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MOSCOW. (Yury Zaitsev for RIA Novosti)

March 12, 1962 is the official date of the establishment of a women’s group in the first division of cosmonauts. Five people were selected from more than a thousand applicants: engineer Irina Solovyova, mathematician and programmer Valentina Ponomaryova, textile worker Valentina Tereshkova, teacher Zhanna Yerkina and shorthand secretary Tatyana Kuznetsova.
Yury Gagarin, present at the crucial meeting, protested against Ponomaryova’s candidacy. “Cosmonautics is a new and venturesome business,” he said. “It is an unknown and unsafe world. Can we risk the life of a mother?” But she was nevertheless included in the group. The deciding factor was a recommendation from Mstislav Keldysh, member of the Academy of Sciences and director of the institute where Ponomaryova worked.
Star City was still a long way off. The location of the training center was a secret. Its compound was surrounded by a tall fence, with guard dogs running around the perimeter. Here, the “petticoat battalion,” as cosmonaut Alexei Leonov described the women’s group, was to have its first foretaste of space.
The body’s resistance to high temperatures was tested in a heat chamber. A test subject wearing a flight suit would be placed in an environment with a temperature of plus 70 degrees Celsius and a humidity of 30% and forced to stay there until her body temperature jumped by 2.5 degrees and her pulse rate quickened to 130 beats a minute.
A session in the silent chamber – a sound-insulated room measuring 2.5 meters by 2.5 meters – was monitored by psychologists. Above the table, to the right and left, were TV camera eyes. In front was a porthole through which the test subject was fully observable, though she herself saw nothing. Each candidate was to spend ten days in the chamber.
To experience weightlessness, the women flew aboard a two-seater MiG-15 fighter jet. During one mission the plane was to perform three to four zero-G maneuvers lasting around 40 seconds each. During one of them the test subject was to write down her first and last name, put in the date and sign; during another, she was to eat from a squeeze tube; during still another, to pronounce a set phrase over the radio.
Parachute training was viewed as one of the key skills, because with Vostok spacecraft the cosmonaut had to eject herself and land separately.
Training at sea to practice splashdown techniques was also trying. The spacesuit available for practice was a standard one and not made to measure. It was designed for an average person, 168 cm to 170 cm tall. The women’s group consisted of two sections – “tall-ies,” or Tereshkova, Kuznetsova and Yerkina (164 cm), and “shorties,” or Ponomaryova and Solovyova, who were barely 161 cm. In a splashdown the space helmet would tilt forward and the intercom headset would slide on to the eyes. It was necessary to simulate the unzipping of the parachute, yet the locks would move backward and aside. Meanwhile, all this had to be done in an inflated spacesuit and gloves. The locks were hard to reach, let alone to open. Any delay, however short, would bring on body overheating.
The women’s group was officially introduced to general designer Sergei Korolyov after the final examination for basic space training. Korolyov asked each one to tell her story. Then he wanted to know what made them seek a space career. Towards the end he grew gloomy and later, speaking to a small circle of people, expressed his dissatisfaction with the group’s composition. In his view, none of the group members had much to do with space and rockets.
By established practice, the decision on who of the women was to fly first was announced before departure for the space center, on May 21, 1963. By that time everybody knew, but hoped for a miracle. No miracle materialized, however.
Before leaving, Evgeny Karpov, head of the Cosmonaut Training Center, decided to have a heart-to-heart talk with Tereshkova’s stand-ins. “Trying to console me, Karpov said that political considerations prompted the sending of a ‘person with popular roots,” said Ponomaryova. “And I had the misfortune of being a clerk. As for the degree of our preparation for the flight, we were all running ‘neck and neck.”
On June 16, 1963, two of the women – Tereshkova and Solovyova – arrived at the launch pad clad in spacesuits. When Solovyova had first donned her suit, its sealing in the neck area broke and the spacesuit had to be changed quickly for Ponomaryova’s one. If Tereshkova’s suit had ruptured, there would have been no replacement because of the difference in the women’s heights, and then Irina Solovyova might have become the world’s first woman in space ...
The women’s group stayed at the space center for all three days that Tereshkova was up in orbit. On June 19, the Vostok spacecraft and cosmonaut Tereshkova, each on their parachutes, landed safely next to each other. By that time everybody knew that Tereshkova had not felt well during her flight and had been unable to complete all phases of her mission. But she would not show it, putting on a brave face, singing songs, talking with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and even asking to be allowed a longer stay in space.
In September 1964, the women’s group enrolled in toto at the Air Force Academy. That same fall, everyone of them got married. Valentina Tereshkova headed the parade of weddings.
In the meantime, Korolyov’s design bureau was developing a new spacecraft called the Soyuz, completing a series of five Voskhod craft, and planning work on several Vostoks. In 1966, nine flights were to be made, in 1967, fourteen, and in 1968, twenty-one. But Korolyov said he did not need the women’s group, because the women had not lived up to his expectations and one flight by a woman was enough for him.
Nevertheless, in the summer of 1966, Nikolai Kamanin, Air Force deputy commander-in-chief, arrived at the cosmonaut-training center and announced that a flight by a women’s crew lasting 15 days and involving a space walk was planned aboard a Voskhod. Ponomaryova was to be the commander, and Solovyova the spacewalker. Yerkina and Kuznetsova were to act as backups. However, the preparations lacked enthusiasm and were confined to simulators. Korolyov died not long after, and the Voskhod series was cancelled. In October 1969, “for lack of prospects,” the team was disbanded.
By the time all hopes for the flight were dashed, all the families had had children, Ponomaryova a second son. Tereshkova’s daughter was already five years old. Yerkina, Ponomaryova and Solovyova stayed on at the cosmonaut-training center, which was soon converted into a research center. Kuznetsova first took up a job at the procurement directorate of the main Air Force headquarters and then at the Institute of Medical and Biological Studies.
It was not until twenty years after the flight of the first female cosmonaut that Valentin Glushko, general designer of NPO Energia (the ex-Korolyov Design Bureau), came up with the idea of sending another woman into space. In the letter he sent to the higher authorities, he indicated that the candidates from the first complement had basic training and could be retrained for the new mission more quickly and at less cost. Tereshkova and Kuznetsova were found physically fit and mentally sound by a medical commission, but suddenly it was recalled that the applicants were too old: the age limit for the cosmonauts’ group was 33 years, while Tereshkova had turned 40, and Kuznetsova 36. When Kuznetsova applied directly to Glushko, he answered that he had promised Air Marshal Yevgeny Savitsky that his daughter would fly, and could not go back on his pledge. That explained all the fuss about the age limit.
When the women’s team had been disbanded, only Tereshkova had stayed on with the cosmonauts’ detachment. She remained there until 1997 (on a purely formal basis) and retired with the rank of Major-General. Since then, no women have been enlisted. Eight women were recruited by Energia and the Institute of Medical and Biological Studies for orbital flights, but only two of them – Svetlana Savitskaya, the marshal’s daughter, and Yelena Kondakova, the wife of Valery Ryumin, a cosmonaut and deputy CEO of Energia – were lucky enough to go aloft. The last woman in Energia’s team of cosmonauts was Nadezhda Kuzhelnaya. She had no high-placed relatives and, though considered a top-notch specialist, never made it into space.

Yury Zaitsev is an expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Space Research

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti –0-