Valentina Tereshkova: from working in a factory to being the first female astronaut

How can the celebration of an international geophysical year end up pitting two superpowers in a race outside the limits of the Earth? This commemoration was what motivated USA Yet the Soviet Union to compete, in full Cold Warfor the exploration of the cosmos.

This confrontation of science and technology left many names recorded in history, such as those of John F. Kenedy and Nikita Khrushchev and that of astronauts like Yuri Gagarin or Neil Armstrong but, along with them, Valentina Tereshkovaa young skydiving fan and textile factory worker who managed to become the first woman to travel to space.

He Vostok 6 Chaika (seagull in Russian), the nickname by which Tereshkova was known, began her journey into history on June 16, 1963. In this way, the Soviet Union added another point in its confrontation against the United States.

This clash of power began in 1955, when it was announced that between 1957 and 1958 the international geophysical year and, two years later, on October 4, 1957, the USSR launched the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, the Sputnik 1. This feat kicked off the space race.

It was the American president who set the final goal. In February 1962 he announced the goal of go to the moontaking this confrontation of science and technology to epic dimensions with the argument that he did not want to see a space governed by “a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of peace and freedom“.

As the historian and writer points out Ricardo Artolathe winner of the race is “the one who reaches the finish line first, the United States already reached the finish line, and it wasn’t in a photo finish”referring to Apollo 8, which in 1968 managed to reach the Moon and orbit it ten times before returning to Earth. In addition to landing on the Moon and walking on the Earth’s satellite with the Apollo 11 mission, on July 20, 1969.

The writer of The space race: From Sputnik to Apollo 11 points out that Nikita Khrushchev, the first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1953-1964), had a very clear idea of ​​the propaganda factor of the Cold War and asked his scientists to achieve milestones to keep the race issue high.

Among the achievements of the Soviet Union were sending the first artificial satellite; to the first person to spend more than 24 hours in space (1961); he first double manned flight (1962) and the one achieved by Tereshkova by being the first woman to travel to space.

From textile worker to astronaut

Ortiz: “She had the ability to be pleasant, feminine, and came from a proletarian family”

The Soviet Union was fundamental to the history of the female astronauts because it was the first. “She opened the way for others to reach space. She did so by showing that she was as capable as her male colleagues, at a time when there were people who thought that they would not be able to withstand physical demands like men,” he highlights. Amelia Ortizastronomer at the Astronomical Observatory of the University of Valencia.

Tereshkova worked in a textile factory and was studying at a night school when she decided to volunteer as a future astronaut. She was selected from a group of candidates belonging to parachute clubssomething in which she stood out since she performed parachute jumps from a very early age.

The choice of paratroopers was due to the fact that one of the requirements to enter the cosmonaut corps was to be a member of the USSR air forcesbut women could not be part of this group.

Although some of the selected candidates were better than her, the position seemed to be made for Tereshkova. Those responsible for the Soviet program were aware that the person chosen was going to become a relevant and world famous figure. For that they needed someone with a personality that was loved and would be nice to the public.

“She had the ability to be pleasant, feminine, and came from a proletarian family. His father had died in World War II against Finland (1942), she was a defender of communism and was president of the youth committee of the party in her city,” highlights Ortiz.

The preparation that the selected women faced was the same as that carried out by the russian cosmonauts, undergoing various physical tests. They trained with gyroscopes that made them suffer very high accelerations, tests in decompression chamberssimulations of long, solitary space flights and confinement in a replica of the Vostok ship.

Furthermore, as Ortiz says, within his training They learned to fly airplanes combat, practiced parachute drops and simulated landings and survival courses.

The ship that would take Tereshkova to touch the stars was the sixth launch of the Vostok projectwhich began in April 1961 with the first human orbital flight, by the Soviet Yuri gagarin. It was a spherical cabin mounted on a module that contained the engine system that propelled the ship into space.

The flight of the seagull

His ship was not properly oriented, which meant that when he turned on the engines to return to Earth, he was going to move away.

The launch of Vostok 6 did not have any problems and the cosmonaut endured it perfectly. Once in orbit, His image was broadcast on the state channel on Soviet television and spoke on the radio with Nikita Khrushchev.

It was a joint flight with another cosmonaut, Valeri Bykovskywhich crewed the Vostok 5. The two capsules were in space at the same time and were within five kilometers of each other several times a day, which allowed them communicate by radio and keep company.

The trip of both astronauts allowed for a comparative study of how the man’s and the woman’s bodies reacted to the trip. In addition, during the flight he carried out experiments and took photographs of the Earth, thanks to which the presence of aerosols in the Earth’s atmosphere. This was perhaps one of the greatest scientific contributions of his journey.

The main problem that Tereshkova had was that his ship was not well oriented, which meant that, when turning on the engines to return to Earth, instead of getting closer it was going to move away. But she was able to solve the problem and, after 48 trips around the globe and more than 70 hours of flight (initially it was a two-day mission), she was able to leave the ship and land in the city of Karaganda, in Kazakhstan.

The Vostok program was canceled after Tereshkova and Bykovski’s trips and with it the space race ended of the young Russian woman. According to Ortiz, “Sergei Pavlovich Korolev – considered the father of the Soviet space program – decided that he did not want more women to travel to space because it had already been shown that in the USSR everyone had the same opportunities”.

Artola raises a similar idea about Tereshkova’s journey, framing it within the idea of ​​”moving forward with propaganda milestones“Nowadays the issue of women is on the agenda of all governments, but this was a posturing,” she points out.

Change the astronaut suit for the political one

Russia is losing the space race when it comes to equality between men and women

Tereshkova took off her astronaut suit to enter the world of politicsin which she is considered an advocate for equality between women and men and is known for defend the role of women in Russian society.

On June 16, 2023, the Russian president, Vladimir Putindecorated the cosmonaut with the Gagarin’s order for “outstanding service in space exploration, courage and dedication demonstrated,” said the Kremlin it’s a statement. Furthermore, in 2000 the British Association of Women’s Annual Assembly awarded her the honorary title of Great woman of the 20th century.

Despite having been the first to open the doors of a spaceship to women, according to the astronomer, Russia is currently losing the space race regarding equality between men and women because “right now there is only one cosmonaut and in total they have only had five.”

Outside the Russian sphere, a conscious effort is being made to achieve parity in the astronaut corps. “In the Russian space program there is only one girl, but for example the crew of the Artemis programOf 18 astronauts, nine are men and nine are women“says Ortiz.

Inhabit the hidden side of the Moon

At the international level, the objective of space programs is to lay the foundations to create a fixed station on the Moonto study its resources in greater depth, carry out mining projects and achieve the permanent presence of humans in the future. the dark side from our satellite.

As Ortiz highlights, this objective faces governments as the main obstacles, since “they are focused on something else.” “What they want is what happened with Valentina, to be the first, but they are losing steam in everything that it entails afterwards, because it is not something that gives them a revenue at the polls.”

That’s where the private businesseswho seek a profit, but as long as a balance can be achieved between scientific benefits, economic benefits and preservation of the environmentwe will move towards the wish that Tereshkova expressed in her speech at the University of Valencia in 1991, that the cosmos “becomes part of the heritage of all humanity.”

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