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Seagull in space: 50 years after first female space flight

When Valentina Tereshkova, call sign Chaika (Seagull), reached orbit on June 16, 1963, she believed she had opened space up to women forever. Yet 50 years on, female cosmonauts remain an anomaly in the Russian space program.

Read the Timeline of the historic flight

Soon after the Vostok 6 mission landed after 70 hours in space – longer than all the US astronauts put together up to that moment – footage was beamed around the world, showing an ordinary, smiling 26-year-old textile factory girl emerging unscathed from her shuttle. Here, was evidence that in the Soviet Union, anyone, not just men, scientists or pilots, could be sent on a space mission – a feat of both egalitarianism and reliable technology.

But just as that shoot was actually a re-staging of an event that happened 24 hours earlier, so the story of Soviet female cosmonauts is not as straightforward as the triumphant official history.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided that the Russian space program would be the first to send women to space as far back as 1961, the year Yuri Gagarin became the first man to exit the Earth's atmosphere.

From skirts to spacesuits

Valentina Tereshkova had made more than a hundred skydives at her Yaroslavl parachuting club (which were widely promoted in the USSR, both as a pastime and a covert form of military training) when she was picked out by a Moscow Air Force officer, who inexplicably turned up for an ordinary practice.

Flying club member Valentina Tereshkova (third from left) preparing for a parachute jump.(RIA Novosti)

But it was not just her parachuting prowess that led Tereshkova to become one of five female candidates selected for the women’s space training unit from over a thousand throughout the country. Despite being an ordinary shop floor worker, Tereshkova was the daughter of a war hero (her father died in the conflict with Finland that preceded World War II), and had already made a name for herself as a dedicated Communist activist – a must in times when any cosmonaut became a world-famous representative of their country.

Out of the trainees, Tereshkova was the only one without university education, but although she wasn’t the best-qualified candidate, her vocal leadership, dedication and forceful personality stood out. In his diary, Colonel General Nikolay Kamanin, the man in charge of training the team, described Tereshkova as ‘Gagarin in a skirt’ – a model Soviet citizen – while her chief rival, Valentina Ponomareva, was praised for “technical competence”, but labeled as “arrogant, vain and not averse to having a drink or a smoke”.

The year preceding the flight was not easy for Tereshkova.

In retrospect, even those who set up the training regimen at Star City just outside Moscow, admitted that it was demanding far beyond actual spaceflight conditions experienced by Soviet cosmonauts on any mission. Tereshkova recalls fainting after the centrifuge exercises, and her back covered in bloody blotches from capillaries that burst from extreme forces.

Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova gets ready for centrifuge training.(RIA Novosti)

Cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov, who was preparing for his own maiden flight at the same time, recalls that although training would often leave Tereshkova in tears, “she knew exactly what she wanted from life. Tereshkova did everything she could to avoid being dropped from the space program.”

Her fate was sealed when Khruschev himself went against the official commission’s recommendation, and decided that a genuine representative of the proletariat would be placed onboard Vostok-6.

Space travel strikes back

The mission itself, done in parallel with Vostok-5, another capsule launched two days earlier, got off to a smooth start on the morning of June 16 (her catchphrase on take-off was “Hey space, take off your hat, and welcome me!”).

But the reality of early space travel soon intervened.

As the hours piled up – the capsule orbited the Earth 48 times – the bulky spacesuit began to chafe, and the pressure from the helmet grew so strong on Tereshkova would yelp in pain. At one point ‘Seagull’ sang songs to space control in Moscow, to stave off agony. She was then sick in her spacesuit – she says as a result of tinned fish and a lemon pie she ate pre-flight.

The cosmonaut did not manage to complete her planned biological experiments, and reportedly accidentally broke two pencils given to her for collecting observations (though Tereshkova denies the story to this day).

Valetina Tereshkova. A scene from 'Sovety v Kosmose' (The Soviets in the Space) documentary.(RIA Novosti)

But worst of all was the realization that she might not make it back at all.

According to Tereshkova, she noticed that the orbit for her capsule had been plotted incorrectly, “to raise the orbit, instead of landing”, forcing her to change the  instructions from ground control.

Mission doctors, on the other hand, claimed that it was Tereshkova’s difficult mental state following prolonged exhaustion and powerful g-forces that was responsible for technical difficulties ahead of re-entry.  There were also unofficial accusations that Tereshkova fell asleep during a key point during the return.

In any case, the ship headed through the atmosphere, but just as the hatch opened, Tereshkova broke strict instructions to keep her head down, and was hit by her helmet, as she ejected.

Battling severe winds on the way down, a dazed but fundamentally unharmed Tereshkova landed in the remote Altai region, where she was quickly surrounded by curious villagers who brought her local food as gifts.

The mission was complete.

Seagull and stardom

‘Seagull’ became an instant celebrity, flown to meet Khruschev in Moscow as soon as she could move, and paraded in front of television crews asking her as much about her background, as about the nature of her mission.

Incidentally, Valentina’s mother only discovered that her own daughter was a cosmonaut when she heard her name mentioned on the radio. Before leaving, Valentina told her that she was training with the national skydiving team near Moscow.

While the adulation from the public and politicians was inexhaustible – when Khruschev heard that she was to be promoted to air force lieutenant, he insisted that she be made captain instead - Tereshkova received a frostier welcome back at Star City.

The architect of the Soviet space program, Sergey Korolyov reduced the recently landed pilot to tears during his debriefing, in which he severely criticized her performance. Decades later, after the collapse of the USSR, Tereshkova said that Korolyov made her promise she would keep silent about the potentially fatal error prior to re-entry.

Soviet Communist Party First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev (right), Yuri Gagarin (second from right), Valery Bykovsky (second from left) and Valentina Tereshkova (left) during a rally dedicated to the successful completion of the flight of the Vostok-5 and Vostok-6 spacecraft.(RIA Novosti / V. Malyshev)

Vasiliy Mishin, who would take over from Korolyov upon his death, labeled Tereshkova a liability, saying that she had been “on the verge of a nervous breakdown”.

Although her career as an active cosmonaut was over, her public climb had only begun.

Within months of the landing, Tereshkova was married to fellow cosmonaut Andriyan Nikolaev.

Many speculated that the world’s first ‘space marriage’, between people who had not been noticeably close before the flight, was done either at the behest of scientists, who wanted to study the effects of space travel on reproduction, or Khruschev himself, looking for another publicity coup (he gave Tereshkova away at her lavish state wedding). The couple angrily dismissed the accusations for decades.

Tereshkova gave birth to a healthy daughter a year after her mission, but the marriage was soon on the rocks.

Valentina Tereshkova in vestibular apparatus training.(RIA Novosti)

“Yesterday, Valentina and Andriyan were smiling and appeared happy with each other,” wrote Kamanin months after the wedding. “For political purposes and science their marriage might be a success, but I am not convinced that Valentina loves him. She is like fire, and he is like water – they are too different.”

The two drifted apart, though the divorce was only finalized in 1982 (reportedly after asking then Politburo chief Leonid Brezhnev for permission).

Unlike many cosmonauts, who lost their status as official Soviet deities the day the USSR collapsed, and never found a role beyond sporadically appearing on TV as talking heads recounting their journeys during assorted anniversaries, Tereshkova has been continually successful in the last two decades. She is currently a Duma deputy in Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, and was personally feted by the president ahead of the latest anniversary.

Solemn wedding ceremony of pilot-cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Andrian Nikolaev.(RIA Novosti / Alexander Mokletsov)

But despite her personal success, Tereshkova did not open the floodgates for a wave of female Soviet space explorers. In fact, it could be argued that her mission convinced Soviet officials to not launch another woman into space for years – although it is hard to say whether their reluctance was a result of her performance, or inherent bias.

Following Vostok-6, Korolyov famously vowed to “never send a broad to space again”. And when Mishin, who had been skeptical about Tereshkova from the start, became the chief of the space program in 1966 he disbanded the women’s cosmonaut unit altogether.

It was not until 1982 that another Soviet woman travelled to orbit, and there have only ever been three female cosmonauts (the latter two were both related to highly placed officials). There is currently one female cosmonaut in training, and Russian space doctors still openly refer to women as “badly-suited” for space travel.

Valentina Tereshkova exercising (RIA Novosti)

Ironically, if Tereshkova ever paved a way, it was for the space agency on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Undeterred by their alleged physical limitations, NASA has sent more than 40 women to space since Vostok 6 landed in 1963.

Igor Ogorodnev, RT