Tag Archives: Gagarin

168. A Woman in Space

53 years ago today, the first woman flew in space. Her name was Valentina Tereshkova. The Soviets hailed her as a hero of the People (see131. Chasing Cosmonauts), and as proof that Russia was ahead of the US in social advancement as well as in space travel.

The US treated her as a joke.

Both assessment were wrong, although both contained kernels of truth. Even today, half a century after the event, it is difficult to come to a balanced appraisal of the flight of Vostok 6. Russian propaganda and American dismissal still cloud the picture.  I am taking a shot at accuracy here, but a workman is only as good as his tools, so keep a measure of skepticism in mind.

Tereshkova’s father was MIA during WWII, leaving her mother to raise Tereshkova alone. She left school early to join her mother working in a state textile mill. There she joined a parachute club, which was a military auxiliary, and became an expert parachutist as well as secretary of the local Komsomol.

Early in the Soviet space program, there was a movement to add female cosmonauts, mostly for propaganda purposes. Candidates did not need flight experience since the Vostok craft were fully automated, but the did need extensive parachute experience, since at that early stage cosmonauts finalized their landings by personal parachute (see130.  First Into Space). Tereshkova was one of fifty-four candidates interviewed, and one of five who made it through training.

Tereshkova was personable, doctrinally sound in communism, from the peasant and workers class, hard working, willing, and an expert parachutist. She was not well educated nor an experienced pilot. Ponomaryova and Solovyova, female cosmonaut trainees who had those additional qualifications, were scheduled for a later, more sophisticated flight, and Tereshkova was scheduled for the Vostok 5/6 dual flight.

Vostok 5, crewed by  Valery Bykovsky, was launched on June 14, scheduled for an eight day flight, but a low orbit forced it to be shortened to five. Vostok 6, crewed by Tereshkova, was launched on June 16 and remained in orbit for three days. They passed within five kilometers while in space.

During the flight, Tereshkova discovered that the automatic orientation system had her flying sideways in orbit, an error that would have been fatal during reentry. Ground control confirmed and corrected. Whether she activated her final reentry personally or not is still unclear.

In those early days, landing accuracy had not been perfected. When she ejected from her craft, she found herself coming down into a large lake, and was only saved from downing by a strong wind that carried her to a rough landing on shore.

American astronauts, all of whom were test pilots, had little respect for the skills of Soviet cosmonauts. They used Tereshkova’s flight to justify their ridicule, saying that the Russians had simply pulled a woman off the line in a factory and sent her up into space as a glorified passenger. There was a bit of justification in their assessment. It was a propaganda stunt, but that didn’t mitigate the dangers. Tereshkova was uneducated, but by six years later she had taken advantage of her situation to earn a degree in engineering. She was not a pilot when chosen for training, but by the time of Vostok 6 she had learned to fly jets and had made 120 additional jumps to hone her skills as a parachutist.

Alan Shepard was a superb test pilot when he flew his Mercury mission, but he had almost no control over his capsule and nobody called him spam-in-a-can. Well, actually, Chuck Yeager did, but that’s what too much testosterone will do to your thinking.

Tereshkova’s contribution to space flight was real, but the Soviet commitment to equality was not. Ponomaryova and Solovyova’s flight was cancelled, and it would be nineteen years before another Soviet woman flew in space. It would be twenty years before the first American woman, Sally Ride, entered space, even though thirteen American female astronauts had been chosen and trained during the early sixties. Like Ponomaryova and Solovyova, they never flew.


130. First into Space

220px-Vostok_spacecraftI grew up wanting to be a spaceman. I didn’t say astronaut, and I didn’t say cosmonaut. When I was just getting old enough to dream about the future, neither of those words were in use. Spacemen were the stuff of fiction, and the stuff of the far future.

The future arrived before I was ten in the form of Sputnik, an unwanted gift from the USSR that passed beeping over America and scared the whole nation out of its wits, and into a race for space. That was fine with me. I loved every minute of it, even though I knew I was never going to go. I was smart enough, and strong enough, but I couldn’t see across the room without glasses. Of course there were a thousand other hurdles I didn’t know about, but here we are talking about the dreams of youth.

I followed the introduction of our astronauts, and learned all I could about the craft they would fly. There wasn’t a whole lot of information available in Talala, Oklahoma in 1959.

Then, 55 years ago today, the Russians beat us into space – again – and in a much bigger way. Yuri Gagarin, cosmonaut, became the first human in space and the first to achieve orbit. Our guy Alan Shepard went up a few weeks later on a lesser flight, and America was outraged at the contrast.

Not me. I was thrilled that a human being had reached space; Russian, American, Finn, Bolivian, it didn’t matter. Space travel was real. The future had arrived. No one could ever again say, “We can’t go.”

But for all my enthusiasm, there was almost no information about Gagarin’s flight. For nearly another thirty years, Russian triumphs and disasters would be hidden from the world. Now we know enough to appreciate Gagarin’s feat.

The launch vehicle was an A-1, little different from the Soviet ICBM fleet, or the vehicle that launched Sputnik. Unlike the US, the Soviets have stayed with variations of a single workhorse vehicle through most of their space program. Also unlike American procedures, both Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov were suited up and ready at the pad, so that even in the event of a last second glitch, the launch would have been made by the backup pilot.

The space craft was Vostok 1. It consisted of a sphere holding the cosmonaut and a separate life support module, a style adopted by the US during Gemini and Apollo. The launch was successful and only one orbit was planned. The Soviet style was to make many launches, each incrementally more daring than the last. Unlike some subsequent launches by both countries, Vostok 1, possibly the most important launch in the history of spaceflight, went off without error.

Russia had a large land mass, a small navy, and a penchant for secrecy. Consequently, all Russian missions landed inside the Soviet Union. Technology during the Vostok missions could not yet provide soft landings, so Gagarin and his immediate successors flew their missions on ejection seats, which they used after heat shields and spacecraft mounted parachutes had brought them near the surface and slowed them to a survivable speed. They completed their missions by means of personal parachutes.

Four months later Gagarin’s backup pilot, Gherman Titov, became the second man to orbit the Earth, staying up for 17 orbits and 24 hours. more tomorrow