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Previous chapter: Dual mission of Vostok-3 and Vostok-4
Above: Early Soviet cosmonauts: left to right (first row): Anikeev, Yorkina, Popovich, Tereshkova, Solovyova; (second raw): Shonin, Belyaev, Titov, Nikolaev, Nelyubov, Khrunov, Komarov, Gagarin, Volynov, Gorbatko, Leonov
In June 1963, the USSR made an encore performance in space with two manned ships orbiting the Earth simultaneously. However it was far from being a mere repetition of the pervious year's missions. The first of the two launches -- Vostok-5 -- aimed to push further the already hard-to-beat flight-duration record of Soviet cosmonauts. However the biggest upset for the competing US program came two days later with the launch of Vostok-6 carrying the first woman in space -- 26-year-old Valentina Tereshkova. Ironically, Tereshkova's stellar achievement might've been the result of a misunderstanding!
"Woman in space" - a cultural communication gap
As with most previous Soviet space "firsts," the decision to fly a woman in space was triggered by the Cold War competition with the US. Even though NASA never seriously considered allowing a woman to pilot the original Mercury spacecraft, an unofficial campaign to let women join early astronaut training was widely publicized in the US and it was taken very seriously in the USSR. (648) For the Soviet officials, who come out of age under Stalinism, it was probably hard to comprehend that a loud public relations and media effort could be fueled by an initiative of a few private citizens and not endorsed by the State. Multiple references to American "plans" to launch a woman in space in the diary of Nikolai Kamanin, who oversaw cosmonaut training within the Soviet Air Force, leave little doubts about the true reasons behind the mission of Valentina Tereshkova.
Kamanin wrote that soon after Gagarin's historic flight, he convinced Konstantin Vershinin, the Commander of the Air Force, Sergei Korolev, de-facto leader of the Soviet space program, and Mstislav Keldysh, the influential head of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, to select a small group of women cosmonauts. (574) Paradoxically, despite his occasional stalinist views, Kamanin turned out to be far ahead of his time on that matter. Even Korolev, who wanted civilians including himself to be able to fly in space, staunchly opposed the idea, according to some sources. (649) To overcome conservative resistance at different levels, Kamanin supposedly even paid a visit to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who after the Soviet triumphs of previous years, needed little convincing in the propaganda value of a "woman in space."
This version of events is disputed by Yaroslav Golovanov, Korolev's biographer. Not surprisingly, Golovanov makes it sound like Korolev had already initiated the "woman in space" project, when he came to the annual air show in Tushino on July 9, 1961, and asked old friend and test pilot Sergei Anokhin to introduce him to Rozaliya Shikhina, a famous aviatress. Shikhina was not around and Anokhin reportedly pointed at a beautiful female gymnast making complex pirouettes while suspended under a flying helicopter. "Why a pilot, what's wrong with her?" Anokhin reportedly said. Korolev was not impressed, as he was already convinced that a woman pilot should fly Vostok, according to Golovanov. Golovanov then goes on to admit that it was Kamanin who led the whole process of selection of women candidates and Korolev would only meet the "finalists" in August 1962 in Tyuratam before the launch of Vostok 3 and 4. (18) (More likely, women cosmonauts visited Tyuratam later that month to see a launch to Venus.) Golovanov continues with a number of questionable claims, for example, saying that from the outset, everybody understood that only one woman had a chance to fly.
In reality, Kamanin's rational for the project was that soon flights of women in space will be routine, therefore it would make sense to start preparing now. Also (and probably much more importantly), it would be unacceptable for the USSR to let the US to launch the first woman. Finally, the first woman in space would be as influential in propaganda of communism as Gagarin and Titov had become, Kamanin wrote. (574)
Following Gagarin's flight, thousands of letters came to various Soviet institutions from citizens who wanted to be cosmonauts, many of them from women, giving Kamanin some additional ammunition in his struggle with the Soviet establishment.
Kamanin made an official proposal for the plan at the end of August 1961 and secured the support of Marshall Sergei Rudenko, Deputy Air Force Commander, along with a number of high-ranking officers at the Chief of Stuff. (649) Still, Kamanin heard no movement on the issue for many weeks.
In his diary entry on Nov. 20, 1961, Kamanin repeated his concerns about the perceived threat from the US to launch a woman, while complaining that Vershinin had been dragging his feet on signing formal paperwork for the selection of the second group of cosmonauts including several women. However three days later, during the birthday celebration of Rodion Malinovsky, Kamanin overheard the Minister of Defense boasting to Gagarin about the upcoming selection of new cosmonauts, including women.
Kamanin learned that the Central Committee had approved the selection of 60 new cosmonauts including six women on Dec. 23, 1961. He characterized this decision as his personal victory. (According to his later diary entry, the Central Committee signed Decision No. 10/19 on the issue on Dec. 30, 1961.)
At the time, Kamanin expected the first Soviet woman to fly in space in the second half of 1962 and, possibly, two women cosmonauts orbiting the Earth before the end of the same year. Kamanin wasted no time arranging with the Central Committee of DOSAAF (a state-run Society for the Support of the Army, Aviation and the Navy) to select a pool of 200 young female pilots and parachute jumpers, in order to eventually choose four or five best candidates. DOSAAF promised to submit files including personal statements, autobiographies, questionnaires and flight certificates for the 40-50 first candidates by Jan. 10, 1962. DOSAAF was just five days late, but provided 58 dossiers. Kamanin reviewed them on January 18 and selected 23 candidates for immediate medical checks, even though he found most of them lacking the experience necessary for a fast-track training in just five or six months. Again, such a tight deadline was dictated by the perceived threat from the Americans.
By the end of February 1962, Kamanin hoped to have a woman to fly in space in August or September, with the actual training scheduled to start on March 1. At the time, nine women were undergoing medical checks in order to select four or five candidates. On February 27, Kamanin chaired a selection commission meeting, which interviewed seven candidates: Efremova, Kvasova, Kuznetsova, Sokolova, Solovyova, Solovova and Tereshkova, who had all passed their medical tests with flying colors. Kamanin singled out Solovyova, Tereshkova and Kuznetsova as best candidates.
Next chapter: Training starts
Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: May 28, 2015
Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: June 29, 2013
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So-called "three K" (left to right): Keldysh, Korolev and Kamanin, all played critical role in an effort to send a woman in space.
According to Yaroslav Golovanov, a biographer of Sergei Korolev, the chief designer eyed a pilot Rozaliya Shikhina (top) as a possible candidate for a mission onboard the Vostok spacecraft. Credit: Tespilot.ru
Valentina Tereshkova (left) during her days at the parachute-jumping school.
Valentina Ponomareva during her flying training.