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16 June 2011

On this day in history: First woman in space, 1963

Immediately after the Soviet Union's success in putting the first man into space in 1961, the head of cosmonaut training on the Russian space programme, Nikolai Kamanin, suggested to his superiors that it was their patriotic duty to again beat the Americans by being the first to put a woman into space. Chief Designer Korolev agreed and in October 1961 the search began for likeable woman who was an avowed Communist with experience of parachuting - piloting skills were not required as the Vostok spacecraft flew automatically. Five women received the call to train as cosmonauts, including Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, a textile worker and daughter of a war hero.

The five women began the exhaustive period of training and testing: centrifuge rides; isolation tests; rocket theory; parachute jumps; piloting jet fighters, physical exercise; and, weightless flights. In spite of being the least qualified - the other four had received higher education, and included engineers and test pilots - Tereshkova faired better in front of the Communist selection board than the other finalist, Valentina Ponomareva, who had excelled in all the other tests. Since the flight was essentially a propaganda exercise, Korolev nominated Tereshkova, and Premier Krushchev - who had the final say - agreed.

On the morning of 16th June 1963, Vostok 6 launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with the call sign "Seagull". While in space Tereshkova kept a log and took photographs, while the ground staff monitored her physical condition. Controversy surrounds the flight: some reports claimed that she became emotionally distraught, and she certainly vomited during the flight; however, the flight lasted longer than initially intended leaving her nothing to do with no support from the ground staff; she claimed that rather than the weightlessness it was the poor food she had been given that made her sick; and - as was later confirmed - she noticed that there had been an error in the automatic orientation of the capsule, which the ground crew confirmed and corrected.

Tereshkova's ordeal did not end until she safely returned to earth. After ejecting out of the capsule during its final descent (as all cosmonauts did) she noticed that she was parachuting towards lake that was to large for her to swim to the edge of in her state of exhaustion. Fortunately the wind blew her back over dry land. Nevertheless, from a propaganda point of view the mission was a complete success. Tereshkova's flight had a longer duration than all the American space-flights, thus far, put together. She was also significantly younger than all the NASA astronauts. The Soviet hierarchy quashed any attempts to discredit her, whether based in fact or chauvinism.

After the flight, Tereshkova married another cosmonaut, Andrian Nikolayev (an event which was again used for propaganda purposes leading some to think it had been contrived by the Soviet leadership), graduated as a engineer, and became a prominent politician and international representative of the USSR.

To read a biography of Valentina Tereshkova see the Encyclopedia Astronautica site.

Related posts
First man-made object to reach the Moon: 14th September 1959
Launch of Apollo 13: 11th April 1970
Only spaceflight of Buran: 15th November 1988


Gian Faye said...

This is impressive.

Stephanie Barr said...

She is not, by any measure, the only spacefarer to vomit in space. Not by a long shot. I doubt she was the first. She certainly wasn't the last. Our ground-based parabolic zero-g simulator is called "vomit comet" for a reason.

It's quite common because zero-g messes with your equilibrium in a vertigo kind of way. I'm not surprised she got sick, notwistanding bad food, thermal extremes and other uncomfortable conditions the rest of us can't really appreciate.

Note also that it might be propaganda to defend her (and we didn't send up a woman until more than twenty years later), but I caution you that there was propaganda on both sides.

In any case, it was an achievement.

ian said...

this is out of topic- my apologies- but kindly consider please featuring the Philippines national hero on your June19th post this Sunday. It marks his 150th birth anniversary. thank you =]

Stepterix said...

Thank you all for the kind words.

Stephanie: The negative comments about Tereshkova emanated from the Soviets rather than from their Cold War rivals. It seems that sexual equality in Russia still had some way to go.

Ian: I already have something prepared for that day. If you were to write your own piece I would gladly supply a link to it.