In 1961 the West and the USA in particular were shocked when the Soviets launched a man into space. This was the era of the cold war and this launch had great political significance. The man launched into space was Yuri Gagarin who later died in an air crash. The Americans at that time never had a comparable space program and their astronaut went into a sub –orbital flight for a mere 15 minutes.
First Woman in Space
The Soviets were looking for a further propaganda boost. At about this time the Chief Soviet Rocket designer Sergey Korolyov suggested to the political bosses led by Nikita Khrushchev that putting a woman in space would be a good propaganda boost. It would show the world that in the communist state, women had equal rights compared to the decadent West. Accordingly a special selection was carried out and from 400 women applicants, a Russian girl Valentina Tereshkova was selected. She was to become the first Soviet and woman cosmonaut in the world.
Valentina piloted the Russian space ship Vostok 6, which was launched into space on 16 June 1963. She remained in space circling the earth for 3 days. During this period she carried out various experiments on herself to evaluate the reaction of the female body to space travel.
The Soviets and Women Astronauts
Though the Soviets were the first to launch a woman into space, yet it took them 18 years to launch the next women in space. In 1981 Svetlana Savitskaya flew into space and again in 1984 on a second mission into space became the first woman in the world to do the space walk. This space walk lasted 3.58 hours.
The Soviets had formed a female cosmonaut group which for some reason was dissolved in 1969. After this the USA took the lead of sending women into space. In June 1983, 2 decades after Valentina Tereshkova had flown into space the first American woman Sally Ride blasted off into space on a space mission in the Challenger STS-7.
Sally Ride and American Women in Space
After Sally Ride it was like the flood gates opened for women to fly into space. In August 1984 Judith Resnick became the second American in space. Till date a total of 56 women have been into space, of which 45 are American. This shows that US women have a big edge in space travel. The latest entrant is China who launched Liu Yang into space in 2012. Two Indian origin women have been part of American space program. One of them Kalpana Chawla died in a crash of the space shuttle a few years back.
Apart from the USA, Russia and China other countries have also sent women into space. They are France, UK, South Korea, Canada, Iran and Japan. Each of them except Canada and Japan sent one woman into space, while Canada and Japan sent 2 women into space. Apart from Canada and Japan all other women cosmonauts were part of the Russian space program and flew in Russian space ships. The American space program is not open to all and sundry from other nations, while the Russians strapped for cash readily accommodate other countries astronauts for a price.
What of the future? What was a rarity 5 decades back does not raise eyebrows now as women are accepted as part of the space traveler’s fraternity. On October 12, 2007 Peggy Whitson became the first woman to command the International space station. She remained on the station for 6 months. She returned home (back to earth) in April 2008. The 100billion dollar International space station has a regular trickle of women flying into space. There is an interesting fact of a British Chemist Helen Sharman who flew in the Russian Space station MIR for a week in 1991 after answering an advertisement for a woman spaceman, which also stated that no previous experience was required.
More and more women are now getting ready to fly into space. The Russians have now advertised for women cosmonauts. The advertisement came in mid 2012. NASA has a regular stream of training and selection of women who wish to be part of space exploration. It’s an exciting future ahead. This should be a lesson to Islamic nations some of which do not even let women drive cars like Saudi Arabia.
English: Member of the first squad of cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova was awarded the Order of Friendship. Русский: Орденом Дружбы награждена член отряда первых космонавтов Валентина Терешкова. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)