Hidden Histories: The USSR's Forgotten Female Cosmonaut Corps
Updated: Nov 26, 2021
On June 16, 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova went down in history as the first woman to fly in space. No woman would fly in space again until 1982 with the flight of Svetlana Savitskaya on Soyuz T-7. However, this was not always the way it was meant to be.
It was late 1961 and the Soviet Union was still boasting its accomplishment of putting the first man into space. Chief Designer Sergei Korolev believed sending a woman into space was the next feat in trumping the American space program which, at that time, had yet to put a man in orbit. Not only would it be another first for the USSR, but doing so would show the world the Soviet Union valued all citizens and believed men and women were equals. Interestingly enough, it was around this time that the First Lady Astronaut Trainees, or FLATs, were advocating for women's roles in NASA's Astronaut Corps on the other side of the world (see "Hidden Histories: The Mercury 13 (FLATs)") . And so the search began for the ideal female candidates. Some favorable professions included the military, athletes, acrobats, and parachute jumpers. Fifty-eight applications were sent to Nikolai Kamanin, the head of the cosmonaut training center, for review. One of these applications belonged to Marina Popovich, wife of cosmonaut Pavel Popovich who would go on to fly Vostok 4 in summer of 1962. Twenty-three made the cut, eighteen passed the medical tests, eleven made it through interviews and further medical tests, and eventually five were ultimately selected to be the world's first women space travelers. These five were Tatyana Kuznetsova, Valentina Ponomareva, Irina Solovyova, Valentina Tereshkova, and Zhanna Yorkina. On February 16, 1962, they joined the cosmonaut training corps. As expected, they were not particularly welcomed by the men and added to the palpable competition between the pilots for spots in the Vostok program. Over time, though, the men would warm up and teach the women the ins and outs of being a cosmonaut, particularly how to hide medical problems (any problems would result in grounding). As a matter of fact, Kusnetsova did not complete training due to a pregnancy.
Vostok spacecraft (wikipedia)
The women in particular were up against each other for Vostok 6, which was to fly in space with Vostok 5. It was originally planned that both 5 and 6 would be flown by women because having one lag behind the other would imply that women are inferior though in the end it made no difference and only one of the four was to fly. In May 1963, it was announced that Tereshkova would be the first to fly and the other three would get the chance to later on. Ponomareva and Solovyova were alternates. According to a Smithsonian Magazine article, Nikita Khrushchev believed Tereshkova was the best fit for the title "first woman in space" because as a working-class woman who had been part of the textile industry, which was an important factor in domestic policies, she was a "better representation of the ideal Soviet Woman" and for all intent and purposes, "Gagarin in a skirt." Despite not being assigned to any missions, Ponomareva and Solovyova still trained with Tereshkova in the event she was unable to fly. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth of June, Tereshkova orbited the Earth in her Vostok capsule named Chayka, or "Seagull". Though the mission was ultimately a success, three days in space took its toll on the cosmonaut; she was exhausted, nauseous, and injured from her parachuting to the ground after reentry (it was procedure during the Vostok program to eject from the capsule as it hurtled to the ground rather than land inside it since it had no soft-landing capabilities).
Soviet propaganda praising Tereshkova's Vostok 6 mission (Twitter)
At the time, the other manned Vostok missions included Vostok 8 and another dual mission with Vostoks 9 and 10. However, the Vostok program ended with Tereshkova's flight and the Voskhod program began to match the US's two-manned Gemini program. Additionally, Vostok 6's enormous propaganda value provided no political reason for the Soviet Union to pursue any more women flights. However, Kamanin's diaries state that he pitched the idea for a female version of Alexei Leonov's Voskhod 2 EVA mission with Solovyova and Ponomaryova. As history would have it, only two Voskhod missions flew before the Soyuz 1 disaster in 1967 halted the entire Soviet space program. Korolev passed away in 1966 and the other planned Voskhod missions originally slated for that year were quite literally forgotten about. With a failing lunar program and no more missions planned for the foreseeable future, there were no more female cosmonauts by 1969. It would remain this way until 1980 and the tales of four of these women would remain classified until the fall of the Soviet Union.
Meet the Women
Tatyana Kuznetsova was actually recruited into the space program by the Soviet Union's secret police and her candidacy was pre-approved by the local branch of the communist party. By the time she was twenty, the same time she received an offer to join the corps, she had become a national champion in skydiving. However, she did not fully complete training because she got married and pregnant beforehand. One account says she was aware of her pregnancy before the medical screenings so she skipped town while another says she was flat out rejected because she was expecting a child. According to those who knew her, Kuznetsova had a type-A personality and performed better physically than the male candidates. Ultimately, she was strongly considered for the Cosmonaut Corps but was never accepted. She applied to the new Soviet training program in 1978, the only one to accept women since her initial selection, but was denied due to her age. Instead, she continued her record-setting career in skydiving as well as worked for private clients at a local art foundation. However, she faced drinking problems which contributed to her death in 2018. She remains to this day the youngest person to ever be selected by a federal manned spaceflight program.
Valentina Ponomareva worked for the Department of Applied Mathematics at Steklov Mathematical Institute and was part of her local aviation club. She also had a son. She was recruited into the corps at a New Year's party though she thought it was a joke at first. According to Kamanin's diaries, Ponomareva could have been the first choice for the female flight based off her health tests and overall preparedness, "but her behavior and conversations give reason to conclude that her moral values are not stable enough." This is to say she occasionally smoked cigarettes and drank, both of which were prohibited in the cosmonaut corps despite being partaken by such head figures as Yuri Gagarin and the second man to orbit the Earth, Gherman Titov. Despite these transgressions, she was enthusiastic and well-prepared for a spot in a future mission. Additionally, she was the eldest in the group and was often referred to by her instructors as "Baby Valya". Ultimately, her bad behavior and white-collar background caused Kamanin to pass her up in favor of Tereshkova, a move more influenced by politics than capability. This is not to say Tereshkova was not capable, but that Ponomareva scored higher. Kamanin was in favor of her piloting the all-women Voskhod mission initially planned for 1966, but after Korolev's passing Voskhods 3 and beyond disappeared into the dark. She eventually earned her PhD and continued working in the Soviet space industry.
Irina Solovyova was a young engineer and a member of the national skydiving team. She received an offer from the USSR's secret police to join the program as well. During her time in the Corps, she graduated from Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy in Monino. She was also favored by Kamanin for the title of "first woman to walk in space" with Ponomareva. In 1988, she served as a member of al all-female Antarctic expedition. Solovyova reached the rank of Colonel before retiring from the Soviet Air Force.
Valentina Tereshkova came from a working-class family and worked at a textile factory. She served as the Secretary of the Komsomol Committee of her factory, which is an organization sometimes viewed as the youth division of the Communist Party. Even before she was chosen as the first to fly, Tereshkova acted as the spokesperson for the rest of the women: In one interview, Zhanna Yorkina mentioned how she "always advocated for our interests in front of the bosses." A few months after her historic mission, she married cosmonaut Andriyan Nikolayev, who became the seventh man in space in 1962. They had a daughter the following year and divorced in the 1980s, and Tereshkova went on to marry a doctor. She remains an active political figure and represents United Russia, the pro-Kremlin Party that is part of the Russian parliament. She dislikes the press and rarely makes public remarks on her thoughts on space travel, though she has been known to say she would be interested in going to Mars. Like Kuznetsova, Tereshkova applied to the new cosmonaut training program in 1978 but was denied due to her age.
Zhanna Yorkina was a twenty-five year-old schoolteacher who spoke German and French on top of being a skydiver. During a skydiving session, she injured her leg and was forced to take a three-month leave of absence to let it heal, which did not inhibit her from graduating the program but put her too far behind to be considered for the spot of first woman in space. All the women except Tereshkova were prohibited from getting pregnant while they were still part of the Cosmonaut Corps, including Ponomareva who was already a mother. Yorkina broke this rule and as punishment, the military rank given to all women trainees after graduation was taken away from her.
One cannot help but wonder if had the US known about the USSR's plans of sending the first woman into space it would have found a way to incorporate the FLATs into the astronaut corps. It certainly would have had a major sociopolitical impact and if, by chance, one of the FLATs had flown during the Mercury program (which had ended by the time Vostok 6 flew), she really would have been the first woman in space. Let me know your thoughts in the comments and remember to like and share this post. Thanks for reading!
Malashenko, Uliana. “The First Group of Female Cosmonauts Were Trained to Conquer the Final Frontier.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Apr. 2019, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/first-group-female-cosmonauts-trained-conquer-final-frontier-180971900/.
Teitel, Amy Shira. “The Forgotten Female Cosmonaut Class.” Discover Magazine, Discover Magazine, 20 Nov. 2019, www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/the-forgotten-female-cosmonaut-class.