Anniversary – The First Woman In Space

The first woman and civilian in space was a pioneer for Soviet space exploration

Born in 1937, Tereshkova was a textile worker from a small village in the far west of Russia.  Tereshkova never yearned to go into space, she left school early to support her family.

She continued her education by correspondence. Tereshkova worked in the local textile mill, and earned certification as a cotton spinning technology expert.  She went on to become the secretary of the local Komsomol (Young Communist League).  Tereshkova’s passion was parachuting. She was introduced to the sport of parachuting by a friend and was so taken by the sport she soon began parachuting regularly and set up the Textile Mill Workers Parachute Club.

In 1962 when the Soviet Air Force advertised for 50 cosmonauts to join the new space program, it included 5 positions for women.  At the time Nikita Khrushchev thought that the U.S. was considering sending women from the Mercury Program into space. This spurred the Russians on to select a number of women for their own space program, with the aim of getting them into space before the US.

Tereshkova was one of 50 out of a pool of 400 applicants that were accepted for further testing.  Eventually 5 women passed the assessment test to become a cosmonaut. Over a period of 15 months the 5 women undertook all the same training that the men did, including weightless flights, isolation tests, centrifuge tests, rocket theory, spacecraft engineering, 120 parachute jumps and pilot training in jet fighters.

In a 2005 interview Tereshkova recalled that the training was strict and that they were ‘locked inside the classroom to study theory all day long’.  As Tereshkova was a civilian she was inducted into the Soviet Air Force as a Lieutenant so that she could become a member of the cosmonaut corps.The requirement to be a cosmonaut did not include any piloting skills, but they did require all applicants to be experienced parachutists, under 170cm tall, under 70kg in weight, under 30 years of age, be fit and be ‘ideologically pure’.

Tereshkova met all the criteria.  In addition, she was the daughter of a local war hero who had been declared MIA (presumed dead) during the Russian/Finnish war.

At 1430 hours on 16 June 1963, 26 year old Russian Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova blasted into space aboard Vostok 6, becoming the first woman in space.  Tereshkova’s mission was to orbit the earth for 24 hours and to conduct a number of tests on herself to collect data on the female body’s reaction to spaceflight.  Soon after launch when she settled into orbit Tereshkova realised that the spacecraft was moving away from Earth, rather than heading towards it.

Valentina Tereshkova being celebrated on tour in Russia

She quickly reported the error to ground control, which then provided a new landing algorithm.  However, this meant that her mission was extended to 2 days 22 hours and 50 minutes.  Because of this, Tereshkova spent more time in orbit than all the U.S. Mercury astronauts combined.  At the time there was no mention made of the potentially fatal miscalculation.  This information was only released in the 1990s.Tereshkova was originally intended to launch first in Vostok 5, and another female cosmonaut, Valentina Leonidovna Ponomaryova was to pilot Vostok 6.

However, a few months before launch, the flight plan was altered so that Tereshkova would pilot Vostok 6 and Valery Bykovsky would pilot Vostok 5. In an interview Tereshkova was asked if the other members were jealous that she got to fly.  She responded ‘The other women were upset – but our friendship is still alive’.  She recalled that when she was driven off towards Vosktok 6 for the launch that her back up Irina Solovyova remained in the bus, fully clothed in her space suit, prepared for launch should Tereshkova not be ready or able to launch.

History in action. Tereshkova pinning an award on Neil Armstrong. 1960’s

Tereshkova orbited the earth 48 times and landed as planned, with only a minor bruise to her nose from impact with her helmet during landing.  In November of 1963 Valentina married cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev   On June 8, 1964, she gave birth to their daughter Elena Andrianovna Nikolaeva-Tereshkova, who is now a doctor and was the first person to have both a mother and father who had travelled into space.  Tereshkova and Nikolayev divorced in 1982.Although it’s often reported that Tereshkova got severe space sickness during her flight, in fact she found that it was actually the space food provided that made her ill.  However, this had no impact on her performance of her duties during the mission.

After her flight, Tereshkova studied at the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy and graduated as a cosmonaut engineer. She went on to be a test pilot and instructor.  In 1977 she earned a doctorate in engineering. She went on to become a prominent member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, President of the Soviet Women’s Committee and prominent supporter of women’s rights. Tereshkova is considered a heroine in post-Soviet Russia.


Valentina in full flight suit set to make history

Tereshkova and her fellow female cosmonauts were not considered by some to be a part of the cosmonaut corps, and were not considered for flight assignments on an equal basis with the ‘regular’ male cosmonauts. Unfortunately, during this period space flights manned by women were considered for propaganda purposes. There was fierce competition from the men for a flight position, and placing a woman on the flight would mean that she would be taking the place of a man.  An all female Voskhod flight was considered, but eventually cancelled.

There is some suggestion that male cosmonauts objected to the women in the corps as a distraction. None of the other four women in Tereshkova’s early group flew, and in October 1969 the pioneering female cosmonaut group was dissolved.  Even though there were numerous plans for further flights by women, it was a further 19 years before the second woman Svetlana Savitskaya, flew into space.

Valentina was the recipient of many honours and awards including:

  • The Hero of the Soviet Union
  • Order of Lenin
  • Order of the October Revolution
  • Order of Merit for the Fatherland
  • Order of Friendship
  • Russian Federation State Prize
  • United Nations Gold Medal of Peace
  • Simba International Women’s Movement Award
  • Honorary Doctorate from University of Edinburgh
  • Named a crater on the moon ‘Tereshkova Crater’
  • Eduard Rhein Ring of Honor
  • Asteroid 1671 named Chaika (Her callsign for Vostok 6 ‘Seagull’)
  • Joliot-Curie Gold Medal

Tereshkova is now 80 years old, living quietly and enjoying life with her grandchildren.  She remains the only woman in history to have made a solo space flight.

* This article was written and prepared by Sharon Harnett @ www.astrochix.com in celebration of International Women’s Day….


The Psychology of Sputnik

The Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 on Oct. 4, 1957. The world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1 was a 183-pound beach ball-sized sphere that took about 98 minutes to orbit Earth. Credit: JPL/NASA

Sixty years ago, the Soviet Union launched history’s first artificial satellite. Sputnik was an innocuous satellite; Soviet scientists behind the launch were just happy to successfully put the probe into orbit. But in the United States the reaction was different.

The engineering feat very quickly gave way to hysteria and paranoia. President Eisenhower initially downplayed the role of the satellite as a threat to find that he’d grossly underestimated its psychological impact.

The 17 months between July 1957 to December 1958 saw a peak in solar activity. Scientists around the world agreed that it was an optimal time for investigation into atmospheric phenomenon, and deemed the period an International Geophysical Year (IGY). The goal was to advance scientific understanding of the environment around the planet, and both the United States and the USSR planned to launch satellites as part of their IGY programs.

By the fall of 1957, it looked like the Soviets would get their satellite up before the Americans launched theirs. The end of September saw the Comité Speciale de l’Année Geophysique Internationale (CSAGI) host a six-day conference at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. Rocketry and satellite research for IGY programs took center stage, and throughout the meeting Soviets in attendance made mention that they were “on the eve” of a satellite launch.

Americans took these remarks to be little more than boastful rhetoric. But the last night of the conference — Friday, October 4 — Sputnik zoomed overhead and proved the Soviets weren’t all talk.

The immediate reaction of U.S. leaders was diplomatic. Eisenhower and members of his administration congratulated the Soviets on their accomplishment while the news reached the Soviet people with a small article in the newspaper Pravda.

While U.S. leaders wouldn’t deny the importance of this first satellite, they also recognized that Sputnik wasn’t the most sophisticated piece of hardware. It was heavy, 184 pounds, but American scientists knew its size and weight was due to its primitive instruments.

The spherical satellite held a transmitter that beeped, hardware that changed the pitch of the beep depending on temperature, and batteries to run the instrument. Ham radio operators could pick up the signal as the satellite passed overhead every 96 minutes.

But the public didn’t focus on Sputnik’s basic instruments; the public focused on its size. Sputnik’s 184 pounds was massive compared the 3.5 pound satellite the United States was planning to launch on the Navy’s Vanguard rocket. Vanguard was also a fairly simple satellite, but its instruments were smaller and more refined. No one cared. The bigger satellite was the scarier satellite.


The body was 585mm in diameter, and made of highly polished aluminum alloy.

People were worried about the beeping, too. Some thought the signal was somehow telling the Soviets the exact locations of U.S. cities. It wasn’t, though that wasn’t a farfetched guess; the U.S. Army had at one point at least considered using a satellite to triangulate the exact position of cities in Russia.

What no one failed to recognize, from White House administrators to the man on the street, was that the rocket that put the 184-pound Sputnik in orbit was far more powerful than the rocket that was going to put the 3.5 Vanguard satellite in orbit.

The 1950s Cold War mentality turned this weight disparity into one of capability, and the implications were terrifying from the American perspective. If the Soviets could launch Sputnik, what else could they put into orbit? What might soon be zooming over our heads?

That Sputnik came on the heels of a successful test flight of a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile just a month before surely increased the sense of fear, but being clearly visible in the night sky made the satellite more ominous than a missile test on the other side of the world. People started talking about a  “missile gap” and “technology gap.”

History became divided into two eras: pre-Sputnik and post-Sputnik.

Two events the following month fed the fire that Sputnik had sparked. On November 3 the Soviet Union launched a second satellite, Sputnik 2. This second launch was much more impressive. Weighing a staggering 1,120 pounds, this spacecraft was equipped with a rudimentary life support system to keep its passenger, a dog named Laika, alive. Sputnik 2 made it clear that the Soviets’ launch capability exceeded the Americans’, and suggested that a manned satellite would follow before long.


Little was known about the impact of space flight on living things before the stray mongrel Laika was sent into space. (NASA/Associated Press/File 1957)

A presidentially commissioned review of U.S. nuclear policies — the so-called “Gaither Report” –  warned that the Soviet Union might have a significant ICBM capability by the end of 1959, though it wasn’t definitive. And although the report was classified as top secret, details and some of its conclusions were leaked to the press.

As the news spread, it fuelled the sense that a missile gap existed between the two countries. This intensified the shock of the Soviet double whammy in space. The perceived missile gap turned into a very real fear and sparked the need to match then beat the Russians in space. The race was effectively on. Source: D-News

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