They were selected from hundreds, trained for a mission of national importance.
They entered a heavily male-dominated industry in the early days of space exploration, still terra incognita for humankind. When one of these pioneers, Valentina Tereshkova, returned to Earth as the first woman in space, the whole world celebrated a milestone for both cosmonautics and feminism. But instead of taking the next step, Moscow shelved their female cosmonaut program for two decades.
This is the story of the first all-female Soviet space squad.
Nikolai Kamanin, a prominent aviator and big wig in the Soviet space industry, celebrated New Year’s Eve in 1963 surrounded by family at his home just outside Moscow. He was enjoying an evening with his wife, son, and granddaughter. Kamanin missed them tremendously over the past two extremely busy years, chasing his dream of the first female spaceflight.
Kamanin recruited the first two cosmonauts, Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov, and Gagarin took the mantle of first human in space. After that historic flight, Kamanin was still managing the space squad based in Star City, near Moscow. But now, he was lobbying for the first female flight, and his dream was about to come true.
“When the first cosmonauts traveled the world to give speeches after their flights, Kamanin was along for the ride. During these trips, he realized that one of the most frequently asked questions by foreign journalists was about sending a woman to space. This inspired Kamanin to proceed with the idea,” says Anton Pervushin, the author of Yuri Gagarin: One Flight and the Whole Life and 108 Minutes that Changed the World.
In 1961, months after Gagarin’s launch, Kamanin began to pitch the idea of the first female flight. He was able to make powerful allies including top-ranking party officials and Mstislav Keldysh, a member of the USSR Academy of Science, considered a top scientist in the field of mathematics and mechanics. Kamanin also sought out support from Sergey Korolev, a leading Soviet rocket engineer regarded as the founding father of practical cosmonautics. Korolev would prove to be a critical voice in realizing Kamanin’s dream.
After some effort, Kamanin managed to convince Korolev to support the idea of a first female flight. And six months later, the Central Committee of the Communist Party agreed to recruit 60 more cosmonauts, including five women.
Throughout this process, Nikolai Kamanin continued to travel and promote the nation’s space efforts overseas. From April 1961 to January 1963, he visited more than 30 countries with Gagarin and Titov, including a trip to the United States. There they met with President John F. Kennedy, and had dinner with the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn, and his wife at their home.
According to memoirs written by a member of the Soviet female squad years later, over the course of that trip, Kamanin got to know legendary female aviator Geraldyne Cobb. In 1960, she and twelve other women passed the same health screening tests given to male astronauts for Project Mercury. This attempt by the Americans to prove women were capable of flying to space was dubbed ‘Mercury 13’ for the number of female finalists in the experiment. None of them would ever make it to space.
"In fact, before any personhad flown in space,some researchers had been exploringwhether women mightactuallybe better suitedfor spaceflight than men.
Scientists knew that women, smaller beings on average, require less food, water, and oxygen, which was an advantage when packing a traveler and supplies into a small spacecraft,” writes historian Margaret Weitekamp, in Right Stuff, Wrong Sex.
The Mercury 13 scientists found that women did better than men in isolation tests and often had stronger cardiovascular health. This project was led by NASA specialists, but it was never part of the agency’s official agenda. It was a privately funded initiative, and it did not change the industry's gender policies at the time.
By May 1962, when the Russian delegation visited the United States, the first Soviet female trainees had already been accepted to the space squad in Star City. NASA, however, was still not planning to launch a woman to space. The agency made this position clear in response to a letter sent by grade school student Linda Halpern, in which she asked President Kennedy how she could become an astronaut. “We have no present plans to employ women on space flights," NASA responded.
Regardless of NASA’s position on female space flight at the time, the Kremlin understood the critical role public relations would play in the space race, and sought to bolster its propaganda effort. Under the circumstances, any new achievement or milestone would prove Soviet dominance in the emerging space industry. Moscow decided to strike first.
When the idea of sending a female cosmonaut to space was officially approved by Soviet leadership, more than 800 women applied for the job. Fifty-eight were formally considered but only 23 candidates were selected for advanced medical screening in Moscow.
The ideal female cosmonaut candidate was younger than thirty, shorter than 5.5 feet, and no heavier than 154 pounds. A degree was a plus, but still optional. Much more attention was paid to the specific skills needed to perform her duties. But this was tricky.
Male candidates were selected from a pool of test pilots, but this career path was unavailable for Soviet women. Some, however, did have related qualifications. In the post-war years, it was not too difficult to find female aviators who had not only served during WWII, but also participated in aerial battles. However, all these veterans were older than the desired age.
Because of the small pool of qualified candidates, Soviet leadership decided to look for female cosmonauts at local skydiving clubs which had proliferated across the nation since the 1930s. During that era, the government decided to promote this sport to all young people, to prepare them for the next big war.
Skydiving was seen as a relevant qualification for reasons that were classified at the time. Early models of soviet spacecraft only allowed cosmonauts to leave their capsule by deploying a parachute during landing. By the time a female unit was being put together in Star City, the Soviet engineers had yet to come up with a safer landing strategy.
Finalists for the all female space squad were divided into two groups for health screening tests that began in January 1962. They underwent medical examination at the same hospital where the Soviet Union's WWII ace pilot Alexey Maresyev, who lost both legs in combat, had tried to prove to a group of amused doctors that he was still capable of flying. According to the legend, he did so by performing Gopak, a Ukrainian Cossack dance.
Following the same protocol used for male candidates, women went through multiple medical and psychological tests. Doctors X-rayed their bodies, studied their brain functions, and ran advanced cardiovascular and blood screenings. The women were also subjected to centrifuge training, in which a machine rotates rapidly to apply powerful centrifugal forces on its inhabitant. Scientists used this test to determine how subjects would handle acceleration in zero gravity.
Zhanna Yorkina, a 25 year-old rural school teacher, was a uniquely qualified candidate. On top of being a skydiver, she spoke two foreign languages, German and French. But these skills didn't help when it came to the centrifuge tests. “My weight was 60 kilograms (132 pounds) but due to the g-force acceleration I felt an extra pressure of 600 kilograms (1320 pounds) while being inside of it,” recalled Yorkina. “This does not feel nice. If you relax your abdomen, you will get unconscious, which often happened with the men as well. We had a remote control in our hands while testing. If you hold it, it means you are conscious. If not, you have passed out, and they take you out.”
Marina Popovich submitted her application to the space squad along with her husband, Pavel Popovich, who had just survived all the brutal tests required for the job. In August 1962, he and Andryan Nikolaev would perform the first group space flight. Popovich, a highly experienced female aviator, was told she did not pass her health tests. Later, her husband would ask Kamanin to help his wife join the Soviet Air Force, and in 1964 Popovich would become the Soviet Union’s first female military test pilot.
Whether or not Marina Popovich actually failed the health tests is still unclear. Some documents relating to the selection process are still classified, and external factors could have been considered, including loyalty to the regime and discriminatory assumptions about women. Later, all finalists would admit they felt sick after each round of simulator training, but some were better at covering it up.
When selection began, Valentina Ponomareva was 28. She was a staff member for the Department of Applied Mathematics at Steklov Mathematical Institute, which was part of The Russian Academy of Sciences. The Institute was closely connected with the design bureau, led by Sergey Korolev.
Intelligent, well-educated, with a degree from the Moscow Aviation Institute, Ponomareva had chosen a career in math over her high school passion, literature. But deep inside, she yearned for a life in the skies. As a university student, Ponomareva was skipping classes to work and fly with a local aviation club. There, she met another amateur pilot who later became her husband and the father of her son.
She received an unexpected offer to try “flying higher than any pilot,” while dancing with a male colleague at a New Year’s work party. Ponomareva said yes without hesitation, but deep inside she thought it was a joke. Her colleague was persistent, and Ponomareva eventually sent an official application to her new boss, Mstislav Keldysh, who was recently promoted to President of the USSR Academy of Science.
When they met, Ponomareva was nervous. In her eyes, Keldysh was a monumental figure, considering his outstanding contributions to the Soviet space industry. “Why do you like flying?” Keldysh asked her. “I don’t know,” Ponomareva replied. “That’s right, we can never know why we like flying,” said Keldysh. He accepted her application.
Ponomareva would go on to pass her health tests, and recovered well after simulator training. But, Yuri Gagarin opposed her candidacy. “We cannot put [the] life of a mother at risk by sending her to space,” said the very first man to fly to space. Nevertheless, Ponomareva, the only woman without significant skydiving experience among the five, was accepted to the female unit.
Ponomareva wasn’t the only woman brought to the pool of candidates by an outside party. At least two other finalists received offers to enlist from the Soviet Union’s secret police.
When Irina Solovyova was contacted by these shadowy figures, she was a 24-year-old engineer from Ural with a science degree and was a member of the national skydiving team. “Me and my skydiving instructor and future husband, Sergey Kiselev, went to our favorite cafe to discuss the offer and stayed there until it closed,” recalled Solovyova. “We decided it was worth trying.”
Tatyana Kuznetsova, 20-year-old staff member of the Moscow Institute of Radio Technics and an avid skydiver, was recruited in the same way. From the position of stenographer, Kuznetsova quickly climbed to the role of party secretary at the Institute. One year later, she was promoted to a senior laboratory assistant without obtaining a degree. And by her 20th birthday, she had become a national champion in skydiving and shortly after winning that title, Kuznetsova received an offer to join the space squad.
Tatyana Morozycheva was a striking and fashionable woman. She worked as an art teacher in Yaroslavl while pursuing her interest in parachuting. Morozycheva began to represent her region in national contests and helped Valentina Tereshkova at the local parachuting club they both belonged to.
Both Morozycheva and Tereshkova were selected for the medical examination in Moscow, and their candidacies were pre-approved by the local branch of the Communist Party.
What happened next is still unclear. One version of events says Morozycheva got married and pregnant before she was informed of her selection for screening, and therefore, skipped the trip. Another says she was rejected, and only told why later: because she was expecting a child.
According to her close friend Natalia Ledneva, who spoke to a local Yaroslavl newspaper, Morozycheva was not an easy-going person. She was a very candid speaker and strived to be number one. Ledneva recalled that Morozycheva did more pullups and ran faster than her male counterparts, to prove she was the better candidate.
The Kommersant newspaper suggested that Tereshkova outperformed Morozycheva in something just as important to the Soviets as the health tests: promoting communist values.
Valentina Tereshkova came from a working class family. Her father was a tractor driver who died in the Soviet-Finnish war, leaving her to be raised by a single mother, a textile worker. Valentina followed her mother’s footsteps, landing a job at a local textile factory. But Tereshkova was found to be more than an average worker in the Soviet labor force. She was elected Secretary of the Komsomol Committee of her factory, an organization sometimes seen as the youth division of the Communist Party. This opportunity opened many doors.
In a Soviet documentary, Kamanin admitted that he was told about Valentina Tereshkova a few weeks before their official meeting by his deputy, General Goreglyad. “We have a new candidate, and she is a very good one. She is a great worker and a Komsomol leader,” said Goreglyad. “Please do not rush, we are still far from making the final decision on the flight,” he told Kamanin. According to Goreglyad, Tereshkova was the best fit for the mission.
Eventually, five women were accepted to the first all-female space unit in Star City near Moscow.
They were Zhanna Yorkina, Irina Solovyova, Tatyana Kuznetsova, Valentina Ponomareva, and of course Valentina Tereshkova. They were all told they would fly one day.
In early 1962, members of the male space squad gathered at a dining room in Star City and were joined by Yuri Gagarin.“Congratulations! Get ready to welcome the girls in a few days,” announced Gagarin.
“We, a tiny group of military test pilots selected for the space program, had been living together as one big family in Star City for two years. We shared struggles and knew everything about each other, and now we had to accept new members to our family,” recalls cosmonaut Georgi Shonin.
“When we started training together, it was very unusual to hear soft and feminine call signs Chaika (seagull) or Bereza (birch) instead of solid and firm Sokol (falcon) or Rubin (ruby),” Shonin continues. “Their intonations alone were telling. If a voice was sonorous, everything went as planned. But sometimes their voices sounded pitiful. That meant the instructor was practicing certain failures of the system with them, and Bereza or Chaika was trying to fix the problem.”
“The guys treated us well, they helped us a lot and taught us how to pull it all off, how to solve theoretical and practical problems, and how to hide any health issues,” said Ponomareva decades later.
“But they werenot very happy whenwe, five girls,first showed up inStar City.”
The first female space flight was originally planned as a group mission. Two women would simultaneously pilot twin spacecraft in orbit. Nikolai Kamanin, the driving force behind this mission, believed female cosmonauts should not lag behind their male counterparts. After cosmonauts Nikolai Andrianov and Pavel Popovich simultaneously piloted two Vostoks in August 1962, a female group flight seemed like the logical next step.
Nevertheless, the mission plan and launch date changed multiple times. At one point, Kamanin was not even sure there would be enough spacecraft manufactured in time for the flight. But by April 1963, the plan was gaining support. Finally, a decision was made to fly a man, Valery Bykovsky, on one of the pair of Vostok spacecraft.
The question of which female cosmonaut would fly the mission remained undecided.
Early on, Irina Solovyova, Valentina Tereshkova, and Tatyana Kuznetsova formed the leading trio. But as time passed, Kuznetsova was replaced by Valentina Ponomareva on the shortlist. Kamanin described Kuznetsova as the most sensitive and easily influenced candidate, traits he did not see as ideal for a future national hero. But his main concern was Tatyana Kuznetsova’s health.
Repeated sessions on simulators that heat the human body to extreme temperatures and mimic the significant gravitational forces of flight were part of the training program, and Kuznetsova did not respond well to those tests. Due to growing health concerns, Kuznetsova did not take the final exams in the fall of 1962. The remaining four women received excellent grades and graduated from the program as licensed cosmonauts.
But Tatyana Kuznetsova was not the only person whose health was impacted by the program. Zhanna Yorkina hurt her leg during a skydiving session, and as a result, was forced to take a 3 month leave of absence to heal. She was able to catch up with the others and graduate from the program, but it wasn’t enough for a shot at becoming the first woman in space.
At the time, Soviet cosmonauts were treated as national icons, and trainees in the space program were the next generation. Members of the space squad were young, attractive, smart, and well-paid. The monthly salary of a licensed cosmonaut before a flight was 350 rubles, almost three times more than an engineer with a degree.
In this light, Kamanin started worrying about his “girls,” as he called them. He knew how the spotlight affected previous cosmonauts and remembered all too well the reprimands Gagarin and Titov received for excessive drinking and reckless driving. As far as we know, members of the female space unit never engaged in that level of behavior, but some had their vices. Valentina Ponomareva occasionally smoked cigarettes, which was strictly prohibited, and was known for consuming alcohol on occasion. Kamanin saw even this minor behavior as a red flag.
“According to her health tests and preparedness, Ponomareva could have been the first choice for the female flight, but her behavior and conversations give reason to conclude that her moral values are not stable enough,” writes Kamanin in his diaries.
Ponomareva’s memoirs paint a different picture. She recalls being enthusiastic about her role on the space squad, and working hard to succeed.
Valentina Ponomareva was the only woman without much skydiving experience and she was the oldest in the group, earning her the nickname Baby Valya from her instructor.
On one jump, Ponomareva landed incorrectly, injuring her tailbone. She could barely walk, but chose to jump again to overcome her fear. This second attempt was not any better, and her instructor was forced to call a doctor.
All X-rays performed on cosmonauts had to be reported to the Kremlin, meaning she would be at risk for dismissal. Her doctor ultimately decided not to perform the X-rays, hoping nothing serious had happened, and Ponomareva was thankful for his discretion.
Afraid to lose their prestigious positions, both female and male members of the space squad tended to hide medical issues, including minor sickness. Decades after Ponomareva would struggle with these tests, she discovered three cracks in her spine and one in her chest, resulting from unsuccessful parachute jumps.
Ponomareva recalled there being no envy between the women in the squad. According to her, it was a healthy spirit of competition. Everyone did their best to be number one, but also supported each other’s efforts.
Many of the women on the squad described Valentina Tereshkova as a good friend.
“She always advocated for our interests in front of the bosses. For example, in the beginning of the program we lived as if we were behind the barbed wire. We lived near Moscow but only Muscovites were allowed to leave the training camp to see their families,” recalls Zhanna Yorkina. “Me and Tereshkova got bored and asked for permission to go to Moscow. ‘What for? What do you want to buy?’ they said. Once, Valentina Tereshkova lost control and blurted out the following:
‘Knickers!That’s what we want to buy!’This is how we got permission.”
As launch day drew closer, some of the women suspected they would not be chosen. Valentina Tereshkova was garnering a lot of attention, and it was soon officially confirmed that she would fly, with Ponomareva and Solovyova as alternates.
Korolev had two separate conversations with Tereshkova’s alternates after the decision was made. Solovyova was told that someone more extroverted was needed, since they would be dealing with worldwide publicity following the flight. Valentina Ponomareva received a different explanation for the final choice. Korolev told her that a working class woman would be a better representation of Soviet ideals than one from a white collar family.
“I have no doubt that Ponomareva was the best fit for the first female flight,” says space historian and author Anton Pervushin. “But unlike the case of Gagarin, the final decision was made not by specialists but by top-ranking politicians, including Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who was looking for a ‘Gagarin in a skirt.’ Khrushchev believed Tereshkova would be a better representation of the ideal Soviet Woman, and not only because she was a worker, but because the textile industry she represented played a key role in his domestic policies.”
“Yes, I would feel hurt,”replied Ponomareva.
On launch day, June 16 1963, Tereshkova strode confidently to her Vostok 6 spacecraft. But as she reached the cabin, the historic importance of this moment sent adrenaline pumping through her veins. Her heart rate sped to 140 beats per minute.
“She is well-prepared for the flight. She will not only be flying in space but piloting the spacecraft in the same fashion as men. When she lands, we will compare who is better at completing [their] tasks,” said Yuri Gagarin at Baikonur, a few hours before Tereshkova’s launch.
After three days and 48 orbits around our planet, the 26-year-old Tereshkova returned to Earth a global celebrity, receiving a bounty of state awards. The Soviet leadership had no doubt that this historic flight was a great political victory that would help promote communism worldwide.
Valentina Tereshkova arrived in Moscow with her group flight partner, Valery Bykovsky, who piloted another Vostok while they were in orbit together.
“Flying over all continents,me and my celestial brotherBykovsky did not feellonely.
The Communist Party, the Motherland, and great people of the Soviet Union gave us strength and wings to accomplish this flight,” said Tereshkova, standing at the Red Square between Khrushchev and Yuri Gagarin. “The Soulful and fatherly words of Nikita Sergeevich (Khrushchev) in a conversation we had on the first day in orbit inspired me to valiant service.”
The celebration was carefully planned in advance, and not a single detail could be overlooked, including officially approved and printed portraits of Valentina Tereshkova.
Employees of state-run media knew which street poles at Leninsky Prospect they needed to stand around so their cameras could catch Tereshkova, the hero, meeting average citizens.
Crowds and rallies were planned and heavily controlled in the Soviet capital, especially when celebrating the nation’s space achievements. The Soviets didn’t want to risk empty streets but with Tereshkova, that was not the an issue. She was a sensation and the people clamored to see her.
Even Clare Booth Luce, former congresswoman and ambassador to Italy and Brazil, already known for her anti-communist views, wrote an op-ed praising Tereshkova. In Life Magazine, 1963, Luce wrote that Tereshkova "orbits over the sex barrier," and claimed this was possible only because Soviet ideology contained a message of gender equality.
The truth was more complicated. Not all the founding fathers of Soviet cosmonautics approved of Tereshkova’s performance in space. And they blamed her gender for it.
Throughout the duration of her flight, Tereshkova kept telling mission control she felt fine, but by her third day in orbit it became clear she was trying to hide her exhaustion. Tereshkova unexpectedly fell asleep and missed a status call with Earth. She felt constantly nauseous, vomited, lost her appetite, and failed to perform any of the planned scientific experiments. Cosmonaut Bykovsky, who could listen to all communications with Earth, heard Tereshkova’s calls to the center and thought she had been crying.
Tereshkova returned to Earth unconscious, with a bad bruise from her helmet. When she was found by the local villagers, she accepted their food and handed out her tubed space rations. Both actions were strictly against Soviet protocol. Tereshkova tried to explain that it was the space food that made her sick, but her bosses didn't accept that.
“No more bitches in space!” said Korolev, when Tereshkova returned to Earth.
Surprisingly, none of the five women trained in the space squad has ever spoken ill about the lead Soviet rocket engineer, or the way he treated them while in Star City.
Korolev had dreamed of flying to space himself, but would never meet the health requirements after suffering for years in Stalin’s prison camps. But he also believed that one day his spacecraft and rockets would become so reliable and so comfortable that the health requirements wouldn’t be necessary. His comments may have been out of frustration, because Tereshkova’s flight showed him the disappointing truth: that spaceflight will push even a healthy young body to the limit.
Her main competitor, Valentina Ponomareva, disagreed with the criticism towards Tereshkova. “I have no doubts she did all she needed to accomplish, because we needed to learn how a human being would feel in orbit. The first six cosmonauts did not have any goal that would be more important than this. All scientific experiments in orbit were also important, but they were not crucial,” writes Ponomareva.
The rest of the female space unit continued to prepare for their next flight, trusting Korolev’s word that they would all one day get to space. Kamanin tried to talk Korolev into the idea of a female group flight, but no good reason existed for the Soviets to pursue this. There was no political necessity since the effect of Tereshkova’s flight had already provided enormous propaganda value.
Korolev would die in 1966, and the next two years would bring the death of two famed cosmonauts. The parachute bringing Vladimir Komarov back to Earth after an otherwise successful flight would fail, and Yuri Gagarin would die during a routine training flight from Chkalovsky Air Base. These incidents put the entire space program on hold, and the female space unit would be dismissed by 1969. Kamanin, having failed to get his female space squad off the ground, would be forced to retire in 1971.
After their dismissal from the space squad, each woman received a comfortable apartment from the government, and the legacy of their cosmonaut training continued to have a lasting impact on their personal lives. Following the program, each former member of the squad married fellow cosmonauts. Four out of five women remained in Star City and continued working in the space industry. All files related to their training program would remain classified until the 1980s.
Zhanna Yorkina would later Novaya Gazeta newspaper that all female trainees except Tereshkova were prohibited from getting pregnant until the space squad was disbanded. Ponomareva, who gave birth to her son before joining the program, also had to obey this rule. Yorkina broke this agreement, and as a punishment, a military rank granted to all female trainees after graduation was taken away from her.
Valentina Ponomareva would earn her PhD and perform other roles in the Soviet space industry. After the collapse of the USSR, she would return to literature, and author several books about her time in the space squad. In her later years, she dedicated herself to space psychology and developed recommendations for future cosmonauts.
Tatyana Morozycheva, who was considered for the space squad but never accepted, would give birth to a child and continue her record-setting career in skydiving. When she retired from parachuting, she joined a local art foundation, and made a good living working for private clients. Morozycheva faced drinking problems which contributed to her death, despite interventions from Tereshkova, with whom she remained close with.
Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, would become an active political figure and remains one to this day. At the State Duma, she represents United Russia, the pro-Kremlin Party that occupies the majority of seats at the lower house of the Russian parliament.
Andryan Nikolaev, the third Soviet cosmonaut, became her first husband and Khrushchev himself attended their wedding. A year later, their daughter was born, but Tereshkova and Nikolaev would later divorce in the 1980s. In one interview, Tereshkova said he was great to work with, but at home he became a tyrant. Nikolayev never married again. People who knew him said he did not want to share his life with any woman but Valentina.
Tereshkova was married a second time, to a doctor. Both her husbands have since passed away.
Today, she does not like the press and hardly ever makes public remarks. Little is known about her life except that she is involved with a few charities and supports several orphanages. But in rare interviews, she has said she’d like to get back to space. “Mars is my favorite planet, and it’s my dream to get there to learn if life has ever existed on Mars. And if it did, why it disappeared.”
Tereshkova and Kuznetsova applied to a new Soviet training program in 1978. Both would pass health tests, but they would be denied due to their age. Valentin Glushko, who led the space design bureau, said he promised Air Force marshal Savitsky to send a younger trainee, Savitsky’s daughter, Svetlana.
Glushko kept his word, and after nearly two decades, Svetlana Savitskaya would become the second Soviet woman in orbit in 1982. The same year Kamanin died.
The first American woman would not fly until June 1983.
Almost exactly 20 years after Valentina.