Monday, June 13, 2022

Valentina Tereshkova and double standards in human spaceflight history

Every year on June 16, the anniversary of Dr Valentina Tereshkova's spaceflight, where she became the first women ever to leave Earth, I generally do some social media around the event. And there's always a barrage of (mostly) men trying to take her down. Many of them are Russian. All of them spout misogynist clichés as old as time. Sometimes I engage, sometimes I don't. It depends on my mood.

Tereshkova training. Source: unknown

I didn't really want to write this post. A man who has an equal capacity to me to investigate - well more, because he has the advantage of Russian language - asked me to provide an independent assessment of Tereshkova's mission. This is a significant amount of work, but this is how it rolls when you are a feminist: you have to be responsible for all criticisms and have all the data at your fingertips, or your arguments will be dismissed.

The only reason I'm doing this is because it may come in handy for the future, as this issue comes up so often. But I'm annoyed and slightly cranky, and I don't care if [name redacted] knows it.

Specifically, I'm going to address the claims made in a thread by [name redacted]. 

Who really stopped the Soviet women's space programme?

If you think this Twitts will be glorifying first women in space Valentina Tereshkova, I am sorry to disappoint you! Today we should celebrate the anniversary when Tereshkova ended space flights for all women in USSR for almost two decades!

Is this really true? As it happens, the opportunities for women in space were not dependent on whether one woman performed well or not. Neither Soviet nor US culture at the time believed that women could compete in the space arena. One significant reason was that the existence of women space travellers would diminish the manliness of spaceflight.  Even chimps launched into space were perceived by the US male astronauts as a threat to their masculinity.

It took the Americans until 1983 to fly a female astronaut - Sally Ride on the Space Shuttle - and the USSR rushed Svetlana Savitskaya onto the Salyut 7 space station the year before so they wouldn't appear to be lagging behind. To this day there have only been five Russian women in space. In 2017 I chaired a panel at a public event which included a Russian cosmonaut trainer. He said, 'Space is no place for a woman' when a question was asked about Tereshkova. (Let me tell you, not an opinion that resonated well with the Australian women in the audience - I had to shut it down fast). The most recent female cosmonaut, Yulia Peresild, reiterated that this attitude is still prevalent in an interview last year. So is this all down to Valentina Tereshkova, her personal qualities, and the nature of her spaceflight? 

The evidence doesn't stack up. The women's cosmonaut training programme ran from 1962 to 1969 - eight years altogether, and six AFTER Tereshkova's 1963 mission. Clearly any issues around her performance were not enough to stop the programme immediately, although none of the other women got to fly.  However, the programme had been set up as a one-off, to achieve that one goal of beating the US by sending a woman into space first. As cosmonaut Valentina Ponomoreva explains it, there were no career prospects for Soviet women from the beginning:
We had mixed feelings: on the one hand, there was hope, on the other, skepticism. It was clear that women's role in cosmonautics had no prospects for the future. There were no specific tasks for women. The main task - priority - was fulfilled, and men would handle the rest.
However, historians Shayler and Moule (2005:66) note that the success of Tereshkova's flight was such that an all-female cosmonaut crew was proposed. Resistance to this idea came from outside as well: 'Zvezda (the spacesuit manufacturer) was opposed to all female flight and refused to fabricate a special EVA suit' (Shayler and Moule 2005:66).

The narrative of 'Valentina didn't do a good job, therefore other women weren't allowed into space' is clearly too simplistic: it fails to take into account the entrenched misogyny of the time, and ignores the complex factors and events around the Soviet space programme.

Ideology is only ideology when it isn't patriarchal

2. The main reason for the launch of a woman into space in the USSR was ideological. Studies of the physiology and psychology of women in space, the creation of a female spacesuit, and other tests were secondary.

Well, as they say in the biz, no shit Sherlock. The whole Cold War space race between the US and the USSR was ideological. The US Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts had to represent a certain type of American man, projecting wholesome values about family and state (McComb 2012). The choice of Yuri Gagarin was ideological. Yuri was a working class man - a perfect Soviet cog in the machine - and his peasant roots were emphasised in the Soviet press. The decision to launch a woman was purely to achieve a first and score a victory over the US. So what? This has no bearing on the fact the Valentina Tereshkova went into space for three days on the only solo mission a woman has ever made, and returned successfully. Gagarin is not denigrated for the ideological dimensions of his selection, so there is a double standard here.

The politics of speaking and hearing

3. Tereshkova’s landing was performed at the 49th turn of Vostok-6. She did not confirm the passage of automation commands to turn on engines for braking, separation of compartments, etc. The astronaut’s landing was carried out, as on the other Vostok ships, by ejecting the seat.

One of the ongoing criticisms of Tereshkova's flight was her non-responsiveness to commands.  According to Siddiqi (2009a:22), she did not hear the communications immediately following her orbital insertion - so there was some problem with transmission. Instead of being concerned, ground control got irritated with her. Various accounts I've read of her spaceflight talk as if she was deliberately refusing to listen or follow instructions. She was also blamed for not communicating while she was sleeping! This is frankly bizarre. Ground control were quick to find the worst possible interpretation of her communications instead of working with her. In fact she did confirm the commands for landing preparation, but through telegraph rather than voice (Siddiqi 2009b:65). 

Tereshkova with parachute, Vostok spacecraft and  locals.
Credit: TASS

There is also debate about how sick she was during the flight. This may have had an impact on her ability to communicate. In those days, little was known about space sickness, and both US and USSR crew were reluctant to admit to feeling sick as it could affect their ability to be selected for flight. Gherman Titov, who orbited in 1961, admitted he was sick, but couldn't say it because he might not have been allowed to fly again.

The former head of medicine services for the Soviet Air Force, Major-General Aleksandr Babiychuk, noted that Tereshkova had 'heightened sensitivity of her vestibular system' (1979:225). Contemporary studies suggest that women have different vestibular responses to men in spaceflight and are prone to space sickness (Ray 2000, Reshke et al 2014). 

Interestingly, cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky, who was orbiting in the Vostok 5 at the same time, was meant to sing a duet with Tereshkova. He didn't respond, and she sang a little by herself. I don't see anyone using this as evidence against him.

Tereshkova was not able to make a test orbital insertion manoeuvre on her first attempt, and it was rescheduled. This may have been hampered by a rather unexpected realisation. As we know now, her spacecraft had not been programmed to descend and in fact started moving away from Earth before the problem was rectified. This must have been terrifying. Ponomoreva noted that mission problems were routinely concealed, and this was the case here too - Tereshkova did not reveal this until 30 years later. She was finally able to perform the manoeuvres on her 47th orbit (Siddiqi 2009b:65).

So you see what has happened here. Instead of her sickness, intermittent communications, and a major cock-up being treated as mitigating circumstances, Tereshkova is blamed for a character defect. For being a woman.

Even back on Earth she couldn't catch a break

4. Tereshkova was discovered only after 7 hours - a fighter pilot spotted it. She was caught sitting on a parachute and eating food from locals. Kamanin omits this episode in his notes, however, notes that Valentina handed out her products from the space stock. Korolev was furious.

First of all I would like you to note the language of this tweet. 'Only after seven hours' - as if she was somehow responsible for this time delay. How long was it before Yuri was found? So she had seven hours to kill after three days of feeling horribly sick in space and not eating much. Then we have her 'caught sitting on a parachute and eating food from locals'. 'Caught'? Like a naughty school girl? 

But read between the lines here. She landed safely. She was alive, but didn't know how long it would take her to be found. Friendly locals find her, having observed the descent. They offer the cosmonaut heroine home-cooked food. She must have been starving at this point! She returns the favour with some of her stock (the cosmonauts had back-up food in case there was an emergency and they had to stay in space longer, or it took a long while to find them on the ground). I don't know the rules of Russian hospitality, but such an exchange is a ritual feature of welcome around the world. It sounds like she was doing a great job of PR with the locals. 

Korolev was furious that she had not waited for medical tests before eating, and there was no way to tally up how much of her rations she had eaten. However, one account suggests that there were many rescue staff around when she was giving the extra food away, and no-one seemed concerned to prevent it (Siddiqi 2009b:68). 

A factor to consider here is that none of the women's cosmonaut corps came from a military background. Ponomaryeva notes that 'Military discipline in general was for us an alien and difficult concept'. Unlike the obedient male soldiers of space, Valentina showed a little initiative and got into trouble for it.

The relationship with food is a big deal in this narrative as we'll see in later accusations.

Dude, where's my pencil?

7. Valentina managed to break both pencils during the flight, so she did not keep a diary in orbit. Also in her report, she notes that she was sick, but not from the state of zero gravity, but from food. Korolev after the flight "So I ever deal with women again! Never!"

There's a lot going on in this tweet so I'm going to break it into three parts. Let's start with the broken pencils. I don't know if you have ever tried to literally 'break' a pencil, but let me tell you it's not easy to snap them in half like a twig. So what was the nature of this breakage?

The pencils used in the Soviet space programme were wooden-shafted, rather than retractable or mechanical ones. They were grease or chinagraph pencils - less flammable and less likely for the 'lead' to break than regular graphite pencils. However, they also wrote like crayons and weren't easy to use. Pencils remained an ongoing problem. According to cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyev, who was flying missions in the 1970s and 1980s, 'pencil lead breaks … and is not good in space capsule: very dangerous to have metal lead particles in zero gravity'.

We can see the double standard here as well. Yuri lost his pencil, which stopped his ability to take notes during his flight. This, apparently, wasn't a problem. It wasn't because he was a terrible cosmonaut, but because the pencil had't been attached well enough to the notebook. 

Notice how Tereshokova's broken pencils immediately become her fault - a character failing. What does it mean? She was heavy-handed, careless, clumsy, an automaton without a brain. Clearly there were two pencils because of issues with previous missions (of which there had been five). The two pencils multiplies the magnitude of her pencil crime and means it couldn't possibly be an issue with the pencils themselves. I mean, imagine! Pencils with lead that breaks! It's unheard of .....

Deadly sins: gluttony

7. Valentina managed to break both pencils during the flight, so she did not keep a diary in orbit. Also in her report, she notes that she was sick, but not from the state of zero gravity, but from food. Korolev after the flight "So I ever deal with women again! Never!"

Again note the language of the tweet and how this has been built up. The implication is that she was a guts, she ate too much, just as she did after landing. She was profligate and greedy, like a thoughtless child who gets sick from eating too many sweets. 

It seems that sweets were standard on missions. Yuri had 63 'dragees' on his flight, and Korolev joked with him that he'd become fat. My research suggests that the dragees may have been the popular Soviet Red Lobster sweet. Tereshkova didn't find them very helpful; she said that 'I’m drinking a lot. [I feel] nauseous from the sweets, so the sweets aren’t satisfactory' (Siddiqi 2009b:64). She also stated in her report that she vomited once from the effects of eating lemon and sprat pirozhkis, rather than space sickness (Siddiqi 2009b:66-67). But see how this morphs from an observation of cause and effect - how her body reacted to the food provided - to blame? As if Tereshokova made herself sick.

Red Lobster dragee. Image: Ruski Way Deli

There are worlds of woman-blaming reactions to food embedded in this tweet. Women are supposed to have light, ladylike appetites. We know that the women's food intake was policed and judged. Shayler and Moule (2005:49) note that one of the other cosmonauts, Zhanna Yorkina, was disliked by Nicolai Kamanin, the head of the Soviet cosmonaut corps, as she 'was too fond of chocolate and cakes'. Later, they note that Yorkina did not do a stellar performance on a 3-day simulated test inside the Vostok as she had only eaten a third of her rations and was weak (2005:53). 

Read through a feminist lens, there is no way for the women to get this right. Having an appetite indicates an unladylike physicality; but not eating is also controlled. There is a heavy policing of female consumption, and again you see it is related to character, not circumstance.

The metonymous woman

7. Valentina managed to break both pencils during the flight, so she did not keep a diary in orbit. Also in her report, she notes that she was sick, but not from the state of zero gravity, but from food. Korolev after the flight "So I ever deal with women again! Never!"

Korelev's reaction is pure misogyny, and typical of a situation which women and other marginalised groups across the world face over and over. For any minority or marginalised group, one representative has to stand in for the whole class of people. If that one person is perceived to fail, then the whole class is held to be incapable of the achievement. One woman is meant to demonstrate whether all women as a class are capable of something. I will state as strongly as I can here THAT THIS DOES NOT APPLY TO MEN. A male failure does not mean people shaking their heads and saying, 'well, men are just not cut out for this'. But this is exactly what happened to Tereshkova. 

Let's invert it for a moment. What if Korolev had been unhappy with something that Yuri had done? Would he have said that he'd never work with men again? Of course not; men are not expected to carry this burden in the same way as women. Listen up, men, you might not know about this because it doesn't affect you. But it affects how women are judged all the time.

The odds were stacked against the women from the beginning. According to cosmonaut Ponomareva, who was nearly selected instead of Tereshkova, 

It is well known that Korolev's attitude toward the presence of women at work and especially on the launching pad was very negative. He believed that on a launching pad, like on a ship, a woman brings misfortune.

And it wasn't just Korolev; it was all the male cosmonauts too, and the military units associated with the programme.  

A related phenomenon is that if a problem happens with a man, it will be attributed to events beyond his control. If it happens to a woman, it becomes her fault. There's endless amounts of second chances for men: it's how the mediocre survive. A woman has to be outstanding, and even that isn't always enough.

Time-travelling: later actions invalidate earlier ones

8. Valentina Tereshkova had a very successful political carrier throughout her life. She served under all communist leaders starting from Krushev. Recently she proposed Amendment to the Russian Constitution to reset Putin's terms after his 20 years in power.

Flowers for Tereshkova. 
Image; Bridgeman

What we have here is an expectation that Tereshkova demonstrate a feminine purity that would not be expected of a male cosmonaut. She went from one arena where women are judged by double standards to another - if Russian politics is anything like UK, US, European and Australian. Her support of a dubious regime is somehow meant to invalidate her spaceflight. 

Interestingly, all of the four first female cosmonauts have gone into politics. Svetlana Savitskaya was elected to Duma in 1996 and is still active. She is, apparently, a committed communist who lamented the fall of the Soviet Union. But she's allowed to receive credit for her space achievements. 

The hysterical robot

In these narratives, there's no concern or praise for Tereshkova, only blame. Did she have a perfect spaceflight? Evidently not. Does she deserve to be made personally responsible for this in the way the men were not? No she doesn't. Women can't just be people, with all their hopes, dreams and faults. They have to stand in for 'womankind' and all women are judged, if they are not perfect. 

Let's think about this. Yuri is said to have been very courageous, and he was - at that stage the world had no idea of the mental or physiological effects of being in space. He might have returned having lost his mind. He might have found out that swallowing is impossible in space. There were just so many unknowns. 

By the time Valentina went to space, we knew humans could survive, but we didn't know what the effects on the female body were. So perhaps Valentina knew she wouldn't lose her mind, but she was taking a big risk too. Doesn't this require some courage? 

And don't think, as Ponomoareva's testimony shows, that she wasn't aware of what was at stake. Korolev, the male cosmonauts and the military were waiting for any excuse to disband the women's programme. Knowing all of this, what could she say or not say about her experience? [Name redacted]'s tweets make her out to be a thoughtless oaf with only a veneer of civilisation. But isn't just the opposite equally plausible, that the woman who later became a successful politician was keenly aware of all the nuances, and was playing her own game to ensure that she came out of the system intact? 

In the US, there were people very ready to take up this version of Valentina's flight to justify their own misogyny. They said that the Soviet space philosophy of relying on automation rather than piloting skills meant that she didn't need any particular qualities to do it - anyone could have flown a spacecraft in those circumstances! But didn't this apply to the men too?  According to Connors et al (1985:148),
Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshekova's orbital flight in 1963 has been dismissed as a political stunt, and her contributions to space exploration discounted, ostensibly because unlike the U.S. spacecraft of the era, the Russian craft were almost entirely controlled from the ground (Cunningham and Herskowitz, 1977; Oberg, 1981). The same critique has not been applied with equal force to Yuri Gargarin and other of Tereshekova's male contemporaries.

Siddiqi (2009b:71) sums it up well:

In a highly patriarchal society, the standards by which women were judged (especially when they did activities typically associated with men) were far higher than for men. Cosmonaut German Titov, for example, had suffered from some form of space sickness during his Vostok-2 flight and was unable to be fully alert during his flight, yet he was not made a pariah or penalised for such failings.

Shayler and Moule (2005:90) relate the reactions of NASA Flight Director Chris Kraft, who
expressed the opinion that Tereshkova was 'an absolute basket case when she was in orbit', and that the Russians were 'damn lucky to get her back ... She was nothing but hysterical while she flew.' 

Others in the US took up the mantra of the hysterical woman. If you're not aware of how this epithet, in currency for well over two thousand years, is weaponised against women, well, there's plenty of literature on this so you can go and look it up yourself. It's the oldest trick in the book for diminishing and demonising women across every facet of life. So tedious, so very, very tedious. And there is no evidence that Tereshkova was 'hysterical', at all.

Spaceflight is extremely demanding and requires exceptional courage when Yuri does it. Spaceflight is so easy a pencil-breaking toddler could do it when it's Valentina. You can't have it both ways, my dudes. 

Yeah I'm so over this bullshit

You see my methodology here. 1. Don't take any statement at face value. 2. Look at the broader context. 3. Apply the same standards to the male cosmonauts and Tereshkova.  4. Examine the language closely and identify the underlying values or ideologies. The point is we can't have an accurate assessment of Tereshkova's performance until we have separated the misogyny from the facts. 

Why is this such an embedded narrative in space, nearly 60 years later? In whose interests is it to continue the denigration of Dr Valentina Tereshkova? Is it because there's no other way to justify the deliberate exclusion of women unless you can blame women themselves for it? 


Babicychuk, A.N. 1979 Chelovek, nebo, kosmos. Moscow, Voyenizdat,

Connors, Mary M., Albert A. Harrison and Faren A. Akens 1985 Living Aloft. Human Requirements for Extended Spaceflight. NASA SP-483

McComb, E.C., 2012. Why can't a woman fly?: NASA and the cult of masculinity, 1958–1972 (Doctoral dissertation, Mississippi State University).

Ray, C.A., 2000. Effect of gender on vestibular sympathoexcitation. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology 279(4),: R1330-R1333.

Reschke, M.F., Cohen, H.S., Cerisano, J.M., Clayton, J.A., Cromwell, R., Danielson, R.W., Hwang, E.Y., Tingen, C., Allen, J.R. and Tomko, D.L., 2014. Effects of sex and gender on adaptation to space: neurosensory systems. Journal of Women's Health 23(11): 959-962.

Shayler, David and Ian Moule 2005 Women in Space - Following Valentina. Chichester: Praxis/Springer

Siddiqi, Asif 2009a Transcripts give new perspective on Vostok-6 mission. The first woman in Earth orbit. Part 1. Spaceflight 51:18 - 27

Siddiqi, Asif 2009b Transcripts give new perspective on Vostok-6 mission. The first woman in Earth orbit. Part 2. Spaceflight 51:64-71

Tereshkova, V., 1985. Soviet women in the anti-war movement. Social Sciences 16: 202.

Interview with Valentina Ponomareva by Slava Gerovitch, Moscow, May 17, 2002

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Between the house and the stars: the life of Varvara Sokolova who married Konstantin Tsiolkovsky


One day I realised that I had been writing a lot about Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, but it had never occurred to me wonder about his wife or partner. Was she involved in his work? What was her life like?

Most of the sources in English merely mention that he married Varvara Yevgrafovna Sokolova (or Sokolovaya). He met her in the town of Borovsk, 70 miles south of Moscow, where he was a teacher. Varvara is described as the daughter of a local preacher or priest (eg French and Burgess 2007: 21). They got married in Borovsk in 1880 (French and Burgess 2007:21). The number of children reported from their marriage varies from two to seven. This is pretty much all you'll see in most English language sources. 

More frequently, Varvara Sokolova is not mentioned at all or is written out of the story altogether. In the 1957 film 'The Road to the Stars', Tsiolkovsky is represented as a bachelor. He sleeps alone in a single bed. This is an ancient trope where women are associated with the flesh and the weakness of the body, and hence are inimical to rationality and the work of the mind. 

Was there more to her story? Of course I am somewhat hampered by lack of access to the Russian literature, but it turns out there are quite a few resources in translation, as well as scholarly work. All the same, we have to read Varvara Sokolova into the spaces of the house and the gaps in the narratives which centre around her husband. Seeing her is a work of feminist enquiry.

Old Believers in Borovsk

Varvara Sokolova was born in 1857 and lived in the town of Borovsk in Kaluga province, with her father Evgraf Nikolayevich Sokolov.  Her mother had died and she had no siblings. Probably, after leaving school, Sokolova kept house for her father. They lived by the Protva river. According to Anatoly Zak, Borovsk was a provincial backwater, with 
a reputation as a town of truck farmers and traders, whose drunken fistfights and belief in witchcraft made them the laughingstock of the neighboring towns.  
It was also a stronghold of Old Believers, and Varvara's father was an Old Believer priest (Shubin 2016:25). These were people who rejected the changes made by the Patriarch Nikon to the rituals and liturgy of the Orthodox Church in the mid-1600s, and continued to practice the old rites. While Old Believers were initially persecuted, Catherine the Great passed an Act in 1762 allowing them to practice freely, although they could not work in the civil service until 1905 when Tsar Nicholas II introduced an Act of religious freedom. 

It's likely that a priest did not earn much. To supplement their income, the Sokolovs rented out rooms in their house on the river. 

The town of Borovsk (image from Wikipedia)

Varvara completed high school, but does not seem to have trained for any profession. At 22, she was living with her father when Tsiolkovsky (also born in 1857) arrived in 1880 to take up a teaching post. He needed somewhere to live and he wanted to be by the river. 

Aleksandr Romanovich Belyaev, a science fiction writer know as 'Russia's Jules Verne',  recorded interviews with Varvara later in her life. She described the young man who would propose to her and the day of the wedding  (Shubin 2016: 234):

This is Tsiolkovsky's account of the marriage:

It was time to marry, and I married without love, hoping that such a wife would not turn me around, would work, and would not prevent me from doing the same. This hope was justified. Such a friend could not drain my strength: firstly, she did not attract me, and secondly, she herself was indifferent and unemotional. So she retained strength and ability to mental activity until she was old. I attached only practical value to marriage. We went to marry for four miles, on foot, did not dress up, did not let anyone into the church. Then returned - and no one knew anything about our marriage. On the wedding day, I bought a lathe from a neighbor and cut glass for electric cars.
Tsiolkovsky promised Varvara a life full of hard work with few social pleasures. He refused a dowry, saying his earnings would be enough for them to live on. Soon after marrying, they moved from Varvara's father's house to their own place in Borovsk. It cannot have been a boring life. The young married couple may not have held parties, but visitors regularly came to the house to look at Tsiolkovsky's toys and experiments, which brought him a level of notoriety. According to Tsiolkovsky, 
In my house, electric lightning flashed, thunders rang, bells rang, paper dolls danced ... Visitors admired and marveled at the electric octopus, which grabbed everyone with its feet by its nose or fingers, and then it got hair stood on end and sparks popped up from any part of the body. As if alive, he wandered from room to room, following the air currents, rising and falling.
Presumably Varvara saw her father regularly and perhaps she attended church. In 1881, she gave birth to their first child, a daughter they named Lyubov, meaning 'love'. This may have represented the intensity of feeling that this tiny being evoked in them, as it does not seem to have been a symbol of their marriage. Lyubov was two years old when her brother Ignaty was born in 1883. Two more sons followed, Alexander in 1885 and Ivan in 1888. Eight years after their marriage, Varvara was managing a household with a laboratory and four children, and with several house moves in between as well.

The Kaluga years 

In 1892, Tsiolkovsky took up a new teaching position in the provincial capital city of Kaluga (French and Burgess 2007:21).  In one of their early houses in Kaluga, Tsiolkovsky built one of the first wind tunnels in Russia in 1897 for aerodynamic experiments (Gorbushin and Volobuyev 2014). The scientific installations in all of the Tsiolkovsky households must have provided a backdrop for the children to dream and imagine, and a project for Varvara to manage as she went about the day's duties of cleaning, cooking, washing and child rearing.

After initially living in town, Eduard and Varvara took a log house on the outskirts of the city in 1905. After this there were no more house moves; the family stayed in the same house until 1933.

According to Anatoly Zak at Russian Space Web, the house was a two story wooden cottage which was purchased in 1905. It has a small garden. Inside, it had white walls and simple wooden furniture.  A large chimney on the ground floor was covered in traditional decorated Russian tiles. From the hallway, there was a steep staircase (later dubbed the 'space stairway' by visiting cosmonauts). It led to a trapdoor. On the other side was his workroom and laboratory. Elena Timoshenkova, a granddaughter of Tsiolkovsky and Varvara, told Zak that 
His children knew when this door was closed, nobody could go upstairs to bother him. He was very strict with his children, but became much softer with the grandchildren.
The Tsiolkovsky 'log cabin' in Kaluga.
Image courtesy of

Life continued to be austere, as Tsiolkovsky spent all his money on furthering his research. As Belyaev says, 'The amount of his income that he dedicated to his experiments was a sacrifice he made on behalf of heaven' (Shubin 2016:235). In one account, Tsiolkovsky divided his salary in half, giving Varvara one half for the children and household and keeping the rest to finance his experiments. As the number of children grew, making ends meet must have been a challenge for Varvara.

Three more children followed in Kaluga: Leontiy in 1892, Maria in 1894, Anna in 1897. Now there were seven children (but we don't know about miscarriages, stillbirths or other children who did not survive).  Lyubov was 11 when they moved to Kaluga, and 16 by the time Anna was born. In different ways, it seems all the children were co-opted into being spectators, helpers and servants in their father's pursuit of the stars. The children all attended local schools. When Lyubov completed school, she studied to become a teacher like her father. She also acted as her father's secretary. An unknown source  describes Varvara and Lyubov as 'his first and faithful helpers'. 

Leontiy lived for just a year. He was the first child in the family to die, in August 1893, on his birthday it seems. Ivan and Anna were also 'sickly', a commonly-used term for children who were constantly ill and did not thrive.  This could mean respiratory illnesses, or even tuberculosis. 

Tsiolkovsky was very pleased by Ignaty who was interested in maths and physics. Lyubov, in her memoirs, says that Ignaty was very aware of how the family was struggling financially, and started to earn money when he was 16. Ignaty worked every summer as a tutor to save enough money to support his own university studies. While at university in Moscow in 1902, he committed suicide by taking potassium cyanide. He sent the remainder of the money to his father, who gave it to Lyubov so she could continue her studies to become a teacher. Tsiolkovsky blamed himself for the death (Costin 2020) but there is no record of how Varvara felt about the death of a second child.

Ivan had some chronic condition from childhood. He completed school, and studied accounting, but his illness made him incapable of work. Instead, according to Lyubov, he helped Varvara with the household chores; perhaps this was the first time the children's labour was diverted to help her rather than their father. But Ivan also became his father's lackey along with Lyubov. He ran errands to the post office and the printers, proof-read, and helped with experiments. Tsiolkovsky wrote that he 'was an active and meek employee of my family' (Kostin 2020). 

As the eldest, Lyubov was immediately drawn into her father's work, becoming an assistant and secretary. She was no doormat, though. In 1911, when she was 30, she was arrested for revolutionary activities. Her memoirs must have much more detail, but clearly she was released and able to return to her family. 

In a letter to Maria, Anna gave a snapshot of daily life in the Kaluga house in the spring of 1914. 'In our house, as always after dinner, silence. Dad sleeps in the dining room. Mum in the middle room by a window embroiders on a hoop'. In 1915, she wrote "Dad reads, Mum is standing by a couch in the middle [room] and talking to me, textbooks are open on the table around me, we just had dinner' (Kostin 2020). It was a quiet, domestic scene, even as events hurtled towards revolution and civil war.

The Russian Revolution, from the abolition of the monarchy in 1917 to the establishment of the Soviet republic in 1923, brought more hardship to the family. The disruption of food production and distribution caused by the Revolution led to widespread hunger culminating in the famine of 1921-1922. Ivan died in 1919 of food poisoning from bad sauerkraut. 

The tragedies continued. There was not enough money for Alexander to go to university so he studied to become a teacher. He married, moved to the Ukraine, and committed suicide in 1923 (Costin 2020). Anna had married a Communist party member in 1920, but became ill with tuberculosis and died at the age of 24. 

Maria became a teacher, married, and went to live in a village near Kaluga. During the civil war, she and her husband sent assistance to Tsiolkovsky and Varvara. In 1929, Maria and her family moved in with her parents to help them. She took over the financial and household management, as well as raising her six children (Kostin 2020). The house was filled with children again, but this time Varvara was not bearing most of the burden herself. A photo which is sometimes presented as Tsiolkovsky with Varvara and the children is more likely to be Maria and her six children, taken during this period..

Varvara, Eduard and Maria's family. Image courtesy of Science Photo Library.

Tsiolkovsky and Varvara lived in the wooden house until 1933, when they were given a newly repaired house by the Kaluga Soviet (Maksimov 2007:327). Maria moved to the new house too with Lyubov to manage the finances, visitors and enquiries. 

After Tsiolkovsky's death in 1935 at the age of 78, Varvara was awarded a substantial government pension. Perhaps now she had money to spend on herself for the first time in her married life.  But the shades of war were gathering over Europe. Varvara died in 1940 (Shubin 2016:233) so she missed the invasion of Kaluga. The Soviet army were forced to retreat and Kaluga fell to the Nazis on October 13 1941. Less than three months later they were expelled, but not before burning many houses in their retreat. Fortunately, the Tsiolkovsky house on the edge of town survived.

Representing Varvara

In the biographical information, there seems to be an investment in Varvara being a simple Russian housewife with few interests. Belyaev notes that she had completed high school, but expressed herself in 'elementary' language. He further says Tsiolkovsky's work was 'interesting to her, a novelty' (Shubin 2016: 235). Perhaps there are other interpretations to be derived, however. In Belyaev's quotes, cited in Shubin 2016, Varvara seems much more perceptive and humorous (see below). Belyaev also says that the entire family was included in Tsiolkovsky's space aspirations, and he discussed his research with Varvara (Shubin 2016: 235). She offered advice and was clearly engaged with his work, much more than a mere domestic servant.

In a eulogy for Tsiolkovsky written by Belyaev five years after and in the year of Varvara's death,  Varvara is described as his 'faithful companion' as if she were a dog. Belyaev said, 
Her death forces us to remember the private and family life of the Tsiolkovskys, which is very informative. Much depended on his personal life, including so much of his scientific work.  His family home was also his study, office, laboratory and workshop' (Shubin 2016: 233).
This is a nice acknowledgement that the 'lone genius' did not exist in a vacuum; despite the privations of their life, Tsiolkovsky's capacity to create was supported by the hard work of Varvara and the devotion of the children. The family portrait (above) shows Vavara as careworn and dour, a diminutive figure swamped by husband and grandchildren. Her life is unremarkable for a woman of her time, expected to subordinate her identity to the needs of others.  

The contrast between male and female, Heaven and Earth, and body and mind were also appealing to commentators on their life. As Belyaev said, 
She was concerned with domestic matters and daily chores, while at the same time her husband lived in outer space among the stars (Shubin 2016:234)
Any intellectual contribution that Varvara may have made is elided in the element of drama provided by this contrast. But perhaps we can see her influence at places in his work. In one of his discussions about life in a microgravity space habitat, he mentions that women's skirts might be impractical as they would float up; and he talks about how awful conditions in the latrines would be. Perhaps these snippets came from dinner time conversations, Varvara offering her thoughts with the wry humour we see in her oral history with Belyaev. If so, Tsiolkovsky was impressed enough with her insights to include them in his book.

A dispassionate life

Although Tsiolkovsky was determined not to be distracted by sex and passion, most of the sources I have cited above lead one to believe that there was still much love and respect in the family. A different story is told by Michael Hagemeister:
Tsiolkovskii’s private life was grey and monotonous. He described his choice of wife, Varvara Evgrafovna Sokolova, the daughter of a priest, as ‘unfortunate’ (neudachno) and their offspring as ‘deplorable’ (pechal’nye). The children were sick and two sons committed suicide. Tsiolkovskii fled from the depressing confinement, the feeling of humiliation and material worries into his world of inventions and creations and into the dreams of flying and eternal human happiness. On the other hand, he was indifferent towards his family, as long as they did not disturb his work. In his youth, he already regarded himself as a genius (‘I am such a great man as has never been before, nor will ever be’).  (Hagemeister 2008:28)
Tsiolkovsky had an ideal of married life, but reality did not align with it through the unfortunate fact that women are human and men are too:
The biblical ‘legend’ of the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary was also interpreted by Tsiolkovskii as an ‘ideal of the future woman, who will provide children, but will not be subject to animal passions’ (Hagemeister 2011:31). 
The sources for this are 'Tsiolkovsky's autobiographical recordings, held in the archive of the Academy of Sciences, as well as a personality study, written in 1937 by the famous neurologist Samuil Blinkov' (Hagemeister 2011: 36). More of the autobiography is quoted here
Was it good: marriage life without love? Is marriage just enough respect? Who gave himself to higher goals is good for that. But he sacrifices his happiness and even the happiness of the family. I did not understand the latter then. But then it showed up. From such marriages, children are not healthy, successful and joyful, and all my life I lamented the tragic fate of children. 
I put the blessing of the family and loved ones on the forefront. All for high. I did not drink, did not smoke, did not spend a single extra penny on myself: for example, on clothes. I was always almost starving, poorly dressed. I moderated mysefl in everything to the last degree. My family also suffered with me ... I was often annoyed and maybe made the life of others difficult, nervous.

In this passage, he acknowledges that the austere and passionless marriage he embraced was not a recipe for either his happiness, or that of Varvara and the children. I don't think we should be expecting a coherent or consistent view, though; and perhaps we can't also assume that Varvara experienced anything in the way Eduard imagined.

Despite his apparent belief that sexual passion sapped the intellect, Tsiolkovsky clearly was not willing to forgo the experience. Contraception was not an option in 19th century Russia. The ages of the Tsiolkovsky children indicate that the couple had an active sex life from the time of their marriage in 1880 for at least sixteen years afterwards. Tsiolkovsky pretended that neither he nor Varvara were interested,  but clearly at least one of them was. We don't know what Varvara thought, but Tsiolkovsky's inner conflicts must have been another aspect of her complex tasks of household and laboratory management, along with the sick and depressed children. It was a hard life indeed.

How much of Tsiolkovsky's views about relationships and sex were shaped by his Cosmism? Tsiolkovsky was already a Cosmist by the time he arrived in Borovsk, having been influenced by Nikolai Federov who worked in the library where Tsiolkovsky spent most of his time in Moscow. Fedorov had an idea about 'positive chastity', which was 'the redirection of sexual energy towards the restoration of life to the dead' (Hagemeister 1997:193). The seven Tsiolkovsky children are firm evidence that Tsiolkovsky did not embrace this idea to the extent that Federov disciple Alexander Gorsky, who did not consummate his marriage, did.

But my aim here is not to get bogged down in Russian cosmism; I'm only interested in it to the degree Tsiolkovsky's beliefs affected Varvara's life. Clearly there is much more to be explored here.

Eyes in the Sky

Varvara is not silent or forgotten. The artist Anna Hoetjes made a film installation in 2018 for which Varvara was the narrator. In an interview, Hoetjes said:
Hardly any information can be found on her. My interest wasn’t so much to reconstruct her real life, but rather to create a fictional life for her. To introduce her as an authority, an eye witness, an explorer, adventurer and pioneer. To let her act out the hypothetical theories of her husband, who no doubt relied on his wife’s labour in some way or another while creating his visions. People who see Eyes in the Sky often assume that Varvara’s narrative is based on existing diaries or interviews, no matter how far fetched, fictional and body-horrific her experiences in my piece are. 

 She explains further:

The fact that women carried out endless calculations at the beginning of the 20th century, but were never included in the fantasy of an actual space journey, became so problematic for me that I started designing my own female space pioneer. In this work the wife of the 'Kosmist' and space pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Varvara, is the first person to travel into space, where she leave behind her eyes.
Still from Eyes in the Sky by Anna Hoetjes, 2018.

As a feminist space scholar, my job is to interrogate the deeper story behind commonly accepted accounts. This is only a start: if only Lyubov's memoir were translated! I'd also like to re-read Tsiolkovsky's works to find more traces of Varvara. No doubt I have got much wrong in this account. All the same, the first step has been taken simply by centring Varvara in the story. Taking inspiration from Anna Hoetjes' work, I imagine evenings when Varvara escaped outside the house to gaze at the stars and dream her own dreams. 


Costin, A.V. 2020 Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky. A Short Biography.

French, Francis and Colin Burgess 2007 Into that silent sea: trailblazers of the space era 1961-1965. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press

Gainor, Chris 2008 To a Distant Day. The Rocket Pioneers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press

Gorbushin, Anton and Valery S. Volobuyev 2014 The first aerodynamic balances in Russia. AIAA

Hagemeister, Michael 2011 The Conquest of Space and the Bliss of the Atoms: Konstantin Tsiolkovskii. In  Eva Maurer, Julia Richers, Monica Rüthers and Carmen Scheide (eds) Soviet Space Culture. Cosmic Enthusiasm in Socialist Societies. Palgrave MacMillan pp 26-41

Hagemeister, Michael 1997 Russian Cosmism in the 1920s and today. In Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, ed. The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture., pp 185-202.  Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press

Maksimov, A.J. 2007 150th anniversary of K.E. Tsiolkovsky. Founder of Cosmonautics. Thermophysics and Aeromechanics 14(3): 317-328

Shubin, Daniel H. 2016 Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky. The Pioneering Rocket Scientist and His Cosmic Philosophy. New York: Algora Publishing

Sunday, November 22, 2020

A space junk bestiary: yo-yo de-spin weights

Among the oldest pieces of space junk in Earth orbit are de-spin weights from the US series of TIROS weather and TV satellites. I've been noticing them in debris catalogues for years, and decided it was time to find out what they were really all about.  

TIROS 1 was launched in 1960 - just three years after Sputnik 1. The satellite is now 60 years old! TIROS stands for Television Infrared Observation Satellite Program. One aim of the satellite was to see if Earth observation from space would work, and could be used for weather reporting and prediction. The other was to test television broadcast potential - so you can see that it is one of the progenitors of two very significant satellite-based industries today.

The satellite was a cylindrical drum covered in solar panels with short, angled antennas. It returned one of the earliest pictures of Earth from outside.

Image courtesy of NASA

There were 10 satellites in the first TIROS series, after which they continued as TIROS-N in collaboration with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Of these 10, five are still in Low Earth Orbit as pieces of space junk.

So what about these de-spin weights?

When rockets are launched, a key consideration is keeping them stabilised so that they don't pitch, roll or yaw, and end up in a crater in the ground instead of in orbit. One way to stabilise them is to spin them perpendicular to their long axis. This method of stabilisation was frequently used for the launch of small, lightweight spacecraft (Cornille 1962:1). The problem with that is when the satellite is released, it has the same spin as the rocket, which is generally too high for it to function. So you have to reduce the spin and reset the satellite. This is what the de-spin weights are for. There might be one or two weights. Two weights are called yo-yo weights, and one is just a yo-weight. 

Fortunately, I did not have to figure this out all by myself, as the Practical Engineer has done a pretty great job of explaining the principles, as you will see in the video.

This is a description of the mechanism from Fedor (1961:1):

The yo-yo de-spin mechanism is essentially two pieces of wire with weights on the ends ...  These wires are symmetrically wrapped around the equator of the satellite and the weights are secured by a release mechanism. At a pre-selected time after satellite spin-up and release from the launching vehicle, the weights are released, thus discarding enough momentum to reduce the spin of the satellite to the desired value.

The weights are not only released, but discarded as mission-related debris. This kind of discard is now discouraged in guidelines for mitigating space debris. 

Something I wonder about is whether the weights still in orbit belong to the TIROS satellites remaining in orbit, or whether they belong to a re-entered TIROS? Did the de-spin weight tend to re-enter with corresponding satellite? Is the orbit an indicator? 

So many questions! Did the USSR use this mechanism for satellite stabilisation? There are certainly no USSR de-spin weights catalogue from this period that I could find.

And what did they look like? Those illustrated in Fedor (1961) look (from the grainy image) to be rectangular, maybe about an inch long. Fedor (1961) also uses a unit of measurement called the slug-ft/2 and I don't even know what it is. OK, I looked it up and this is what it is.

Where else can we find de-spin weights? The Explorer series used them. Here is a marvellous illustration of them working on Explorer 11, launched in 1961 (from Cornille 1962).

This is a de-spin weight from 1962 British satellite Ariel 1. Note that this one doesn't have a rigid cord, but a tightly coiled spring (also from Cornille 1962). The 'stretch' yo-yo design was patented by Cornille and Fedor in 1970. This example has, to my mind, a rather sinister snake-like aura as if it might suddenly spring to life and start seeking you out with its eyeless head and whipping tail.


The Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres, launched in 2007, used de-spin weights, as the launch rocket's 3rd stage was spin-stabilised. I wanted to know where the weights ended up. Fortunately my friend Ady James knew where to look for them and located this blog post by Dawn Mission Director and Chief Engineer Marc Rayman for me:

After the third stage has finished firing, it remains securely attached to Dawn for another 4 minutes 50 seconds. Although the stage is stabilized by spinning, the spacecraft does not operate that way; yet by this time, they would be spinning together at 46 rpm, too fast for the latter’s control system. Therefore, starting 5 seconds before separation, the third stage activates a surprisingly simple system to slow its rotation rate. Wrapped around the Delta are two cables, each 12.15 meters (39 feet 10 inches) long. At the end of each is a 1.44-kilogram (3-pound-3-ounce) weight made of aluminum and tungsten. When the cables are released, the spin causes them to unwind. As they carry the weights farther and farther out, the spin slows down because of the same principle that makes an ice skater spin faster by pulling her arms in or slower by extending them to her sides. After 4 seconds, when they are fully unwound, the cables unhook from the spacecraft. With their weights still attached, they enter independent orbits around the Sun; perhaps one of them will be studied by a future solar system archeologist.

Well there you go, he was right as that's exactly what I'm doing! This post adds some interesting details. The weight is let go by releasing the cable, so the cable is still attached to it. I wonder if it remains taut after release? The cables are 12 metres, more than the length of two tall women end-to-end. No information about the shape of the weights, but we do have materials - aluminium and tungsten. Why tungsten, a metal in short supply on Earth? There is no need to make these weights durable as their only purpose is to be heavy. Perhaps tungsten adds the required weight for size. How does this alloy react to space weather, plasmas and bombardment? Is it contributing aluminium particles to the space environment? Could they combine with the atomic elements so common in the space environment to form new compounds? Al2O3 (aluminium oxide) or tungsten oxides?

The weights would, one presumes, behave like a meteorite as they are solid. And more like a metal-rich meteorite too. Would they be distinguishable through a telescope or by spectroscopy?

So many questions.

How many of these weights are circulating among all the space junk? Jonathan McDowell's catalogue of space objects has 286 de-spin weights listed. How many of these are still in orbit is something I'll have to leave for a future calculation.

What about the damage a collision with a de-spin weight would cause? These are dense, heavy, solid objects, and I'm going to guess for that reason would be far more destructive than something of a similar size, cross-sectional area or velocity, but made of different materials. It should also be possible to model how an impact crater from collision with one of them might differ from other pieces of space junk. This would help identify liability for the damage, as the launching state is responsible for this under UN treaties.

Comparatively, there are not that many de-spin weights, compared say to rocket bodies, but perhaps the greater damage they can do would merit being selectively targeted for active debris removal. 

As Fedor and Cornille are rapidly becoming my yo-yo gurus, I thought I should learn a little more about them. Sadly Henry Cornille died in 2019 at the age of 80. He went on to work on the Apollo programme. I couldn't find anything about Fedor online so this clearly requires deeper archival research. If you think about it, they are the pioneers of today's space tether technology.

I've got another loose end to tie up here - the relation to the popular children's toy called the yo-yo. I realise I don't know anything about its origins. *goes and looks up* Well, this was an eye-opener, as my assumptions that it was 1960s invention turn out to be extremely wrong! The yo-yo is very ancient technology, originating in China (as indeed does rocket technology). 

This is a fetching red figure vase showing a boy playing with a yo-yo in the 5th century BCE, from the Antikensammlung museum in Berlin.

The yo-yo despin weights are a lovely thread linking physics from the past to the future. I've become quite captivated by them.


Cornille, Henry J.Jnr 1962 A method of accurately reducing the spin rate of a rotating spacecraft. NASA Technical Note D-1420 

Fedor, JV 1961 Theory and design curves for a  yo-yo de-spin mechanism for satellites. NASA Technical Note D-708