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The First Woman in Space: Valentina Tereshkova

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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.”

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9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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How Austrian Soldiers Saved the 1964 Olympics
Allsport Hulton/Archive
Allsport Hulton/Archive

Although the Austrian city of Innsbruck has a well-deserved reputation as a winter sports mecca, it was dangerously low on snow and ice in the weeks leading up the 1964 Winter Olympics. So the organizers called in the troops.

Austrian soldiers went to work carving 20,000 blocks of ice away from the top of the mountain and then toting them down to make luge and bobsled tracks. In order to salvage the skiing events, the soldiers had to lug 40,000 cubic meters of snow from the tops of mountains down to the slopes that had been chosen for the various races. On top of that, they brought down an extra 20,000 cubic meters just in case anything bad happened to the first batch of snow.

And oh, how something bad did happen! Ten days before the opening ceremony, it started raining. As you probably know, rain and snow aren't the closest of chums, so much of the work that had already been done on the courses melted. The Austrian army again came to the rescue, though, taking to the slopes and tamping down the remaining snow by hand and foot. Thanks to this bit of resourcefulness, the games went on as planned.

Things aren't quite that tricky today, though. Artificially produced snow made its debut at the 1980 Winter Olympics, but the old "bring in some outside snow" tactic isn't totally dead. When the snow forecast for the Vancouver freestyle skiing and snowboarding venue Cypress Mountain looked grim in 2010, the organizers started trucking in loads of snow from other locations. Engineers then spread the snow on top of carefully situated bales of hay to give the slopes their desired shape. (How do you get bales of hay on a ski slope? You drop them from a helicopter.)

Of course, there's such a thing as too much winter weather for the Olympics, too. Snow and rain plagued the 1998 Nagano Games and led to lengthy delays and postponements for some events.

This post originally appeared in 2010.

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