arena of missile stocks and later in their ability to send humans into the heavens. In June 1963, America seemed firmly relegated to second place, with Russia having launched the world’s first satellite, its first lunar probe, its first man in space, and its first woman … and whereas NASA could barely keep its astronauts in orbit for a matter of hours, the cosmonauts were routinely spending several days in orbit. Of course, it is easy to look back on the Soviet achievements for what they were: a cynical ploy in the hands of Premier Nikita Khrushchev, conducted purely for political, military, and propaganda advantage. Yet the pace at which these spectaculars occurredand the effect they had on the United Statesprovoked an unprecedented competition between the two superpowers, sparking a race which eventually produced human bootprints on the Moon. At few other periods in history has international competition paid such an enormous dividend in such a short span of time.

The West was not fooled, though. Whereas America was following a gradual programme with the long-term aim of a piloted landing on the lunar surface, it was clear that the Soviets were overwhelmingly focused upon scoring one disconnected space spectacular after another. At the end of 1961, Sergei Korolevthe “Chief Designer” whose genius enabled many of these missionssuggested sending a woman into space, and the Central Committee of the Communist Party approved the selection of five female candidates. In March of the following year, after lengthy evaluations, the women arrived at a male-dominated training facility, just outside Moscow, to begin preparations. Tatiana Kuznetsova, Valentina Ponomaryova, Irina Solovyeva, Valentina Tereshkova, and Zhana Yerkina were put through the same rigorous training as the men … and their fundamental advantage was that the United States had little interest in selecting its own female astronauts. It was the perfect coup for a socialist state obsessed with promulgating the false ideology that its women were equal to its men.

The Vostok spacecraft could not bring its cosmonaut directly to the ground; instead, they were required to eject at altitude and descend beneath their own parachute. As a result, all five women possessed at least rudimentary flying or parachuting skills and were chosen from aviation clubs across European Russia. The cosmonauts’ town of Zvezdny Gorodok (“Star City”) did not yet exist, and the women trained instead in a jumble of office buildings. All five were enrolled as privates in the Soviet Air Force and, thrust into a strict military unit, few of them understood the requirements of service regulations. “Military discipline,” recalled Ponomaryova, “was an alien and difficult concept.” Intensive instruction in rocket systems, navigation, and astronomy was juxtaposed with punishing runs in the centrifuge, daily physical and vestibular training, and flights in the two-seater MiG-15. Demonstrative of the “newness” of the human space experience, the women were obliged to repeat phrases, write sentences, draw shapes, and eat food from toothpaste tubes.

By the end of 1962, the training was complete and, after final examinations, the cosmonaut team commander, the indomitable Nikolai Kamanin, advised them that they had been commissioned as junior lieutenants in the Air Force. On 19 November, the final selections were made. Ponomaryova scored the highest, but, interestingly, it is said that she did not offer the “proper” replies to the examiners’ questions.

Valentina Tereshkova (right) trains for her Vostok duties in the months before launch. The woman to the left of the image is usually identified as Tatiana Kunetsova, although in a 2005 interview Tereshkova disputed this and claimed that she was a parachutist medic. Photo Credit: Roscosmos

“What do you want from life?” was one such query.

“I want to take everything it can offer,” came Ponomaryova’s response.

Not a good socialist response, it would appear. Valentina Tereshkova, on the other hand, spoke of her ambition “to support irrevocably the Communist Party,” and it has been suggested over the years that these words contributed greatly to her selection as the first woman in space. Years later, Ponomaryova suspected that her smoking habit, her aggressively feminist stance, and her failure to vocally support the Communist Party was frowned upon by the selection board. Yet there was something else which marked Tereshkova for greatness. She was an enthusiastic pilot and a good parachutist, but it was not just her careful replies to questions, or even her membership of the Young Communist League, which endeared her to Nikita Khrushchev. It was her humble backgroundfor she was a seamstress; an ordinary factory worker. Tereshkova represented the plain Russian girl who would enable him to cynically declare that, under Communism, anyone could fly a rocket into space. She had the common touch.

Even decades after her flight, Valentina Tereshkova (right) remains a giant in the annals of space exploration. She is pictured in December 2010 with U.S. astronaut Catherine “Cady” Coleman, shortly before the latter was launched on a long-duration mission to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA/Mike Fossum.

Nikolai Kamanin, too, favoured Tereshkova as the prime candidate for the mission, with Irina Solovyevaan accomplished master parachutist with 800 jumpsas her backup and Ponomaryova and Zhana Yerkina as “options” for later flights. Tatiana Kuznetsova had missed so much training that she did not take the final exams. By the end of 1962, the plan was to send Tereshkova into orbit for three or four days, or perhaps fly two Vostoks, each carrying a woman. Certainly, in February 1963, the most likely outcome seemed to involve two women, launched 24 hours apart in the March-April period. Everything changed on 21 March, when the Central Committee opted to fly a male cosmonaut, Valeri Bykovsky, aboard Vostok 5, followed by Tereshkova aboard Vostok 6. Bykovsky’s mission would establish a new world record of between five and seven days in space.

Still, there was opposition to flying one woman, rather than two, particularly from the Soviet Air Force, which felt that there was insufficient time to train Bykovsky for his mission. Moreover, the shelf life of the Vostok hardware expired in July 1963, demanding a spring or early summer launch, and efforts to authorise the production of 10 more spacecraft had gone nowhere. The Ministry of Defence categorically rejected the building of more Vostoks, and it was decided that the Bykovsky-Tereshkova flights would be the last in the series. Moreover, the inclusion of Bykovsky at such short notice meant that the flight would be unavoidably postponed until early June. In his famous diaries, Nikolai Kamanin fumed that months of training had been wasted to produce four fully qualified female cosmonauts … and only one would get to fly.

That “one,” of course, was Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, whose background offered the perfect socialist upbringing which Khrushchev wanted the outside world to see. Her father, a tractor driver, had fought in the Russian Army as a sergeant and tank commander, dying in the Finnish Winter War in 1939, when Tereshkova was 2 years old. (Today, a monument stands in Lemetti, on the Russian side of the Finnish border, to commemorate Vladimir Tereshkov.) In the hard times which followed, Tereshkova’s mother single-handedly raised three children, whilst working at the Krasny Perekop cotton mill. For her part, Tereshkova did not begin formal schooling until she was 10 years old and, as a worker, made coats, served as an apprentice in a tyre factory, and finally joined her mother and sister in 1955 as a loom operator. However, she continued her academic studies and completed the Light Industry Technical School.

A long interest in aviation culminated in membership of the Yaroslavl Air Sports Club, and she made her first parachute jump at the age of 22. By the time of her selection as a cosmonaut, Tereshkova had logged 126 jumps … but her family knew nothing of her plans. Even her mother was under the impression that she was undertaking “special studies” for a women’s precision skydiving team. In fact, the first that she knew about her daughter’s accomplishment was on the day of her launch, via Radio Moscow. Years later, in an interview with an American publication, Tereshkova summed up her suitably feminine attributes and modesty. “I strongly feel that no work done by a woman in the field of science or culture,” she said, “can enter into conflict with her ancient, wonderful mission to love and be loved and her craving for the bliss of motherhood.” This attitude was matched by her determination. According to Yuri Gagarin, she tackled her job stubbornly and with tenacity, poring over books and training materials in her spare time. For Nikita Khrushchev, she was the perfect candidate … and on the mission itself she would embark on the greatest challenge of her life.

The training of Valeri Bykovsky and his backup, Boris Volynov, was nearing completion, although Kamanin noted in his diary that both men needed to complete several more parachute jumps and training simulations in the Vostok craft. This pushed the launch of the joint mission to somewhere between 5-15 June. When the State Commission convened on the 4th, wind speeds at the Baikonur launch site were too high and a failed radio command line enforced additional delays. Solar flare activity also put paid to another effort to get Vostok 5 into orbit on the 10th. At length, Bykovsky thundered into orbit on the 14th, coinciding neatly with a visit to Moscow by future British Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Whilst there, Wilson asked Khrushchev how many cosmonauts were in space this time.

With a glint in his eye, Khrushchev could not help himself. “Only one,” he replied, gleefully, “so far!”


The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.


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