Exactly 50 years ago, on June 16th, 1963, the first woman went to outer space.
The story of Valentina Tereshkova is also a story of the remarkable similarity between the propaganda tools of the Soviet Union and those employed by feminism and other pathological ideologies of the contemporary Western society.
Gagarin, Popovich, Tereshkova, Khruschchev...
For some time, the Soviet Union appeared to be ahead of the U.S. in the space race. Sending a female cosmonaut to the orbit was a natural next argument designed to support the (preposterous) claims that communism was technologically superior to capitalism.
To make the message really strong and ideologically convenient, many details of the selection had to be social-engineered and many facts about the spaceflight had to be censored for decades.
Not everyone was eligible to participate in that Vostok 6 spaceflight. She had to be female. But any female wouldn't be good enough. It had to be a female from the "right" class, the working class. (I suppose that the PC folks in the U.S. would prefer a female "minority" these days – structurally speaking, those biases are the same.) So they were searching through factory workers and textile factory assembly worker Tereshkova who was an amateur parachutist looked great, especially because her father was a war hero of the Soviet Union, a tank leader sergeant who died in the Finnish Winter War. She was extraordinarily more-than-loyal to the party ideals and became a member of the communist party later, too.
I don't have to explain you how dramatically you weaken the pool of candidates if your cosmonaut has to satisfy not only the sexuological criteria but also the political ones. But the creation of the right "role models" was primary; meritocratic considerations were secondary.
The spaceflight itself was a 48-orbits-long sequence of mistakes, glitches, whining, violations of the plans, and a permanent existential threat.
Only in the late 1980s, people started to learn that she was crying throughout the spaceflight and begging to return to the blue planet as soon as possible. This article is among those that summarize all the incompetency and physical inadequacy that determined the character of Tereshkova's spaceflight. A much longer article about the fiasco launched by intrigues and plots was automatically translated from Czech (1st part; 2nd part about her near-cutting of her head etc.; 3rd part about bruises and censorship).
In the beginning of the first day, things looked sort of OK. She was communicating with Vostok 5 that already out there and even sang songs to Valery Bykovsky over there. It was also the first day of glitches. The spaceship was erroneously programmed not for landing but for taking the ship into a higher orbit. The error was fixed and everyone was obliged to remain silent about it. When I say silent, I mean for 44 years: only in 2007, Tereshkova admitted that the speculations were true and the potentially lethal programming glitch did occur.
In the official report, she complained that she had to vomit. Her helmet was too heavy on her shoulders and scratched her head while the spacesuit hurt her leg. She couldn't feel comfortable enough in the weightless state. The limited size of the spaceship was frightening, too. Needless to say, this official report of hers was censored as well.
More seriously, she had trouble to guide the spaceship. For example, her invalid maneuvers interrupted the communications just before descent began. General Nikolai Kamanin, the boss of the spaceflight sector at that time, revealed those things many years later and admitted that the selection of Tereshkova was a mistake. In the 1960s, he was behaving differently, however. For political reasons, he continued to sing odes to Tereshkova and criticized two arguably more prepared candidates, physically and by their skills, namely Valentina Ponomaryova (who had a husband, kids, love for cigarettes, and self-confidence, imagine that!) and Irina Solovyeva (who was not sufficiently socially active!).
Tereshkova couldn't follow the eating schedule – ate only 1/3 of what she was supposed to eat (she partly decided in this way because she was shocked that she should use the spacesuit to remove the feces, as prescribed) which is why she fainted at the end – and took her shoes off, for the sake of convenience, like a diva and in a conflict with the regulations.
After Tereshkova catapulted out of her capsule and parachuted to Southern Siberia – as expected – her location wasn't known for two hours because she landed about 6 miles from the right place. While landing, she bruised her nose by smashing it against the visor. The bruise was covered up by make up during ceremonies. We often tend to agree with Steven Weinberg that manned flights don't bring any real added value – except for a highly increased price. Sometimes we have doubts about that but I have no doubts that similar womanned flights bring no added values except for lots of extra hassle and unnecessary problems.
Tereshkova remains the only female solo astronaut in the history and the number of female astronauts is still limited. Someone tried to design an all-female mission but certain experienced professionals who are sometimes called "male chauvinists" have vetoed such plans. While Tereshkova's spaceflight was painted – and mostly is still painted – as a great success in the mass culture, the space program professionals evaluated the "success" so that they didn't send any new woman to space for 19 long years after her. When the world's second woman, Svetlana Savitskaya went to space in 1982, your humble correspondent was already watching, and so were most of you. ;-) Savitskaya had actually been not only a parachuter but also a trained (and employed) aircraft construction engineer, a world champion in some propeller aircraft disciplines etc., a really competent cosmonaut (she had no trouble with spacewalk, the first woman to do it) and at least her male colleagues' real peer (although another communist). But back to 1963.
Khrushchev arguably knew about all the fiascos surrounding Tereshkova's flight but he had the chutzpah to boast about the flight that "demonstrated the equality of men and women in our country [USSR]". Imagine how preposterous such a claim is given the fact that she did almost nothing well. The event was an achievement of several top men in the space program who faced no barriers when they put at risk the life of a nearly unprepared woman in the very same way in which they previously risked the life of Laika the Dog – to boost their own pride.
Sergei Koroliov, a big shot in the Soviet space program, wasn't a supporter of female astronauts as a concept but he at least insisted that the serious candidates would have to give up plans to have children etc. Most of the candidates at the beginning failed in tests of withstanding 80 Celsius degrees and up to 10 g of acceleration. The shortlist was composed of 18 women that were further reduced to 5 at some point.
Totalitarian ideologies and ideologies attempting to brainwash whole nations simply depend on certain "nice assumptions" and the claim that women are statistically equally good in similarly extremely physical and technical situations has always been one of the most favorite "nice assumptions" of this sort. They're really "not so nice lies", not "nice assumptions", but they're popular exactly because many other people know that they're not true. This fact has the effect of unifying those who are willing – or who were forced – to accept and defend the non-truth.
Tereshkova was a textbook example of a product of a spoiled ideology and a politically deformed job contest. But there were many personal deformations, too. Tereshkova was running around the offices, spreading insulting gossip about her competitors. Despite the de facto complete failure of her flight (except that she managed to return at all), she later became very prideful, convinced that she can do everything. So she was constantly deciding who should be the next one to get the orders of the Soviet Union etc. She was repeatedly drunk and fought against cops etc. but she was always freed and cleaned.
It may be nice to have role models but as soon as it becomes clear that the production of role models has become the primary obsession, and probably much earlier than that, sensible people should realize that the truth, meritocracy, and actual goals of the industries and programs are much more important than the good feelings created by the virtual reality. Propaganda sucks and so do the spoiled brats created along with it.
And that's the memo.
Exactly 50 years ago, on June 16th, 1963, the first woman went to outer space.