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First woman in space: Miserable cosmonaut or triumphant space flyer?

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, flew 50 years ago today. After her problem-plagued flight, it took almost two decades for another woman to go into space.

By Correspondent / June 14, 2013

(Left) Valentina Tereshkova smiles from her space suit in this undated file photo. (Right) Russian President Vladimir Putin gives flowers to Ms. Tereshkova while welcoming her to his residence outside Moscow, Friday. Putin met with Russian cosmonauts to mark the 50th anniversary of Tereshkova's flight.

ITAR-TASS / AP / File and Mikhail Klimentyev / Presidential Press Service / RIA-Novosti / AP

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How would you handle getting lost in outer space?

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Valentina Tereshkova, who flew into space 50 years ago today, was confronted with this terrifying possibility on the first day of her problem-plagued spaceflight.

The first woman in space, Ms. Tereshkova was seen by many as a triumph for the Soviet space program, but is remembered by some colleagues as a token female who botched her flight.

"She didn't want to go," Soviet space scientists told me during my own years as a NASA-funded researcher. "She was so hysterical that she threw up in space," they said.  "At the last minute, she panicked, and they had to strap her into her seat against her will."

While her nausea was documented – she did indeed vomit in space, and spent most of her three-day trip sitting as still as possible – space nausea is a common enough problem that NASA has designed a high-tech solution, while "hysteria" is a dismissive label applied almost exclusively to women.

She actually solved the first big problem in her flight: On the first day, the ship's autopilot mistakenly steered her away from Earth, leaving her facing the prospect of being lost in space.

"It was programmed to raise the orbit," she told reporters. "I put the new data in and it worked fine."

During re-entry, also on autopilot, there was no communication between her ship and the ground, and she ended up landing in an unexpected place. She said there had been a communications equipment failure, but the team on the ground blamed her for going silent.

Tereshkova's role in the flight's problems may never be completely known. The Soviets certainly had engineering challenges with their rockets, including one which led to the only three deaths in space. (Both the Challenger and Columbia disasters happened inside Earth's atmosphere, thus not technically "in space.")

Memoirs from other members of the Soviet space team have blamed Tereshkova for her problematic mission, but the idea that she was forced against her will seems unlikely to be true. If the avid skydiver had changed her mind at the last minute, she could easily have stepped aside in favor of one of the other four female cosmonauts who had shared her 7 months of rigorous training.

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