Two women forever to be remembered achieved an important Space Age “first” for their countries in the month of June. It was 55 years ago that Russia’s national hero Valentina Tereshkova was launched June 16, 1963 on the 7th human spaceflight and the first woman in outer space. She orbited the Earth 48 times for three days in the Vostok 6 spacecraft, slightly larger than America’s one-man Mercury spaceship. Twenty years later, June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to blast off into space, her historic mission being aboard Space Shuttle Challenger. Ride was the first woman to use the robotic arm in space and retrieve a satellite.
Ride made a second trip to Earth orbit in 1984 also aboard Challenger giving her 14 days in space. An inspiration to thousands of girls dreaming of outer space, she became a great ambassador for NASA as well as a physics professor at University of California, San Diego.
Sadly, Sally Ride died in 2012 at age 61 of pancreatic cancer. Still strong at age 80, Tereshkova is truly a space pioneer when at just age 25 she flew to fame in the primitive spaceship for three days that required of her, after a fiery reentry, to eject and parachute separately from the spacecraft. She is still the only female to fly solo in space.
Since her historic space flight that made her a national hero, the highly decorated Tereshkova has led a life of a political puppet for the Communist nation. Her mission was demanded by then Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev to show the world the superiority of Russian women. She was even told to marry the third man in space, Andrian Nikolayev, and they even had the first “space baby,” daughter Yelena. They divorced in 1982.
It would be 19 years before the second Russian woman would be in space. That female cosmonaut, Svetlana Savitskaya was blasted off to the Salyut 7 space station in July 1982 and performed the first spacewalk by a lady. Both Tereshkova and Ride have postage stamps printed in their honor, Sally’s coming just this past March when a U.S. Postal Service “Forever” stamp was issued.
Coincidently June is also the month anniversary for the first female Chinese “taikonaut” Liu Yang, launched with two men aboard the Shenzhou 9 spaceflight on June 16, 2012, they docked with China’s first space station for 10 days. Because it took 20 years after Russia to put a woman in space, NASA weathered much criticism for being a “good old boys” network of strictly test pilots and mission specialists. But it took those test pilots to shake down all the logistics of living in space in a highly public 1960s race to the Moon with the Soviets.
Following Ride into space were all the five members of the first female astronaut class of NASA in 1978–Rhea Seddon, Anna Fisher, Kathryn Sullivan, Judy Resnik. Resnik was killed on her second flight in the Challenger launch explosion; Sullivan flew 3 times and became the first American woman to walk in space in 1984; Fisher was the first mother in space in 1984 on her lone mission; and Seddon had three spaceflights.
To date, there have been 64 women out of the 538 humans blasted off Earth in the 57 years of manned space travel. They come from 10 countries and include 46 Americans, but just four Russians. Females are clearly part of American space plans, but not so much in Russia—which had touted the equality of women in their country after the 1962 flight of Tereshkova.
The three-day spaceflight of Vostok 6 was every bit the propaganda triumph Khrushchev wish for. And the Primer personally rubbed in the fact that her mission was longer than all six American Mercury manned missions. Indeed, it was—Tereshkova was in space 70 hours to 56 hours for American heroes Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, Schirra and Cooper.
Tereshkova, a textile worker and expert amateur parachutist, was the finalist out of four other woman trainees at the cosmonaut camp, and their presence was controversial to the macho men space pioneers. Yet Khrushchev used the cosmonaut corps as his personal pet, and what he wanted was space spectaculars to show the world how the Communist way was superior. Of course, he got what he wanted as the Soviet Premier—and he supplied the money.
Yuri Gagarin’s historic one orbit of Vostok 1 in April 1961 was followed in August by a full day in space by Gherman Titov in Vostok 2.Tereshkova’s future husband, Andrian Nikolayev, was the Vostok 3 spaceman. He actually was the cosmonaut who trained the four potential women space fliers—and fell for the lucky one. Or did he? Some suspect that Khrushchev played cupid as he gave the bride away in a Moscow wedding that rivaled anything of the time. Russian’s loved their cosmonauts like Americans idolized Hollywood stars, and Khrushchev wanted control, so he would tout Communism superiority as they conquered Outer Space.
Sally Ride grew up in Los Angeles when the Moon Race was in full swing. She was inspired by Tereshkova’s flight and became a physicist before becoming an astronaut. At age 32 she is the youngest American to fly in space. She too married an astronaut, Steven Hawley in 1982, and they divorced in 1987. Though very active in promoting space exploration, Dr. Ride was extremely private about her personal life. When she died in 2012, her obituary acknowledged her gay relationship for 27 years with Tam O’Shaughnessy. She and O’Shaughnessy, and award-winning children’s science writer, co-wrote six highly acclaimed children’s books.
Sally Ride was posthumously given the highest honor of our nation, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Dr. Ride was also unique in being the only person to be appointed to both committees that investigated the Space shuttle disasters of Challenger and Columbia. She has two schools named after her, and has been inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display in Chicago that celebrates LGBT history and people.
Both Ride and Tereshkova flew into space not just for women, but for all mankind. The focus on their lives presented the opportunity for them to perform not just as women, but as true pioneers of the Space Age. And each truly excelled.