Most Americans assume that Sally Ride, who flew on the Space Shuttle in 1983, was the first woman in space. But in reality, the first women had flown in orbit almost 20 years before–and she was a Soviet.
In April 1961, the Soviet Union became the first nation to send a human into space, when Yuri Gagarin was launched into orbit in the Vostok 1 spaceship. It was an enormous human achievement in science and engineering.
But the primary purpose of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was geopolitical. As the Cold War raged, government officials in both nations were less interested in science than they were in propaganda, using space stunts to demonstrate the superiority of their social and economic systems and winning friends and allies in the great global conflict.
Gagarin’s flight was a propaganda coup, demonstrating the technological superiority of the Soviet Union. The United States was forced to accelerate its own space program (and revamp its math and science education system) to keep up in the propaganda war. And the Soviet Union was already planning its next space stunt.
Sergei Korolev, in charge of the Soviet space program, had conceived the idea of putting women cosmonauts into space, and in October 1961, he issued instructions to find suitable candidates for training. The new cosmonaut candidates had to be female, they had to be “proletarian” factory workers, and they had to be ideologically suitable Communist Party members in good standing. It would be a propaganda extravaganza, in one stroke demonstrating the superiority of the “New Soviet Woman” in the great Communist social system, where the workers ruled and women had social and political equality. (The American NASA had selected a number of women in 1959 to be trained as astronauts, but none of them ever flew, and NASA restricted all future astronaut candidates to males–a fact that Soviet propaganda was quick to point out.)
The technical qualifications were much less rigorous than the ideological ones: the Vostok spaceship could be flown automatically from the ground, so the female “pilot” would simply be a passive passenger. Candidates therefore did not need to have any actual piloting experience. But the Vostok system did require that the cosmonaut be ejected from the spaceship during the approach to landing, floating to Earth separately in a parachute. Therefore the new candidates should have extensive parachuting experience. And the best place to find experienced female parachutists was in the Aviation Parachute Club, a national organization of civilian skydivers that was run by the Soviet Air Force.
Korolev’s team combed the entire membership of the Aviation Parachute Club looking for suitable candidates, and in January 1962 invited 40 women to join the cosmonaut program and come to Moscow for physical and mental tests. After six weeks of evaluation, five women were selected for cosmonaut training. At the time, the paranoid Soviet penchant for state security prevented their names from being released; today we know that they were Zhanna Yorkina, Valentina Tereshkova, Irina Solovyova, Tatiana Kuznetsova, and Valentina Ponomaryova. One of them was a certified pilot, the others were parachutists. They were inducted into the Soviet Air Force and sent to the cosmonaut training base, known as “Star City”, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
A couple months later, some Soviet space officials were at a party in Washington DC with American astronaut John Glenn, who had just orbited the Earth in the Mercury Friendship Seven. During some small talk, Glenn mentioned that he hoped one of the female NASA astronaut trainees (who hadn’t yet been banned from flight) might get into space by the end of the year.
It panicked the Russians, who were now afraid that the US would beat them and ruin their planned propaganda stunt. So the Soviet schedule was accelerated. The next Soviet propaganda score was already scheduled for August 1962, when two spacecraft, Vostok 3 and Vostok 4, were sent into orbit at the same time, approaching within several miles of each other. Now, hasty plans were made to insure that the next flight after that, scheduled for early 1963, would be another dual launch, but this time with two female cosmonauts. All five of the female cosmonauts began training for the mission: the two actual pilots would not be selected until the last minute.
But in March 1963, just weeks before the flight was scheduled to launch, the plan underwent a drastic change, ordered from the very top of the Soviet government. Despite all its propaganda about the equality of Soviet women, the (entirely male) Communist Party leadership did not really think that its female cosmonauts were up to the job, and decided that if some sort of accident or disaster happened during the mission, it would provide a propaganda bonanza for the Americans. So Soviet Defense Minister Ustinov ordered that one of the two pilots for the mission be a fully-trained male cosmonaut (Valery Bykovsky was selected). The woman cosmonaut would fly in the other Vostok.
When it came time to select the female cosmonaut for this mission, Kuznetsova and Solovyova were immediately ruled out. The Soviet space program was already planning a future mission for the new Voskhod space ship, then still in development, which could carry up to three crew members–and it was planned that two of those would be female. Since Kuznetsova and Solovyova were the two best trainees, they would be held for the later mission, which would be much more complex (as it turned out, that mission was never flown). That left Yorkina, Tereshkova, and Ponomaryova. In the end, it was Soviet Premiere Krushchev himself who made the final choice. Valentina Tereshkova was selected.
Tereshkova was a twenty-six year old who worked in a textile mill in the town of Yaroslavl, where she had joined the Komsomol (the Communist Party Youth League) and organized the local chapter of the Parachute Club. She had 126 jumps to her credit. Most importantly to Soviet officials, she was articulate, attractive and personable, and always gave the correct ideological answers to questions. One Communist Party official privately referred to her as “Gagarin in a skirt”.
The mission took place in June 1963. Bykovsky launched first, in Vostok 5, with Tereshkova launching a day later in Vostok 6. They orbited together for almost 3 days, approaching to 3.1 miles of each other. Since the Vostok was flown automatically from ground control, Tereshkova had nothing to do, and quickly became bored and uncomfortable in the cramped capsule. She complained that the food was of low quality, and when she got spacesick and threw up, she blamed it on the food. Tereshkova had originally only been planned to fly for two days before landing, but as the Vostok was being set up for re-entry, Tereshkova noticed that the entry angle was wrong, and when the ground controllers at first refused to believe her, it took another day for them to correct the error. She landed in Siberia after 70 hours 50 minutes and 48 orbits. Bykovsky landed the next day.
After the mission, Tereshkova was showered with medals, receiving the “Hero of the Soviet Union” at a ceremony in the Kremlin, then the Order of Lenin. She was sent on several goodwill tours around the world, where she dutifully gave speeches praising the feminist egalitarianism of the Soviet society. What she really wanted, she later admitted, was to fly in space again. But the flight had already served its propaganda purpose, and the Soviet leadership, privately unhappy with the “insubordination” that Tereshkova had shown during the mission, decided that the real space work would now be done by men. No female Soviet cosmonaut would fly again until 1982 (the US did not put a woman in space until 1983). In any case, the Communist Party did not want to risk losing its new space hero (Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, was killed in an airplane crash in 1968). Tereshkova went on to become involved in Communist Party politics, eventually becoming a member of the government’s Supreme Soviet and then the Presidium.
But she provided the Party with one more propaganda opportunity. In November 1963, five months after her flight, Tereshkova married Andrian Nikolayev, the only bachelor member of the cosmonaut corps (he had been the pilot of Vostok 3, in the first Soviet dual flight). The union had been personally approved by Soviet Premiere Krushchev, but it is not clear to what extent the much-celebrated “space marriage” was the result of Party pressure. The two had a daughter in 1974, but separated in 1979 and divorced in 1982 (after obtaining permission from Soviet Premiere Brezhnev).
Today, at age 77, Valentina Tereshkova leads a quiet life in Moscow, where she still speaks occasionally as an advocate for the Russian space program and an enthusiastic supporter of a global effort to send humans to Mars.