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