Monday, April 08, 2024

A significance assessment of the Apollo 11 bootprints

This case study shows how the Burra Charter (2013) significance criteria can be applied to a heritage feature on the Moon, the astronaut bootprints which are part of the Apollo 11 site. The bootprints are one of the most well-known human traces and have been the focus of recent campaigns for greater recognition of lunar heritage. 

Historic significance: high.

The bootprints are associated with a unique event, the first human expedition to another world; with the astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who are rightly celebrated for this achievement; and with the historical processes of the Cold War ‘space race’ and early years of space exploration. The prints are the first human trace fossils outside Earth. 

Scientific significance: high 

The astronaut boot soles were an experiment in themselves: the bands were designed to convey information about regolith depth and reflectance. This is partially why so many photographs of the bootprints were taken. Further research could use them to assess and better understand surface processes and regolith behaviour. Their placement shows where the astronauts walked over their two and half hours on the surface, and hence define the limits of the site. Images show that the prints are layered or superimposed, which enables a time sequence of activities to be derived. Their depth and angle indicate something about the gait adopted by the crew to maintain an upright posture in hypogravity, as well as the depth of lunar dust over the local area. 

A major research potential of the prints is a comparison of the six landing sites, over which the duration of surface became progressively longer, and the succeeding crews had the benefit of learning from the preceding ones (Gorman 2016). As a recent geological disturbance to the regolith, the sharp ridges of the prints create a baseline to assess natural erosion processes on the Moon such as micrometeorite impacts and dust levitation. The mechanics of the bootprints could also be usefully be compared to robotic and rover traces (Gorman 2016). 

Image courtesy of NASA
Aesthetic significance: high 

The geometric, banded appearance of the trace fossils is demonstrably unlike any other geological features on the lunar surface. The prints are 35.5 cm x 16 cm in size. The rectilinearity and regularity of the imprints are a stark contrast to the predominant circular patterns created by bombardment craters and the irregular shadows and textures of rocks. The contrast between light and dark in the ridges is a distinct and unique pattern in the lunar environment.   

Social significance: high 

The first footprint of Neil Armstrong has become a 20th century icon, reproduced in countless formats and instantly recognisable. Although the Apollo missions were political in nature and opposed by various sectors of society, the overriding social meaning of the bootprint is human ingenuity and courage. Its creation was watched by millions of people across the world and hence has a resonance far outside the space community. The bootprints are associated with Armstrong’s famous first lines about ‘one small step’, a phrase which has become incorporated in popular culture, advertising and literature. 

Spiritual significance: low 

While an argument for spiritual value is not as obvious as social value, the reverence in which the bootprints are held is equivalent to a secular belief relating to humanity’s place in the universe. The bootprints have contributed to the conviction, strongly held by some groups, that the Apollo landings were a hoax (Link 2021). They have also been used by scholars of religion to explore concepts of faith and divinity (eg Gordon 2019, Stavrakopoulou 2022).

This is an excerpt from a document prepared for the Global Expert Group on Sustainable Lunar Activity (GEGSLA). The full document can be downloaded here


Gordon, Chris 2019 Footprints on the moon: a story of faith and Faith. 19 July, Catholic Voice

Gorman, A.C. 2016 Culture on the Moon: bodies in time and space. Archaeologies 12(1): 110-128.

Link, Devon 2021 Fact check: Moon landing conspiracy theory misrepresents lunar footprint. September 17, USA Today.

Stavrakopoulu, Francesca 2022  On the Spiritual and Historical Significance of “Divine Footprints”, LitHub

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

How we manage the values of off-Earth environments

Before I was an academic, I was a professional heritage consultant working with Aboriginal communities in Australia. I worked on all stages of mining projects from exploratory drilling, through pre-feasibility to operation and rehabilitation, for a range of minerals including coal, copper, gold, uranium, iron, and heavy mineral sands. This was usually as part of an environmental impact process, where I would be in the field at the same time as the flora, fauna, dust, noise etc teams, and looking at ways to mitigate the harm from these kinds of impacts on Aboriginal heritage. 

As imperfect as this process is, it doesn’t yet exist in space. One reasons for this is because there’s a problem with how environments are conceptualised. It’s really common for people to assume that because there are no living ecologies in orbit, on the Moon, and on asteroids, that there are no environments either. The COSPAR Planetary Protection Policy privileges potential life; it's not actually about abiotic planetary environments. 

So we assume there are no environmental values worth managing on lifeless rocks, and yet these are the places that are going to tell us things like where Earth’s water came from, and how the solar system evolved. Each celestial body also has its own unique history and qualities. How we assess and manage these is an area that is in its infancy. 

Thinking of space as the province of all humanity, as the Outer Space Treaty says, is an imperative to share the benefits of space. But it also frames space as something we can use and own. And why should something be assessed only for its benefits for us? This is such a narrow way to look at the richness of off-Earth environments, and one I’m deeply uncomfortable with.

This post is taken from my notes for a Doha Debate podcast recorded in March 2024. 

Friday, February 23, 2024

The Odysseus lunar lander carried an artwork to the Moon. What does this mean?

Josephine Baker being fabulous, 1927.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Nova-C lander, which touched down on the Moon on the 23rd of February 2024, is  carrying a very interesting object – 125 silver mini-moons a couple of centimetres in diameter, stacked in a transparent box and bolted to the side of the spacecraft. Each mini-moon represents a famous person who made a difference in the world. They include the people you’d expect, like Mother Theresa, but some unconventional choices too, like Josephine Baker, the French-American dancer of the Jazz Age who was also a civil rights activist, and the Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova who gave her name to the famous Aussie dessert. 

Artist Andy Warhol is also in there, and it’s the second time he’s been to the Moon. In 1969, the Apollo 12 mission carried a tiny ceramic plaque called Moon Museum with the works of six artists inscribed on it. Warhol contributed a crude drawing. 

This artwork was conceived by the US artist Jeff Koons. It has three components: the miniature moons going to the real Moon, much larger versions which remain on Earth, and digital moons in the form of NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens). Like the mission itself, the artwork is a partnership between the artist and various other organisations. 

Jeff Koons' Moon Phases installed on the Odysseus lander.
Source: Jeff Koons/Instagram

I find it intriguing, but it also raises some concerns. Recently the Peregrine Mission One lander was launched towards the Moon. It had numerous private payloads, including a lot of digital art and 13 time capsules. Sadly the spacecraft didn’t make it, and burned up on re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. 

As more private missions go to the Moon, we’re likely to see more inclusions of symbolic and digital objects. But there’s no oversight of what they are, or obligation for private companies to inform the public. 

For now it’s all been positive objects aimed at commemoration or inspiration. But what if, for example, conspiracy theorists or extremists bought payload space on a private mission and send things most people would find offensive or disturbing to the Moon? There’s nothing to stop that. 

According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the Moon and all outer space is meant to be the common province of humanity: it belongs to all of us, including those we don’t like. But I’d hate to see the Moon become a dumping ground of symbols, or continue its Cold War role in a battle of ideologies. The Outer Space Treaty proclaims that space is to be used for peaceful purposes only. Peace isn’t just about the absence of weapons, and not all weapons are material.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Japanese lunar heritage and the Global Expert Group on Sustainable Lunar Activity.

Whenever I talk to people about future plans for the Moon, it’s clear that the impacts of mining and other activities on the lunar environment are a major concern. 

An aim of the Global Expert Group on Sustainable Lunar Activity (GEGSLA) is to investigate good environmental management practices on the Moon, drawing on lessons learnt on Earth, but also taking into account the distinct conditions of the Moon in terms of its natural environment, and the legal and policy framework. Part of this is cultural and natural heritage. 

Cultural heritage can be defined as places and objects from the past that communities in the present feel should be passed onto future generations. The study of lunar heritage was pioneered by Professor Beth Laura O’Leary from New Mexico State University more than 20 years ago. The GEGSLA is drawing on the research carried out by a small group of space archaeologists, myself included, over that time. This research includes the nature of heritage values on the Moon, how we would assess them, and what we can do to ensure that they survive. 

There are currently 110 locations with human material from lunar missions since 1959. The majority of them are from the US and Russia, but other nations include India, China, Japan and Israel. These places represent over 60 years of human engagement with the Moon. None of the sites have any protection currently, although there are some objects registered under US state heritage legislation. Managing their heritage values is an important part of sustainable use of the Moon. 

Apollo 11 is the most famous lunar heritage site, but as a lesser-known example I want to talk about Japanese cultural heritage on the Moon. There are three known locations and two unknown ones. 

The HITEN satellite was launched in 1990. It released the Hagoromo orbiter once it arrived at the Moon. HITEN then looped around the Moon and into the Kordylewski dust clouds at the Lagrange points L4 and L5, before being intentionally crashed in the lunar surface in 1993. Hagoromo fell out of lunar orbit eventually, but its final resting place is unknown. 

The HITEN spacecraft with the Hagoromo orbiter attached at the top. Image: NASA

A more substantial mission was Selene, launched from Tanegashima in 2007. This was composed of three orbiters: the main one nicknamed Kayuga after a lunar princess from folklore, and two smaller satellites called Okina and Ouna. Okina was a relay satellite, and both Okina and Ouna were used as a Very Long Baseline Interferometer (VLBI) to measure lunar gravity. Kayuga was intentionally crashed into the Moon’s surface in 2009. Okina fell out of orbit and crashed also in 2009; but there is no accessible information on the fate of Ouna, so this is another unknown location. 

Kaguya the Moon Princes. Watercolour by Charu.

The archaeological sites are composed of the spacecraft – presumably crushed and damaged from impact, and the impact craters. A scientific question we can ask of locations like this is how the impact craters formed by human artefact crashes differ from those caused by natural meteorites. These places have cultural significance for Japan, but also, given that lunar material is dominated by the US and Russia, they are uncommon examples of another nation’s lunar endeavours and represent the development of Japanese space technology. 

GEGSLA is establishing principles and procedures to manage the heritage values of these places. This involves defining the values and working out management options that can be integrated in a practical way with the needs of surface operators. These build on the existing NASA heritage guidelines from 2011, which set up buffer zones to protect sites from damaging dust abrasion. There’ll also be procedures for sampling the sites for scientific study, so that we can better understand the impacts of the lunar environment on human materials. You can read the Recommended Framework and Key Elements for Peaceful and Sustainable Lunar Activities here, and the Sustainable Management of Lunar Natural and Cultural Heritage here

These principles can be extended to heritage sites wherever humans have left behind material culture across the solar system. This is important because it ensures the sites are retained for future scientific study, and maintains the attachments that different communities feel towards these places, so that the Moon really is for all humanity, not just those that can afford to go there.

This post is adapted from a talk given at an Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum side event organised by the GEGSLA in 2021.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Why do we need an archaeology of space?

Why do we need an archaeology of space? Haven’t we got an abundant documentary record to tell us all about spacecraft and their stories? Not, as it turns out. The documentary record is far from perfect, and even if it were, it doesn’t necessarily contain the answers to the questions we want to ask. Within a system of production, there are ideas and assumptions that are unquestioned and invisible: no-one writes about them, or records them, because they are the fabric of their worldview. It’s only later that we may look back and wonder why something was like that. So there may be no words or images that document a decision; there may only be the thing itself. And this is what makes it archaeology. 

For most people, archaeology is the study of what is old – from the emergence of humans a few million years ago, to perhaps a couple of thousand or a few hundred years ago. When I tell people I’m an archaeologist, the most common reactions are to express admiration for the great cultures of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, followed by confusion when I say that’s not what I do. (Whatever you do, don’t mention dinosaurs to an archaeologist! For the record, that’s palaeontology). 

It can be even more perplexing to say that you work in Australia. Surely, many people (mainly Australians it has to be said) respond, there’s no archaeology in Australia? This is generally the cue to say ‘but there is at least 65, 000 years of Aboriginal occupation…not to mention over 240 years of European occupation’. Usually that’s enough for a long conversation about archaeology, so often I don’t go on to mention that my field of research is space. It just seems too confusing when you’ve already bombarded an unsuspecting stranger with information.

(Once my esteemed colleague Dr Lynley Wallis was asked what she did by a man in a nightclub. ‘I’m a nuclear physicist’ she replied. ‘Why on Earth did you say that?’ I asked her. ‘Isn’t it enough to be an archaeologist?’. ‘It just seemed more interesting’, she said). 

If we get to the point where I reveal I’m a space archaeologist, it’s often assumed that means stuff that has returned to Earth, such as old satellites or even meteorites. I’ll point to the sky and say ‘No, I mean the stuff that’s still up there’. ‘But how can you do that, when you can’t even go there?’. The quintessential archaeological activity is excavation, and that’s not even remotely possible. So how can it be archaeology? 

It seems a contradiction in terms to say that there can be an archaeology of space exploration. After all, this is recent human history, which living people have experienced and can remember. It’s more than that, too. Even though we’ve been living in the space age for over 60 years, space still has the ring of the future. The Jetsons lifestyle is always just about to happen, always waiting for that one technological breakthrough that will bring us personal jetpacks and holidays on Mars. 

But archaeology can be of the living, not just of the dead, and this means it's inextricably linked with the future. What future society can be is based on what we think it has the potential to be, and this is based on what we understand human nature to be, as demonstrated by the past. If the past is monolithic and one-dimensional, we don’t look to other futures, other possibilities. Space archaeology, I like to think, offers windows into the possibilities of the future by telling diverse stories of objects that fall outside the authorised narratives. 

It’s not just the age that makes something archaeology. Archaeology is a set of methods and theories about human interactions with the material world, whether that is the environment around us, or the multitude of objects we use to conduct our daily lives. Of course no archaeologist is going to complain about excavating a burial rich with grave goods, or a frescoed palace. But our real passion is the everyday stuff, the stone tools used to cut up a kangaroo, the earthenware pottery used to store apple cider. Counting, cataloguing, describing, and statistical analysis of artefacts allows archaeologists to discern patterns that reveal something about human actions, decisions, and sometimes even emotions. 

As historical archaeologist Dr Heather Burke says, archaeologists are really just nosy. The treasures we seek are not the golden masks of Agamemnon, but insights into what it means to be human. Beneath the surface, beneath even our consciousness, are the structures that shape what we do and the mark we leave upon the world. For every culture these are different. Usually archaeologists study cultures that are distant in time, and often distant geographically too, in ‘exotic’ field locations compared to the safe, comfortable industrial ‘west’. We are fascinated by the ‘other’. The novelist LP Hartley famously said ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. 

What makes the archaeology of the contemporary past different is that it’s an archaeology of us, right here, right now. It’s not the forgotten rubbish heap of an Ice Age forager with mammoth bones and stone tools, it’s the landfill created by a culture of mass consumption and mass disposal, in which we participate. And we don’t have to rely on just the material evidence. We can ask people what they did, what they thought they were doing. These voices and memories are a parallel strand of evidence to the documentary and archaeological records. People aren’t always right about this, of course, and memory is very fallible. This is one of the areas which archaeology is different to history.  

Monday, April 17, 2023

Space quotes by women

Recently I wanted to find a good quote about space ethics. There I hit my first problem, as there wasn't much available, short of going back to primary sources and reading through huge swathes of stuff. In this process I decided that I would also like to use a quote .... by a woman. You won't be surprised to learn that most of the space quotes out there have fallen from the cherry lips of the blokes.  I thought, wouldn't it be handy to have what the women said all compiled together in one place?

So I did what any academic worth their salt does: I turned to my online friends and asked them for recommendations. This is the list that ensued. It's just a starting point, but it demonstrates a point. Thanks to everyone who contributed!

1. Dr Peggy Whitson, astronaut and former Commander of the International Space Station, Chief of the Astronaut Office, and Chairperson of the Astronaut Selection Board

I’ve been asked many times what’s the hardest thing about space flight and I say it’s learning the language. When I became Deputy Chief at the Astronaut Office it became very obvious to me that as we were moving into long duration missions, we needed to develop our communication skills and our what we call ‘soft skills’...we were finding we were having more problems in that area than we were in technical competence.
Cambridge University Press, "World of better learning" blog, interview with Lauren Pitts, published 20 April 2020. Contributed by Margaret Ruwoldt @emelaarghh

2. Sally Ride, the first US woman in space, in 2003 
Studying whether there's life on Mars or studying how the universe began, there's something magical about pushing back the frontiers of knowledge.
Contributed by @MBBrownSF3

The thing that I'll remember most about the flight is that it was fun. In fact, I'm sure it was the most fun I'll ever have in my life.
Contributed by Susan McMichael @SukiWinter

The stars don't look bigger, but they look brighter
Contributed by Megann Wilson @MoveBravely

3.  Mae Jemison, first Black woman in space
Never be limited by other people’s imagination. Never limit other’s because of your own limited imagination!
Contributed by Cameron Mackness @OzTravler

Girls are capable of doing everything men are capable of doing. Sometimes they have more imagination than men.
Contributed by Megann Wilson @MoveBravely

4. Dr Anne Condon, medical education adademic

Should be more of it.

Contributed by Dr Anne Condon @skepticalmutant. I'm not sure if she means space, or space quotes by women, but I'm taking it!

5. Dr Meganne Christian, Australia's first female astronaut
And I just realised that what I love to do is to challenge myself. I didn’t actually find limits. I think they don’t necessarily exist as a solid thing.
Contributed by Anne Kreger @AnneKreger

6. Becky Chambers, science fiction author
What we want you to ask yourselves is this: what is space, to you? Is it a playground? A quarry? A flagpole? A classroom? A temple? Who do you believe should go, and for what purpose? Or should we go at all?
Abridged quote, contributed by Dr Emma Rehn @bluerehn

7. Dr Vera Rubin, the astronomer who discovered dark matter

Contributed by Doug Ingram @dougyyi

8. Ellen Ripley, alien fighter
Contributed by @TheoKyrillidis

9. Roberta Bondar, Canada's first female astronaut
To fly in space is to see the reality of earth, alone. The experience changed my life and my attitude toward life itself. I am one of the lucky ones.
Contributed by Megann Wilson @MoveBravely

10. Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space

Valentina Tereshkova told me that when she orbited over Australia she thought it “looked a nice place for a holiday”.

Contributed by Margaret Twomey @AusAmbRome

11. Christa McAuliffe, teacher and civilian astronaut
Space is for everybody. It’s not just for a few people in science or math, or for a select group of astronauts. That’s our new frontier out there, and it’s everybody’s business to know about space.
Contributed by Kat Troche @kuiperkat

12. Samantha Cristoforetti, International Space Station astronaut

It’s probably not quite what you are after but @AstroSamantha's 'There’s coffee in that nebula' quote is an inspirational woman quoting an inspirational woman about a) space and b) coffee (an inspiration drink)* *well, a fundamental and inspirational drink.

Contributed by @StefantheNurse

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