When it comes to spaceflight, it is difficult – even more so than it is with many other human endeavors – to separate myth from reality. Astronauts and cosmonauts have been idolized
for the simple act of leaving Earth and journeying a fraction of the distance to heaven.
It is hard for them to live up to the myth.
Tereshkova, who flew into space aboard Vostok 6
June 16, 1962
has had her own battles with myth. She was selected to be a cosmonaut because of her gender. But beyond that she was selected in large part not because of her abilities, but because of her symbolic ordinariness. A factory worker whose father was killed in battle when she was two, Tereshkova was selected to be a figurehead of socialism, and that symbolism also threatened Russia’s chauvinistic culture. When she returned to Earth, the men who ran the Soviet space program – the men who were the Soviet space program -underplayed her achievement.Tereshkova had gotten sick, they pointed out, and performed poorly. She was a girl, they said, and girls don’t belong in space. Leave that to the men.
had no technical or flying experience when she was selected along with four other women in 1961. Russian cosmonauts, unlike their American counterparts, tended to be younger and far less technically experienced, but they were still fighter pilots and possessed the fighter pilot mentality and training.
In contrast, Tereshkova was a factory worker whose only indication of adventurous risk-taking
– of machismo
– was that she was a member of a parachute club, a nonetheless
important experience considering that she would have to parachute from her spacecraft, since the Vostok did not have landing rockets which meant cosmonauts had to parachute from the vehicle.
When it came time to select a female candidate for the flight, Tereshkova won out in part because her rival was considered too “serious” – something that seems bizarre considering the nature of the task; but the leadership wanted a smiling happy female face, not a dour technician.
When she was launched into space – a day after the Soviets launched ValeryBykovsky in Vostok 5 – Tereshkova soon got space sick, a malady caused by a combination of fluids moving to the brain and the inner ear becoming confused as a result of weightlessness. But she apparently quickly recovered. Today we know that about 70 percent
of astronauts get some form of spacesickness within their first
two to four days in space, but at the time it was an entirely unknown condition.
What made the situation worse was that Tereshkova was not a stellar cosmonaut. She had trouble reorienting her craft for re-entry, and when she was greeted by peasants upon her landing she gave away all of her food, something that was contrary to regulations and made it impossible for her doctors to verify how much she had eaten. One doctor wrote a scathing report of her performance, and SergeiKorolev met with her personally to discuss it and apparently was so unhappy that he determined that her entire gender was weak and should not fly in space again.
But the reality was that GhermanTitov
also had gotten sick during the flight of Vostok 2 a year before – so sick, in fact, that he had been unable to perform many of his tasks, but he did not suffer the same vicious whispers. Nevertheless, Tereshkova did benefit from the flight. The simple factory worker who ascended partway to heaven was treated as a superstar, and was given the honor of delivering bland pronouncements about the inevitable progress of socialism at communist party functions throughout the Eastern Bloc. Tereshkova became a member of the Duma and was a leader in her small party. She got to see the world or at least the communist parts of it anyway.
But rather than a victory for feminism, within the Soviet space program she became proof that women did not really belong in space:
her sickness and performance reinforced Russian prejudices against strong, professional women. Whereas dozens of American women have flown in space, only two female cosmonauts have flown since Tereshkova
– one as a propaganda stunt and the other due to nepotism
. And the Russian space leadership has declared that there will be no more – heaven is still for the men, not the girls.