By 1962, the Space Race between Russia and the US became more of a propaganda race. That’s when Kruschev personally intervened in the whole Russian Space programme. The idea of the ‘first woman in space’ was his personal dream.
Russia’s director of the Soviet Space Programme, Sergei Korolev, wanted techno advances: longer flights, space stations and docking manouevres. But Kruschev wanted a Soviet Heroine. Otherwise, he told Korolev bluntly, he wasn’t signing off on the budget.
That’s briefly how Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman cosmonaut. But she had to fight off three other female contestants on the way.
The propaganda message was clear. ‘With the miracle of Soviet technology, anyone can ride around in space. Up yours America‘. So the authorities cast around to find an ordinary, Soviet working girl. What better choice than Valentina. She grew up on a collective farm and worked in a textile factory in Yaroslavl. Soviet X-Factor, role model de-luxe.
From thousands of applicants, four girls including Valentina were chosen for the contest, all on the basis of their woman-in-the-street qualifications. Sure they underwent physical training, parachute jumps and classroom work but, unlike the male Russian cosmonauts, actual flying hours were set aside. In fact, none of the girls ever flew anything solo. Kruschev relied on Korolev’s genius to remote control the flights. And if Korolev couldn’t come up with the goods, Kruschev threatened, he would be dumped for his rival, Vladimir Chelomei.
What happened to the other three ‘Miss Kosmos’ contestants – Tanya, Irina and Ludmila – remains a mystery to this day. A listening post in Italy insists that one female cosmonaut burned up on re-entry and even provided a recording of the harrowing, last conversation. The whole episode became the subject of a documentary on History Channel, along with the many conspiracy theories that Gagarin never flew in space at all.
Respected researchers like James Oberg and Sven Grahn, however, pretty well demolish these theories. All the same, Valentina’s contemporaries on the mission disappeared without trace and one, Ludmila, was only ever known by her first name. When asked directly about this in a press interview in the West, Valentina ordered the journalist out of the room. Touchy subject, obviously.
For the rest, Valentina more than fulfilled her propaganda assignment. Her quotable quotes include such things as:
‘Since 1917, Soviet women have had the same rights as men. They are workers, engineers, aviators . . . and now the nation has selected me to be a cosmonaut. As you can see on earth, at sea and in the sky, Soviet women are the equal of men.’
Within months, Valentina’s talent for saying the right thing propelled her to stardom as well as the nearest thing to a royal marriage available in Soviet Russia. She married another cosmonaut from the space programme, Andrian Nikolayev, although again many say this was arranged by Kruschev. Certainly the couple split up soon afterwards.
The Soviet Space Programme was fated with many untimely deaths. Even Gagarin didn’t live so many years to enjoy his fame. Still alive today, Tereshkova – mum of the first Space Baby – remains the real winner. And whatever happened to her contemporaries, she still isn’t saying, even after all these years.