Valentina Tereshkova becomes the First Woman in Space

Valentina Tereshkova is the first woman to have flown in outer space on June 16, 1963. Born on March 6, 1937 in Maslennikovo, a village near the Volga River about three hundred kilometres northeast of Moscow, Tereshkova was, in order to join the Cosmonaut Corps, honorarily inducted into the Soviet Air Force (the official designation of one of the air forces of the Soviet Union) and thus, also became the first civilian to fly in space. She has been selected from more than four hundred applicants and five finalists to pilot Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963. She is known to have pronounced the following sentence: “If women can be railroad workers in Russia, why can’t they fly in space?”.

Before the recruitment of Valentina Tereshkova as a cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova was a textile-factory assembly worker and an amateur skydiver. After the dissolution of the first group of female cosmonauts in 1969, she became a prominent member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, holding various political offices. She remained politically active following the collapse of the Soviet Union and is regarded as a hero in post-Soviet Russia and much of the world. Having orbited Earth forty-eight times, Tereshkova remains the only woman ever to have been on a solo space mission.

Vostok 6 and Valentina Tereshkova

Vostok 6 was the first human spaceflight to carry a woman, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, into outer space. The spacecraft was launched on June 16, 1963. While Vostok 5 had been delayed by technical problems, Vostok 6’s launch proceeded with no difficulties. Data collected during the mission provided better understanding of the female body’s reaction to spaceflight. Like other cosmonauts on Vostok missions, Tereshkova maintained a flight log, took photographs, and manually oriented the spacecraft. Her photographs of the horizon from space were later used to identify aerosol layers within the atmosphere. The mission, a joint flight with Vostok 5 (a joint mission of the Soviet space program together with Vostok 6; as with the previous pair of Vostok 3 and Vostok 4 the two Vostok spacecraft came close to one another in orbit and established a radio link), was originally conceived as being a joint mission with two Vostok each carrying a female cosmonaut, but this changed as the Vostok program experienced cutbacks as a precursor to the retooling of the program into the Voskhod program (the second Soviet human spaceflight project; two one-day manned missions were flown using the Voskhod spacecraft and rocket, one in 1964 and one in 1965, and two dogs flew on a 22-day mission in 1966). Vostok 6 was the last flight of a Vostok 3KA spacecraft (the spacecraft used for the first human spaceflights, launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome using Vostok 8K72K launch vehicles).

After the flight of Yuri Gagarin in 1961, Sergey Korolyov, the chief Soviet rocket engineer, came up with the idea of putting a woman in outer space. Tereshkova was considered a particularly worthy candidate, partly due to her proletarian background, and because her father was a war hero. Training included weightless flights, isolation tests, centrifuge tests, rocket theory, spacecraft engineering, one hundred and twenty parachute jumps and pilot training in MiG-15UTI jet fighters. The group spent several months in intensive training, concluding with examinations in November 1962, after which four remaining candidates were commissioned Junior Lieutenants in the Soviet Air Force. Tereshkova, Irina Solovyova and Valentina Ponomaryova were the leading candidates, and a joint mission profile was developed that would see two women launched into space, on solo Vostok flights on consecutive days in March or April 1963.

The State Space Commission nominated Tereshkova to pilot Vostok 6. On the morning of June 16, 1963, Tereshkova and her backup Irina Solovyova were both dressed in spacesuits and taken to the launch pad by bus. Following the tradition set by Gagarin, Tereshkova also urinated on the bus tire, becoming the first woman to do so. After completing her communication and life support checks, she was sealed inside the Vostok. After a two-hour countdown, Vostok 6 launched faultlessly, and Tereshkova became the first woman in outer space. Although Tereshkova experienced nausea and physical discomfort for much of the flight, she orbited the Earth forty-eight times and spent almost three days in outer space. With a single flight, she logged more flight time than the combined times of all American astronauts who had flown before that date.

Vostok 6 was the final Vostok flight and was launched two days after Vostok 5 which carried Valery Bykovsky into a similar orbit for five days, landing three hours after Tereshkova. The two vessels approached each other within five kilometers at one point, and Tereshkova communicated with Bykovsky and with Khrushchev by radio. Even though there were plans for further flights by women, it took nineteen years until the second woman, Svetlana Savitskaya, flew into outer space.

Astronauts, cosmonauts, spationauts…

An astronaut could be described as a person who travels beyond Earth’s atmosphere, or a trainee for spaceflight. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, an astronaut is “a person who has been trained for travelling in space”. It is interesting to notice that, without going into details about the different terms used to refer to any person flying in a space object, there are already differences on the conception of the term astronaut. It can either be someone traveling beyond Earth’s atmosphere or someone training to travel beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Considering the fact that the frontier between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space is still subject to debate, what could be the term used to refer to someone flying on suborbital flights? Could we call any human flying on a space object an astronaut? We would therefore need to define, what some national space laws already do, at an international level, what is a space object.

According to which country the person flying/travelling to outer space or training to do so is, terms change. This originality of language, even though we are today witnessing a terminological neutralization echoing the international relationships’ gradual smoothing, especially between the United States of America and former URSS, illustrates the highly geopolitical, spatiopolitical and historical aspects of space conquest. Let’s not forget that Space Age started during the International Geophysical Year not as any scientific project but as a demonstration of strength by the superpowers of the time, and soon after continued as a military project (US military space’s budget is today still at least twice that of the civilian budget). Depending upon which space object or spacecraft the person will fly/travel on, different names will be used. The United States of America use the term astronaut. Former URSS and today’s Russia use the term cosmonaut. Europe uses the term spationaut. China uses the term taikonaut. India uses the term vyomanaut. Some African artists and politics have used the term afronaut. Some private companies have proposed the term touronaut to define a space tourist. After the flights of Valentina Tereshkova (URSS), Sally Ride (United States of America) or Claudie Haigneré (France), the terms cosmonette, astronette and spationette were proposed. We sometimes also find the words robonaut, moonnaut or lunanaut/lunarnaut, and bionaut (those working in the American Earth system science research facility located in Oracle, Arizona).

Valentina Tereshkova and the legal status of humans in outer space

The status of astronauts is enounced and organised both in the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (entered into force on October 10, 1967) and the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (entered into force on December 3, 1968).

Article V of the Outer Space Treaty states that “States Parties to the Treaty shall regard astronauts as envoys of mankind in outer space and shall render to them all possible assistance in the event of accident, distress, or emergency landing on the territory of another State Party or on the high seas. When astronauts make such a landing, they shall be safely and promptly returned to the State of registry of their space vehicle. In carrying on activities in outer space and on celestial bodies, the astronauts of one State Party shall render all possible assistance to the astronauts of other States Parties. States Parties to the Treaty shall immediately inform the other States Parties to the Treaty or the Secretary-General of the United Nations of any phenomena they discover in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, which could constitute a danger to the life or health of astronauts”.

In this article from the Magna Carta of space, different elements appear. The first one is the ethical notion of envoys of mankind in outer space. It means that in outer space, even though there is still a need to define where it starts from, astronauts are seen as representatives of humanity. It doesn’t mean that they will change or lose their nationality but simply that their actions are undertaken in the name of mankind. Given the fact that the Outer Space Treaty (1967) was signed during the Cold War, this notion of mankind is crucial; States and the UN have wanted to sacralise outer space and make it a supranational environment. As the traditional law of the sea requires it, astronauts must be helped, rescued or assisted, regardless of the international situation, their nationality or origin. As we explained earlier, astronauts depend on the State of registry of their space vehicle; let’s imagine that in a case of emergency, as seen in the 2013′ movie Gravity (where astronaut Ryan Stone is brought back on Earth via a Chinese Shenzou), the person would be returned to the State of registry of his/her space vehicle with which he/her travelled beyond Earth’s atmosphere or started his/her mission. Astronauts have also a duty to assist other astronauts. Finally, there is an international duty of supervision by observation according to which “States Parties to the Treaty shall immediately inform the other States Parties to the Treaty or the Secretary-General of the United Nations of any phenomena they discover in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, which could constitute a danger to the life or health of astronauts”.

The Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (1968) came to complement the dispositions of the Outer Space Treaty’s Article V and states, Article 1, that “Each Contracting Party which receives information or discovers that the personnel of a spacecraft have suffered accident or are experiencing conditions of distress or have made an emergency or unintended landing in territory under its jurisdiction or on the high seas or in any other place not under the jurisdiction of any State shall immediately: (a) Notify the launching authority or, if it cannot identify and immediately communicate with the launching authority, immediately make a public announcement by all appropriate means of communication at its disposal; (b) Notify the Secretary-General of the United Nations, who should disseminate the information without delay by all appropriate means of communication at his disposal”.

Article 3 enounces that “If information is received or it is discovered that the personnel of a spacecraft have alighted on the high seas or in any other place not under the jurisdiction of any State, those Contracting Parties which are in a position to do so shall, if necessary, extend assistance in search and rescue operations for such personnel to assure their speedy rescue. They shall inform the launching authority and the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the steps they are taking and of their progress”. This article talks about extending assistance, which is an interesting concept. The following articles treat about space objects and technical details.

Article 10 of the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (1979) enounces that “States Parties shall adopt all practicable measures to safeguard the life and health of persons on the Moon. For this purpose they shall regard any person on the Moon as an astronaut within the meaning of article V of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies and as part of the personnel of a spacecraft within the meaning of the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space. States Parties shall offer shelter in their stations, installations, vehicles and other facilities to persons in distress on the Moon”.

Article 11 of the SPACE STATION – Agreement between the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and OTHER GOVERNMENTS signed at Washington January 29, 1998 (on which we will soon come back in a new article), states that “Each Partner has the right to provide qualified personnel to serve on an equitable basis as Space Station crew members. Selections and decisions regarding the flight assignments of a Partner’s crew members shall be made in accordance with procedures provided in the MOUs and implementing arrangements. The Code of Conduct for the Space Station crew will be developed and approved by all the Partners in accordance with the individual Partner’s internal procedures, and in accordance with the MOUs, A Partner must have approved the Code of Conduct before it provides Space Station crew. Each Partner, in exercising its right to provide crew, shall ensure that its crew members observe the Code of Conduct”. That is what we can say about Valentina Tereshkova.