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Getty Images

The First Woman in Space: Valentina Tereshkova

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Getty Images

In America, we often hail Sally Ride as the first female astronaut. But the first woman in space was actually a Soviet cosmonaut who beat out 400 applicants to pilot the Vostok 6 spacecraft in 1963—two decades before Ride took her historic spaceflight.

There was nothing in Valentina Tereshkova’s early life that indicated she would become a space pioneer. Born to a farmer and his wife in 1937 in the Yaroslavl region about 200 miles northeast of Moscow, Tereshkova finished school at age 16 and went to work to help support her family.

She seemed destined to follow her mother’s footsteps as a textile factory worker, save for one interest: skydiving. Tereshkova was an avid parachutist who worked her way up to skydiving; by the time she was 22, she was jumping out of the sky pretty regularly.

And then came the space race.

By 1962, the competition to get into orbit had been brewing between the Soviet Union and the United States for about half a decade. The two countries, in an effort to outdo one another in exploring the next frontier of space, had each launched men into space—for the Russians, it was Yuri Gagarin in April 1961; a month later, the Americans successfully launched Alan Shepard into orbit.

During the space race, Russia and the U.S. constantly sought to outdo one another. After putting a man in space, the obvious next step was to launch a woman into space. The USSR’s lead spacecraft designer, Sergey Korolev, is said to have been instrumental in the decision. There are rumors that the USSR knew that the U.S. was planning to send a woman to space and wanted to edge the Americans out.

Inspired by Gagarin's flight, Tereshkova wrote to the Soviet authorities volunteering for any future training program for female cosmonauts. The authorities responded, and in early 1962 she became one of just five women accepted for cosmonaut training. Tereshkova emerged as a prime candidate to make the first spaceflight, although the reasons offered for her selection differ—by some accounts, she was chosen because her family represented workers or because her father was a war hero, although her skydiving skills no doubt played a role. (So did the fact that she wasn't menstruating—women were forbidden from flying while they had their periods.)

On June 16, 1963, Tereshkova took off, eventually circling the globe 48 times over the course of almost three days and cementing her place in history as the first woman to leave Earth’s atmosphere. She performed a series of biological experiments on plants and animals on board; took photos, film, and notes; and monitored various devices tracking both her body and the spacecraft. She also successfully steered the spaceship to orbit the Earth instead of travel away from it, which the capsule was initially doing until Tereshkova figured her way around the glitch.

Accounts differ regarding Tereshkova’s voyage, with much of the coverage steeped in a mixture of sexism and patriotic vitriol. American media didn’t think Tereshkova had earned her stripes: One LIFE story scoffed that the U.S.’s female astronauts were “much better qualified than Valentina” (Tereshkova had only been training for a bit more than a year). The same issue gushed about the “blue-eyed blonde” in a piece provocatively titled: “She Orbits Over the Sex Barrier.”

The USSR wasn’t immune to sexism either: A Soviet scientist told a reporter later that Tereshkova was “hysterical” and vomited in panic. But Tereshkova likely got sick thanks to nausea, a common side effect for space travelers.

For all the gender-busting awesomeness Tereshkova engaged in as the first woman in space, it seems she dealt with more obstacles than initially perceived. She kept secret for 30 years the fact that her ship was erroneously designed to ascend but not descend back to Earth, which she was able to fix with a little ingenuity. 

There were also rumblings of sexism in the cosmonaut program, which didn’t sit well with Tereshkova: “On Earth, men and women are taking the same risks,” she later said. “Why shouldn’t we be taking the same risks in space?” She and her fellow female cosmonauts wrote to the Soviet space program head protesting the decision.

Valentina Tereshkova at a press conference in 2013. Image via Getty Images.

Life after Tereshkova’s cosmonaut days was busy. Soon after her flight, she entered the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy, eventually earning her honorary doctorate in engineering. She later dove into the political sphere, becoming an influential, powerful member of the Communist regime in the following decade. She also became a decorated stateswoman, and even after the fall of the Soviet Union remained a respected figure.

More recently, Tereshkova has said she still itches for space travel. On her 70th birthday, in 2007, she was invited to celebrate with Vladimir Putin, at which point she volunteered to go on a one-way trip to Mars.

“If I had money, I would enjoy flying to Mars,” she said. “This was the dream of the first cosmonauts. I wish I could realize it! I am ready to fly without coming back.”

Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

NASA // Public Domain
On This Day in 1983, Sally Ride Made History
NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

Thirty-five years ago today, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She flew on the space shuttle Challenger on a six-day mission. She had previously helped build the shuttle's robot arm, and now she operated it in space. Not only was she the first American woman to go to space, she was the youngest astronaut in space, at age 32.

(As with many space-related firsts, that "American" qualifier is important. The Soviet space program had sent two women cosmonauts into space well in advance of Ride. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova flew all the way back in 1963, and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. They also sent various younger people to space, including Tereshkova.)

Ride represented a change in the previously completely male astronaut program. Although NASA had unofficially tested women in the late 1950s as part of the Mercury program, the idea of sending women into space was quickly discarded. NASA policy for decades was that only men would be considered as astronauts. It took until 1978 for NASA to change the policy—that year, six women became astronauts: Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Kathryn Sullivan, Anna Fisher, Margaret Rhea Seddon, and Shannon Lucid.

Ride and her colleagues were subject to an endless barrage of sexist media questions, curious how women might fare in space. They also encountered institutional sexism at NASA itself. Ride recalled:

"The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup—so they designed a makeup kit. A makeup kit brought to you by NASA engineers. ... You can just imagine the discussions amongst the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a makeup kit."

Ride held a Ph.D. in astrophysics, two bachelor's degrees (English and physics), and had served as CapCom (Capsule Communicator) for the second and third shuttle flights, STS-2 and -3. She was an accomplished pilot and athlete, as well as a Presbyterian elder. She was closely connected to Challenger, performing two missions on it and losing four fellow members of her 1978 class when it exploded.

After her astronaut career concluded, Ride served on both the Challenger and Columbia disaster review panels. During the former, she leaked vital information about the Challenger disaster (o-ring engineering reports), though this wasn't broadly known until after her death. She wrote educational books and founded Sally Ride Science. She was asked to head up NASA by the Clinton administration, but declined.

Ride died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer. Her obituary made news for quietly mentioning that she was survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy. Although Ride had come out to her family and close friends, the obituary was the first public statement that she was gay. It was also the first time most people found out she'd suffered from pancreatic cancer at all; she asked that donations in her memory be made to a fund devoted to studying that form of cancer.


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