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Valentina Tereshkova: The Anniversary of the First Woman in Space
"The light of the moon on the dark side of the earth was lovely...
Zero-G was pleasant, no problems, and I enjoyed floating."
from V. Tereshkova's debriefing (1).
It was 51 years ago to the day, June 16th, 1963, that Valentina Tereshkova left the earth aboard the Vostok 6, and became the first woman to enter outer space. Both American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts during the Cold War were often chosen based on their background in order to project the ideals of their respective political systems. Alan Shepherd and John Glen had both been pilots in the armed services. Neil Armstrong was a midwestern son to a farming family. Not only was he an Eagle Scout, but carried his scout badge to the moon and broadcast a hello to his "fellow scouts and scouters" back to NASA along the way. Valentina Tereshkova had a proletariat background. Her father, a tractor driver and soldier, had died when she was two years old, in the Winter War. Her mother worked on a textile assembly line in a cotton mill, and Valentina had joined her mother as a worker there when she was 16 while also pursuing her love for skydiving on the side. As the space race had become a surrogate battle of Cold War ideologies, Nikita Krushchev himself was involved in the selection of the first woman cosmonaut. "It was her humble background—for she was a seamstress; an ordinary factory worker. Tereshkova represented the plain Russian girl who would enable him (Krushchev) to cynically declare that, under Communism, anyone could fly a rocket into space. She had the common touch."(2) All this made Tereshkova stand out among the several hundred women chosen to be screened; that of course and her experience with skydiving (Tereshkova, like all Vostok pilots, had to parachute to the ground upon re-entry) and a quick learning curve in pilot training.
As the first ever artificial satellite had orbited the earth in October of 1957, the U.S. immediately got to work on its own space program. Sputnik was a wake-up call of sorts, as NASA was born the very next year. Yet as the space race geared up, the Soviets were doing something the Americans had shown no interest in at the time whatsoever: training women to be space travelers. Women, the idea of "femininity", had also become a battlefield of ideologies in the Cold War. Soviet women were encouraged to work outside the home. There had even been women pilots who flew bombers in WWII for Russia! But back in America, certainly by the late '50s, American women were encouraged to be more like June Cleaver: that is, be stay-at-home housewives, do all the cooking and cleaning and parenting etc. etc. etc., and look perfectly dainty and happy and lovely while doing it. In fact the first American astronaut to orbit the earth, John Glenn, testified before Congress in favor of excluding women entirely from the American space program; saying, and I quote, "Men go off and fight the wars and fly the planes, women stay at home. It's a fact of our social order." Certainly both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had little to no interest in supporting the idea of women in the space program either. It would take another twenty years, almost to the day, for the US to send a woman into space, when Sally Ride joined the Space Shuttle Challenger mission in 1983. Incidentally it took the Soviets practically another 20 years or so to send another woman too; I guess once they got their "first" they lost interest. And to score one for the Americans, by 2012 the U.S. had put 10 times the number of women into space than Russia(3)! Now that's what I call progress!
But regardless of the fact that Krushchev wanted to send a woman into space before the Americans to score another first, another ideological blow, Tereshkova's flight has become a milestone on the road to gender equality, and she carried the idea all the way to outer space! Indeed, Tereshkova obliterated John Glenn's orbit time. Glenn had circled the earth 3 times in 1962, for a duration of just under 5 hours. Tereshkova circled the earth 48 times, for a period of just under 3 DAYS! Do you like apples, John? Well how do you like THEM apples!
There is a great quote from Sally Ride, another inspiring heroine; not only the first American woman in space, but also one dedicated to promoting science and math education among young women, and one that acknowledged the great benefits that had come from the feminist movement of the '60s and '70s, not least of which was the opportunity to join the NASA space program at all. In an interview just prior to her launch in 1983, amidst having to remind everyone of her PhD in astrophysics from Stanford University, and questions like "Do you weep when things go wrong on the job," she very simply put it this way:
"It's too bad our society isn't further along." (5)
I just love that one! Ms. Ride's interviews speak of a calm annoyance at people's preconceptions, a persevering insistence that it shouldn't be considered a bigger deal for a woman to go into space than a man. Sally's mother has even joked about raising her daughters, "In a way you could look at it as neglect," she laughs. "Dale and I simply forgot to tell them that there were things they couldn't do!"(6) I should hope all parents everywhere are similarly neglectful.
So today, June 16th, we should all celebrate the anniversary of a key moment in women's history, no, in history, when a 22 year old Russian seamstress/skydiver became the first woman in space, and demonstrated to the globe that gender inequality is merely a social construct and not the natural order of things.
And THAT, is why I wrote her this song: Das Vadanya Tereshkova.
Here's to you, Valentina Tereshkova!
Валенти́на, звезда моя, не падай.
- Vostok 6, Velentina Tereshkova's Debriefing. Encyclopedia Astronautica
- "The 'Common Touch': Selecting the First Woman Cosmonaut" by Ben Evans
- Women In Space: 23 Stories of First Flights, Scientific Missions, and Gravity-Breaking Adventures by Karen Bush Gibson, 2014
- "They Trained for Space: But LBJ Said No Women" by Claudia Feldman, July 1, 2003
- "The Astronaut Bride" by Amy Davidson, July 25, 2012
- "A Ride In Space" by Michael Ryan, June 20, 1983