Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of women in space: on June 16, 1963, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova launched into orbit as the pilot Vostok 6. Since her historic flight, Tereshkova has appropriately been a supporter of women’s right and women in science. But to regard her mission as a great early coup for women’s rights – which many are wont to do – is to take it out of context. As is usually the case, it’s important to look at the events surrounding a mission to gain a full perspective. My latest article at Al Jazeera English gives a more detailed look at Tereshkova’s selection, and my latest at Discovery News gives a brief overview of her flight. But before reading either article, it’s worth taking a minute to read a little about Yuri Gagarin’s background. The first man and first woman in space have a lot more in common than nationality and spacecraft.
Yuri Gagarin was born in 1934 in the small town of Klushino, Smolensk, which lies about 100 miles west of Moscow. The son of a carpenter, Gagarin crew up with three siblings – an older brother and sister, Valentin and Zoya, and a younger brother, Boris – on the collective farm where both his parents worked. The Second World War took its toll on the family’s rural life. The two older Gagarin children, then teenagers, were shipped off to slave labour camps by German soldiers (from which they returned in 1945). And while Yuri and Boris were young enough to be left at home, they found ways to help their country’s war effort: they sabotaged a German garrison in Klushino, spread broken glass on roads to stop enemy soldiers, mixed chemicals in Germans’ recharging tank batteries, and often pushed potatoes up exhaust pipes. When one German soldier caught Boris, he tried to hang the young Russian from an apple tree with a wool scarf. Gagarin’s parents were able to rescue their youngest son in time.
The War also brought dogfights to the skies over the Gagarin home, and Yuri became fascinated with airplanes. He pursued this interest, much against his father’s wishes, and at 17, while studying tractors at a technical school in Saratov, he joined an AeroClub and finally learned to fly. He joined at the Pilots School in Orenberg at 21 and made his first solo flight in 1957.
When Soviet space officials looked at Gagarin, they saw a young man who’d survived the Second World War and chased his flying dreams within the Soviet system. The young pilot had risen through the military ranks to become one of the leading cosmonaut candidates. This personal history, combined with his youth, boyish good looks, and winning smile, made Gagarin the perfect poster boy for the Soviet government. He could be broadcast around the world, the first man in space and product of the Soviet Union. And he was. After his Vostok 1 mission, Gagarin was pulled from the flight rotation for his own safety and sent on a series of goodwill trips and meetings with political leaders. He became the face for Soviet progress and success.
Tereshkova’s path to the stars parallels Gagarin’s. She was born in Maslennikovo near Yaroslav, Russia. After losing her father when she was just two years old, the ten-year-old Tereshkova took on the burden of helping her mother care for their small family; Tereshkova had two siblings. She worked as a seamstress, an apprentice in a tire factory, and as a loom operator while she pursued her education. She also learned to skydive, making her first jump at 22. She eventually became an accomplished parachutist. Having overcome a trying family situation to become one of the nation’s first cosmonauts, Tereshkova was, like Gagarin, a perfect model for success under Communist rule.
Both Gagarin and Tereshkova flew not only because they were qualified, but because they fit the bill of what a cosmonaut in the Soviet Union ought to be. Manned spaceflight, for both women and men, began as a predominantly political enterprise.