Russia has had a funny history with female cosmonauts. While NASA had been tinkering with the idea of female astronauts, testing 25 extremely qualified women before choosing the Mercury 13, who passed all of the same tests as the Mercury 7 men with flying colors, they decided to “go another way” for a couple more decades. In 1963, when Valentina Tereshkova rode in her Vostok 6 through 48 orbits, the Soviet Union made a very deliberate statement about their political philosophies and gender.
Then followed NASA’s suit for almost two decades, and only launched men.
What is less-discussed is the Soviets also sent the second woman to space in 1982. Svetlana Yevgenyevna, accomplished at aerobatics and a record-setting test pilot, was selected for this honor. She was the first woman to go to space twice and, on her second mission, in 1984, the first to go on a space walk, performing welding experiments outside the Salyut 7 space station. It is rumored she was slated to command an all-female crew to Salyut 7, but the plan fell apart, and she continued as an Energia engineer with feet planted on the ground.
Meanwhile, NASA had selected six women for the 1978 astronaut class. Sally Ride became the third woman in space in 1983 and the United States began decades of slowly increasing the female presence off this planet. In 1995, Eileen Collins became the first female space shuttle pilot, and four years later, commander. NASA has sent 43 American women into orbit in the past 31 years, and carried 5 women from other nations on the shuttle.
Just a year before Collins’ historic debut as pilot, though, Russians sent their third woman to space, and this time, for long duration on Mir. Elena Kondakova spent 169 days in space on her first mission, including visits from astronauts from the U.S. and Germany. She returned to MIR as a mission specialist on space shuttle mission STS-84, making her the only female cosmonaut to ride on an American launch vehicle, and now permanently the only one to experience a shuttle.
I repeat: Russia has had a funny history with female cosmonauts.
It’s the Space Race I didn’t quite realize existed until fairly recently. At each step, there was a singular woman who shattered some of the greatest barriers, but those were instantly rebuilt, more solidly each time, for their own countrywomen. There are legitimate complaints to be made about these feats being purely for propaganda purposes or how only “ideologically pure” women were chosen, particularly when it came to that very first flight.
However, the women! They’ve all been exceptional in their own ways, and their achievements should not be marred by the reasons the opportunities existed for them. Tereshkova educated herself while working in a textile factory from an early age and dreaming of a better life, and became very enthusiastic about parachuting, earning a name for herself as the head of her local parachute club – a skill that earned her that life she longed to live, as it was a priority for flying in a Vostok, which required jumping from the spacecraft during descent. Yevgenyevna was not only a World Champion in aerobatics but had completed a stratospheric jump with 14km of freefall before learning to pilot 20 different aircraft. Kondakova was a mechanical engineer who went straight from school to working within the space program, including a stint as a flight controller for Mir. She has since gone into politics, serving as a deputy in the Duma (lower house of parliament). It’s hard to make a case that these women did not earn their places in history.
Now there’s Elena Serova, who launched recently from Baikonur and arrived a few hours later at the International Space Station. Her path was much like Kondakova’s, including Mission Control experience. A major difference between her and her predecessors, however, is her mission is the first that is not part of a Cold War battle with the United States. She wasn’t chosen in a hunt for a woman to be a cosmonaut, she applied just like one of the guys and was picked over objections by officials who believe women simply do not belong in space.
In the intervening decades since the fall of European communism, religious orthodoxy has been embraced again by Russian society, including an ever-deepening cultural expectation of following “traditional gender roles” that precludes studying science or aspiring to be a cosmonaut.
“During last year’s celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Tereshkova’s flight, the first woman in space was shocked when she asked a large group of school kids, ‘Who wants to be a cosmonaut?’ and not a single girl raised her hand.” – Air & Space Magazine
Serova is one of those rare women who truly do seem to “have it all” – marriage to a retired cosmonaut, pre-teen daughter, history-making career. She says she was treated just like her male counterparts in training, but when gender does come up, such as in press events, she rolls with all the questions, with witty answers that both show pride in her gender and mock the feminine aspects of the inquiries.
She was the first Russian woman to climb through the ISS hatch, to take her place in the part of that orbiting home built by her nation and the company she came up through, Energia.
When you only send a woman to space every decade or two, there tend to be firsts in each mission.
What makes me even more excited, though, about this particular mission is it will be the first time two women who are not American will live together aboard the station. European Space Agency astronaut and accomplished Italian Air Force Captain Samantha Cristoforetti will become the first Italian woman in orbit and the first European woman on a long duration mission on the ISS later this year.
Cooperation in space is extremely important, for reasons that range from the practical (space travel costs a lot!) to the idealistic (such as fostering diplomatic relations on our own planet). I’m incredibly proud of my own nation for our relatively long list of female astronauts and the gender parity in the most recently-selected astronaut class, but I’ve been desperate to see more of that from other countries. Women should be half the sky not just on Earth, but in the actual skies and beyond.
Whatever the reasons are for these two women being in that same place at that same time, it’s a huge step in the right direction for all of humanity. The ISS is one of the grandest cooperative projects any nations have ever undertaken, and the symbolism of Expedition 42 is strong [insert your own Hitchhiker’s Guide joke here].
I look forward to the day when the launch of any woman is not news in and of itself, and we do seem to be heading in that direction at last. Until then, we need to keep showing and telling the world that smart and very capable women exist across the globe and can achieve greatness in even the most difficult fields that exist.
So far, women from the Soviet Union/Russia, the United States, Canada, China, the United Kingdom, India, Iran, Japan, South Korea, and France have made it into space. Italy joins those ranks next month (barring delays). All astronauts and cosmonauts are exceptional, but thank goodness women are slowly becoming less of an exception.