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Valentina Tereshkova Was the First Woman in Space

When the first woman was chosen to fly in space, it was her background that made her the perfect candidate.

by Amy Shira Teitel
Jun 15 2012, 5:00pm

China is gearing up for a very exciting and historic mission. Tomorrow evening local time, 12:37 GMT to be exact, three astronauts from China's space program, sometimes called taikonauts, will launch aboard Shenzhou 9. The mission will see the spacecraft dock with the bus-sized Tiangong 1, the prototype space station that was launched in September 2011. When two taikonauts move into the station, it will mark a major step towards China securing a permanent place in space. But it's not just the mission's goals that are making headlines. One of the crew, Liu Yang, will be the first female taikonaut to go into space.

Thirty-four year old major and air force pilot Liu joins air force senior colonels Jing Hai, the mission's commander, and Liu Wang on the ten day flight. “Arranging for women astronauts to fly is not only a must for the development of human spaceflight,” space program spokeswoman Wu Ping said. "This is a landmark event." Liu's flight is giving the Chinese space program a boost in publicity; state media have been lauding Liu's all week, relating stories about her successfully landing a plane after a bird strike disabled one of its engines.

Wu added that bringing a woman into the Chinese spaceflight roster was also necessary to satisfy "the expectation of the public." The statement brings up parallels with the decision surrounding the first female spaceflight; 49 years ago this Sunday June 16, the Soviet Union launched Valentina Tereshkova aboard Vostok 6. Admittedly, the circumstances surrounding Tereshkova's flight were very different, but the feature of satisfying the public links the two female firsts.

By the end of 1961, the Soviet Union was enjoying a healthy lead over the Americans in space. The country had launched larger satellite than their American counterparts and sent two men into orbit and returned them safely. NASA, by contrast, had Alan Shepard's and Gus Grissom's suborbital hops under its belt.

Even at this early stage the two countries were visibly pursuing different goals in space. The Soviets sought to achieve firsts, continually besting the Americans who were taking a slow and deliberate approach towards spaceflight. The difference reflects each country's strong suit. The Soviets had bigger and more powerful rockets while the Americans had engineers working out the stages for landing a man on the Moon, an unofficial goal as early as 1959.

Seeking to add another mark to the list of firsts, Sergei Korolev, the famed Soviet Chief Designer responsible for the country's early successes in space, suggested launching a female cosmonaut. It was the perfect propaganda move, promote the idea that the Soviet system valued its women equally to its men. The Central Committee of the Communist Party approved the suggestion and on February 16, 1962, five candidates from the pool of 400 were selected to join their male counterparts in training: Tatiana Kuznetsova, Valentina Ponomaryova, Irina Solovyeva, Valentina Tereshkova, and Zhana Yerkina.

Like the men, the women had to be under 30 and shorter than 5 feet 7 inches to qualify for the program. While the men were chosen from the ranks of pilots, the women needed a background in parachuting. This one difference, though small, suggests the women were expected to take less control of spacecraft in the future than the men.

On November 19, 1962, Tereshkova was selected for the first flight even through she didn't score highest on her exams. It was her background and demeanor that made her the perfect choice, much like Gagarin's made him the best choice for history first spaceflight. Gagarin started life as a peasant. He grew up on a communal farm and eventually defied his family's tradition of carpentry to pursue a career as a military pilot. He moved through the ranks of the communist system to achieve the fame and honour of being the first cosmonaut. He was a handsome, bright, young pioneer the Soviet Union could broadcast to the world.

Tereshkova had a similar story. Her father, a tractor driver, was serving in the Russian Army when he was killed in the 1939 Finnish War. Tereshkova's widowed mother raised her and her two siblings on wages earned in a cotton mill. Tereshkova began formal education when she was 10, but also worked to help support her family; she was a seamstress, an apprentice in a tire factory, and eventually a loom operator. Her studies and graduation from the Light Industry Technical School complemented her interest in aviation. A member of the Yaroslavl Air Sports Club, she made her first parachute jump at 22.

Now training to fly in space, Tereshkova was a perfect model for success under Communist rule. She was an ordinary girl who, within the Soviet system, was achieving greatness. Tereshkova's own feelings of national pride only helped her standing. She was outspoken in her desire to support the Communist party and a member of the Young Communist League. She was, in short, the perfect role model for young girls.

The plans for a dual mission were finalized on March 21, 1963. On June 14, Cosmonaut Valeri Bykovsky launched aboard Vostok 5. Two days later on June 16, Tereshkova followed aboard Vostok 6. Both cosmonauts returned to Earth on June 19.

Although Tereshkova's flight was largely propaganda, there were plans for further flights by women. Whatever the original timeframe might have been it was never realized. None of the other four women that trained with Tereshkova flew, and in October 1969 this first cohort of female cosmonauts was dissolved. It was 19 years before another woman followed in Tereshkova's footsteps.

The second woman to fly in space was another Soviet, Svetlana Savitskaya, in 1982. Sally Ride followed as the first American woman in space in 1983. Since then, female astronauts and cosmonauts have become more common. With Liu, female taikonauts may soon be common place as well.

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