Fifty years ago today the first woman was launched into space by the Soviet Union. Valentina Tereshkova orbited our planet 48 times before returning to Earth, completing the final stage of her historic journey by parachute.
At just 26 years of age when she flew, Tereshkova was ten years younger than the youngest of the Mercury 7 astronauts, her flight forming yet another space “first” leaving the Americans trailing.
Today we celebrate Tereshkova’s flight – proof that women can indeed survive in space, but we must also remember that it was almost 20 years before the next female flew, and slightly over twenty years before Sally Ride became America’s first woman in space.
So why is that? Wasn’t the reason the Soviet Union put a woman into space to show that in a Communist state everyone is valued equally? That men and women both had the right to reach for the stars?
That sounds like an ideal situation, but as is so often the case: “I think you’ll find it’s more complicated than that”.
After Tereshkova’s successful flight, Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev was quick to celebrate the achievement, saying “Bourgeois society always emphasizes that woman is the weaker sex. That is not so”. But the political rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union came sharply into focus with his next lines. “Our Russian woman showed the American astronauts a thing or two. Her mission was longer than that of all the Americans put together.” He might as well have stuck his tongue out and said “ner nerrr, nen nerrr ner”.
Already the the emphasis had moved away from the idea that Soviet Women were equal and the hope that this could truly be the start of women in space, and returned to one-upmanship with America. Khrushchev held the purse strings for the space programme and sending a woman to space would help further his political aims.
And so it was that this young textile worker, lied to her mother about going to a special precision skydiving camp to cover up her secret training, found herself in space. Her Vostok-6, “Chaika” – seagull – flying at the same time as male cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky’s Vostok-5 – hawk.
That is not to take anything away from her achievement in the slightest. Politics has been the major driver for so many feats of engineering and exploration in space. The first satellite, the first man in space, the first people on the Moon – if it weren’t for politics would they have happened when they did? Even the decision to assign the first British ESA astronaut to a mission has probably more to do with politics than we’d like to think.
Tereshkova allowed us to dream. She opened the door for women in space, even if it did take another twenty years before others could pass through it. The dream is still alive, so thank you, Valentina “Chaika” Tereshkova.
We celebrate Yuri’s Night, to mark the first man (person) in space, which coincidentally falls on the same day as the first shuttle flight 20 years later. Today I’m going to instigate/celebrate Valentina’s Day – with a nod to Sally Ride – who flew 20 years and two days later. Will you join me? Hold up a sign that says what space means to you, and share the photo with the tag #valentinasday on Twitter, Flickr, Facebook – wherever! Do send me a tweet @SpaceKate and I’ll try to collect them up into a gallery.
It may have been about politics at the time, but let’s celebrate women in space, and see if we can inspire a few more to reach for the stars. Per aspera ad astra!
You may also enjoy:
James Oberg’s Red Star in Orbit – The Flight of Valentina Tereshkova
Universe Today - Tereshkova ready for Mars
Encyclopaedia Astronautica – Tereshkova
Russiapedia – On this day, 16th June 1963
Enjoy Space - 50 years of Women in Space