First woman in space: Miserable cosmonaut or triumphant pioneer?

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.

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

How would you handle getting lost in outer space?

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.

In fact, the Soviets originally planned to launch two women in overlapping flights: Tereshkova first, in Vostok 5, and then Valentina Ponomaryova a few days later in Vostok 6. Though the Soviets did succeed in having two cosmonauts in space at the same time, the final plan included Tereshkova in Vostok 6 following Valery Bykovsky, who had launched two days earlier.

When Tereshkova's solo ship passed close to Mr. Bykovsky's Vostok 5, they chatted and even sang songs together, until their ships got too far apart for communication. 

Tereshkova was probably selected to fly because of her experience with weightlessness: prior to joining the cosmonaut program, she had completed dozens of successful parachute jumps. Not only did that give her experience with the sensation of freefall, which she experienced throughout her three days in space, but the Soviet rockets completed re-entry with the cosmonauts bailing out of the re-entry vessel and parachuting onto the ground, making her experience doubly helpful. Her cosmonaut training included another 120 parachute jumps.

In all, she spent 71 hours in orbit – more than the total of all American astronauts who had yet flown in space. She orbited the Earth 48 times before landing safely.

After her trip, the Soviet space program canceled any future trips for women, and indeed, Tereshkova remained the only woman to go to space for almost two decades. In 1982, the Soviets launched a second woman, Svetlana Savitskaya, and the next year, America sent up Sally Ride. Since then, 48 other American women have gone to space, but only one other Russian: Yelena V. Kondakova, in 1994.

Whatever really happened during her solo journey, the simple fact of her trip made her a hero in her country and to every little girl who dreamed of going to space. Tereshkova was decorated with nearly every award the government had to offer and spent decades working in various government roles, both before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She still serves in the Russian parliament, where she recently voted to ban American adoptions of Russian children.

Just before her 70th birthday, she told Russian newspaper Pravda that she still dreams of a return to space, at any price: "I would enjoy flying to Mars," she said. "This was the dream of the first cosmonauts. I wish I could realize it! I am ready to fly without coming back."

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