Back when a textile factory worker had the right stuff
June 16, 2013 12:50 PM   Subscribe

Fifty years ago today, Valentina Tereshkova became the first textile factory worker, first civilian and of course first woman in space. She completed 48 orbits, in the process amassing more space time than any of the American astronauts had logged. It would be almost twenty years before a second female astronaut got into space, slightly more than that for the first American woman. In total, fiftyseven women have flown into space, or roughly ten percent of the total number of astronauts.
posted by MartinWisse (14 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

Ten percent is not enough; RECRUIT, RECRUIT, RECRUIT!!

Excellent links, thanks!
posted by Iteki at 1:07 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm always torn between admiration and frustration when I think about Tereshkova's flight. On the one hand, a great feat of personal bravery; on the other, a propaganda coup, a program immediately abandoned, no more women's spaceflight in the Soviet Union for nineteen years, all to make the patently dubious point that women in the 1960s USSR enjoyed more respect and equality than American women did. James Oberg's Red Star in Orbit has some fantastically patronizing and insulting quotes from other cosmonauts about Tereshova's flight (and one depressing party-line remark from Tereshova herself):

Aleksei Leonov, 1975: "When we analyzed the results of her flight afterward, we discovered that for women, flying in space is a hard job and that they can do other things down here [laughs]...[After training, she will be twenty-eight or twenty-nine], and if she is a good woman she will have a family by then. Now, you don't subject a mother to such severe physical loads that go with the training, aside from physical tensions."

Tereshkova's husband, fellow cosmonaut Andriyan Nikolayev, the following year: [There will never be any more spacewomen because] "this kind of work is tough. The mission program makes big demands on her, especially if she is married. So nowadays we keep our women here on earth. We love our women very much; we spare them as much as possible. However, in the future, they will surely work on board space stations, but as specialists -- as doctors, as geologists, as astronomers, and, of course, as stewardesses."

Chief cosmonaut Shatalov, 1980: "In such conditions we just had no moral right to subject the 'better half' of mankind to such loads."

Tereshkova, 1970: "I believe that a woman should always remain a woman and nothing feminine should be alien to her. At the same time, I strongly feel that no work done by a woman in the field of science or culture or whatever, however vigorous or demanding, can enter into conflict with her ancient 'wonderful mission' -- to love, to be loved -- and with her craving for the bliss of motherhood."

My feelings about all this are complex, because I greatly admire Leonov for his feats of survival during his pioneering spacewalk and after his disastrous landing, and Nikolayev does nod to the idea of female specialists returning to space, and Tereshkova is (like all of those who have flown into space) an absolute certified badass. I have a lot of trouble construing her flight as a great pioneering moment in women's history -- which I realize this post isn't claiming it to be. I can only admire it as a personal act, which I very much do.
posted by thesmallmachine at 1:28 PM on June 16, 2013 [9 favorites]

(Also, sorry if anything I just said overlaps material in the documentary -- I'm excited to watch it, but haven't done so yet.)
posted by thesmallmachine at 1:30 PM on June 16, 2013

...the "no more spacewomen because" gloss is Oberg's, and I don't know how it was meant to jibe with the fact that Nikolayev says there will be spacewomen a moment later. Maybe "pilots" would've been a better phrasing.
posted by thesmallmachine at 1:35 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Independent researcher William Randolph Lovelace II helped develop the tests for NASA's male astronauts and became curious to know how women would do taking the same tests. In 1960, Lovelace invited Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb to undergo the same rigorous challenges as the men. Cobb, already an accomplished pilot, became the first American woman to undergo and pass all three phases of testing. Lovelace and Cobb recruited 19 more women to take the tests, financed by the world-renowned aviatrix Jacqueline Cochran. Thirteen of the women passed the same tests as the [male] Mercury 7 [astronaut candidates].

The Mercury 13

Myrtle Cagle
Jerrie Cobb
Janet Dietrich
Marion Dietrich
Wally Funk
Sarah Gorelick (later Ratley)
Janey Hart (née Briggs)
Jean Hixson
Rhea Hurrle (later Allison, then Woltman)
Gene Nora Stumbough (later Jessen)
Irene Leverton
Jerri Sloan (née Hamilton, later Truhill)
Bernice Steadman (née Trimble)
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:52 PM on June 16, 2013 [7 favorites]

Came here to post about the Mercury 13, thanks for the link. I hadn't realized that their program wasn't officially run by NASA. Kind of a bummer.
posted by ShutterBun at 2:28 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

(also: Wally Funk is an absolutely terrific name for an astronaut)
posted by ShutterBun at 2:29 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wally Funk is an absolutely terrific name for anyone.
posted by Rangeboy at 3:13 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Tereshkova is still alive and makes occasional remarks about dreaming of a Mars mission.
posted by Nomyte at 3:19 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ooh this is the second time I get to recommend Packing For Mars, by Mary Roach, about the history of spaceflight - there is a very revealing - and depressing - section of the book that echoes thesmallmachine's comment.
posted by lalochezia at 5:34 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mike Mullane's book, Riding Rockets, has a few stories about America's first women in space and the battles they faced. The book is about him and his growth from a sexist pig to respecter of women as completely capable astronauts, so it's a bit bumpy at times. He also focuses more on Judy Resnick, the second American woman in space and his friend, who was killed in the Challenger explosion instead of Sally Ride, who he personally didn't get along with.

Those first female astronauts were extremely viligant about being seen as the "weaker sex" or anything less than capable. For instance, on the Mullane's first flight, Judy Resnick was also on the flight and some of her long hair jammed a camera. She flat out "told" the commander that she'd kill him if he even hinted at her being the cause of the problem, just to prevent anyone from saying women couldn't or shouldn't be in space. Resnick and Sally Ride were also sort of pitted against each other, as Resnick was deemed more pretty and more friendly, so Ride was often cast in the light of being a dour bitch, even though she obviously knew her stuff.

As to Valentina Tereshkova, I always thought of her in a similar light as Neil Armstrong. Her flight was stunty sure, and she spent most of sick, but she did the job. More importantly, she has lived the life of hero, meeting and greeting all through her life and inspiring people. I imagine it can be hard to step into a role you're not prepared for and then have your life shaped and defined by that role. Tereshkova seems to have done a good job.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:15 AM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

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