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.