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Women in space; Comparing their roles on US and Soviet space flights

By James E. ObergSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 29, 1983


Comparisons are bound to be made between the recent space flight of American astronaut Sally K. Ride - America's first woman in space - and the Soviet Union's two space women, Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya.

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But if anything useful is to be learned, the comparison must be fair. It must contrast the realities of these events and not the myths that have been incidentally and deliberately wrapped around them.

The Soviets seek a purely chronological comparison: ''Ours were first!'' And they were. Valentina Tereshkova, the world's first woman in space, was launched on June 16, 1963. This was nearly 20 years to the day before the blastoff of America's Space Transportation System 7 (STS-7), with its five-member astronaut team aboard the shuttle Challenger.

That ''first,'' however, has become so enshrouded with myth that it's often difficult to separate fact from fiction. For Soviet propagandists, the flight was used to tout the ''equality of Soviet women under socialism.'' That early space flight led millions of people in the West to believe exactly that.

Then-Prime Minister Nikita S. Khrushchev had decreed that the woman cosmonaut must be a distinctly ''ordinary'' Russian girl. And so she was: Mrs. Tereshkova was an assembly-line worker in a textile factory when she was picked, with three others, to prepare for the flight. Once she flew, the other three were expelled from the space program as superfluous. She, in turn, took her expected place as a touring exhibit of Soviet culture, giving speeches and cutting ribbons forevermore.

The male cosmonauts had always regarded her with a mixture of condescension and contempt. ''They hate me, you know,'' she openly confided to foreign visitors at a reception. Her success had cast a shadow over their machismo, since if a factory girl from Yaroslavl could make it into orbit, what was so tough about space flight?

Such attitudes probably had a lot to do with a plethora of disparaging rumors about her behavior in space.

''We'll never send another woman into space,'' proclaimed Soviet space specialists. ''Yes, we will,'' argued another cosmonaut (her husband, in fact), ''when we need stewardesses.''

But another need came up first. It was easy to predict, since the Soviet passion for empty space stunts is foreseeable, as is the continuous success of such stunts in deluding large numbers of people around the world. As the United States space shuttle program began and women joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut cadre, it became evident that the Soviets would have to pull off another stunt to preempt the attention surely to be given to the first American space woman (my prediction was published in my 1981 book ''Red Star in Orbit'' on Page 233).

And so they did, with the flight in August 1982 of Svetlana Savitskaya. Again , the event was proclaimed as proof of Soviet social virtue and equality. Again, it was a myth.

Mrs. Savitskaya was a pilot and a skilled one at that. But she did not fly as a pilot. Instead, she played the part of - and was given the same formal designation as - the 10 previous non-Soviet spacemen of the ''guest cosmonaut'' program. Like them, she was assigned to a passenger seat on a short ''milk run'' resupply visit to an operating long-duration expedition aboard a Salyut space station. Such simple missions had to be made periodically anyway, so the addition of non-essential personnel cost little.

Mrs. Savitskaya's true symbolism might really have been as a representative of a negative feature endemic in Soviet society: nepotism, favoritism, and family influence. She was admitted to special schools (such as a test pilot institute) that have traditionally been male-only in the USSR. She became the first woman to enter such institutions for a simple reason: Her father, a much-decorated pilot who was one of his country's World War II fighter aces, was chief of staff of the Soviet Air Force. His daughter was clearly a skilled and courageous flier, but it was not those qualities alone that brought her into orbit.

But the American women were picked for distinctly different reasons, and Americans can be proud of the women and the reasons.

The first and greatest difference is that they were picked as specialists and skilled experts, not just as women. Unlike the Soviet women, who were selected in special contingents, their US counterparts competed against, and were selected in place of, other male candidates. And unlike the losers in the Soviet competition for flight, who were banished back into obscurity once the token mission had been made, all of the US women astronauts remain on flight status and all of them will fly, barring personal or medical developments.

Second, America's women astronauts are regular crew members, not ''add-on'' guests for window dressing. On STS-7, Dr. Ride performed key roles in the scientific work, in the deployment of two communications satellites, and in the engineering testing of the shuttle's mechanical arm. She had prepared for such duties during the five years of training and special projects she had been assigned while an astronaut.