Tereshkova and Gagarin: Similarities Between the First Man and Woman in Space

Valentina Tereshkova in 1970. Credit: Ria Novosti

Valentina Tereshkova in 1970. Credit: Ria Novosti

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. [Read more...]

First Woman

Valentina Tereshkova. Credit: RIA Novosti

China’s Shenzhou 9 spacecraft successfully reached orbit yesterday, and tomorrow it will dock with the Tiangong 1 prototype space station the nation launched last September. But it’s the crew that’s commanding the most attention on this mission, namely pilot Liu Yang who became the first female taikonaut (Chinese astronaut) yesterday.

There’s another woman to celebrate for her role in space today: on June 16, 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became history’s first woman in space. Her flight has been called little more than a propaganda stunt; launching a woman outwardly showed that the Soviet Union placed equal value on its women as it did its men. This isn’t to say she wasn’t highly intelligent and a skilled parachutist (her standout qualification for the spaceflight) when she was selected for the job, but, like Gagarin before her, it was Tereshkova’s pedigree that made her the ideal candidate for the historic flight. For more about the first woman in space, read my full article on Motherboard.

Soyuz 1: Falling to Earth

The Russian Soyuz program is the longest-running spaceflight program — variations of the spacecraft have flown consistently since 1966. It isn’t perfect; big technologies like spacecraft rarely are. There have been problems on recent missions where spacecraft have made hard landings. But overall its considered the safest and most reliable vehicle. But Soyuz hasn’t always been a reliable workhorse. The program got off to a very rocky start when the first mission, Soyuz 1, saw the launch of a fatally flawed spacecraft in 1966. (Left, the Soyuz 1 crew. Backup pilot Yuri Gagarin and prime pilot Vladimir Komarov. Source: The Russian Space Web.) [Read more...]

Shepard: First American in (Suborbital) Space

I’ve talked in previous posts about the first manned Soviet space program, Vostok, and Yuri Gagarin’s historic Vostok 1 flight. One aspect neither of these posts touched on, however, was the reaction in the United States. Understandably, Americans were less jubilant about Gagarin’s flight than the Soviets. But the feelings of defeat, frustration, and in some cases fear soon disappeared when on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space.

In the grand scheme of the space race, the first man in space almost pales in comparison to the feat of placing a man on the moon. But the race for manned flight was extremely important in the early 1960s. Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight was, like Gagarin’s Vostok 1 mission, the climax of years of preparation and training, and it set in motion a chain of events that set the course of the space race. The flight was a fifteen-minute suborbital hop, officially classified as a pre-orbital training flight, but Americans didn’t care. An American had been in space. (Pictured, Shepard in Freedom 7 the morning of launch. May 5, 1961.) [Read more...]

Mapping Vintage Space

Regular readers of Vintage Space are doubtless aware that I have a tendency to link newer posts to older ones. This reflects the interrelation of all the topics I have (and will) discuss in this blog. I find this era of history to be complex (as most big historical eras are) with aspects that can be treated independently, but need to be contextualized by one another.

And so I thought I would begin mapping Vintage Space, building a sort of narrative roadmap that will give the more casual reader a better idea of where in the history of space and spaceflight each individual episode belongs. This is in no way a complete chronology, but rather a framework for my content. (Pictured, the sun rise above the gulf of Mexico as seen from orbit by Apollo 7. 1968.) [Read more...]

Fashioning Vostok 1


In a previous post, I unravelled some of the mystery surrounding Yuri Gagarin’s historic Vostok 1 mission. One of the principle differences I tried to bring to the forefront in that post, as well as others discussing the Soviet Space Program, is the fundamental difference between its closed structure and NASA’s open one. The Soviet Union tightly controlled what information the public knew about the space program. They didn’t broadcast test launches live or introduce their cosmonauts to the country as heroes amid great fanfare. (Left, the launch of Vostok 1. 1961. Image source: aerospaceweb.org)

But the Soviet Space Program’s development from unmanned satellite to manned orbital flight was not all that different from NASA’s, and the variable successes and failures in developing manned spaceflight put both organizations on par. A closer look at the lead up to the launch of Vostok 1 almost humanizes the Soviet machine that presented perfect spaceflight with no mention of failures. Again, I have no interest in denigrating the Soviet accomplishments; I only hope to add dimension to the popular stories. [Read more...]

The Enigmatic Vostok 1

In previous posts, I’ve talked a little bit about how the Soviet Space Program designed its perfect cosmonaut and outlined some of the differences between Soviet and American spaceflight in the early 1960s. In both cases, Yuri Gagarin (left) has been a focal point, though I’ve never expressly treated his own mission. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space; his mission lasted 108 minutes and he made one orbit around the globe. Upon his return to Earth, he was lauded as a hero and the Soviet Union enjoyed its continued position as the leading power in space.

But in the years and decades that followed, details of the flight revealed a very different picture of this historic Soviet accomplishment. Indeed, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, documentation was slowly released to reveal the secretive nature of the Soviet Space Program as a whole. In honour of the fiftieth anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, I thought I’d unravel some of the mystery. For those steeped in the history of spaceflight, these anecdotes may not be new. But for the casual reader, I hope to shed some light on the lesser-known aspects of the launch heard ‘round the world. I don’t in any way intend to denigrate the Soviet accomplishment; if anything I hope to add some depth to the stories most people find in history books surrounding Gagarin and Vostok 1. [Read more...]

Designing the Perfect Cosmonaut

In a previous post, I talked about how NASA designed the perfect astronaut – the qualities that were considered vital in selecting the first generation Mercury astronauts. The Soviet Space Program was no different. The organization held its candidates to an equally stringent set of standards as well as a host of unspoken ideal qualities. A cursory look at the Mercury Astronaut selection and the first Soviet Cosmonaut selection reveal two greatly similar processes. But of course, different countries with different resources use different methods. Unsurprisingly, the Soviet Union’s selection and training prior to selecting Yuri Gagarin as its first cosmonaut differs from NASA’s, and some of the main differences between programs are fairly striking. When compared, the agenda of both nations are evident as they determined which man (or men) would represent them as the space age began. So, what makes the perfect Cosmonaut? (Left are three images of the first spacewalk, Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. 1964.) [Read more...]

Landings, NASA, and the Soviet Space Program

I recently wrote a blog post about NASA’s choice of using exclusively splashdowns landings during the space race and a (relatively brief) discussion of why this method was far less desirable than a land landing alternative. In retrospect, I realized that I only told half the story. Part of what makes the NASA “splashdown v. land landing” story an interesting one is a comparison to their Soviet counterparts who used exclusively land landing systems. (The image to the left shows cosmonaut Alexei Leonov during his spacewalk, Voskhod 2, March 1965.)

Throughout the Space Race, both the Americans and Soviets were launching capsule-style spacecraft. Try as they might, the Americans just couldn’t land their spacecraft on land. Which begs the question: what did the Soviets do that the Americans didn’t, or couldn’t? [Read more...]