DeFlip Side #138: Chaika’s Flight


Welcome everyone, I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

It’s May 21, 1959 and a small plane climbs into the sky over a village near the depressed Soviet city of Yarosalvl. On board is 22-year-old Valentina Tereshkova, who’s about to leap toward her destiny—literally.

Tereshkova was a Russian success story. Her father killed in war, and raised by a single mother, she climbed from her humble beginnings through night school and technical correspondence courses. She became a textile factory manager and was elected to the Young Communist League—an exemplary Soviet citizen. She was also an aviation and parachute enthusiast. Which is what found her jumping from that plane. But little did she know, as she soared on the wind on that May morning, that she would go from this….

To this: On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova rocketed into history aboard Vostok 6, the first woman in space—an achievement now marking its 50th anniversary. So how did she do it? How did a small town girl with little formal education beat out a slew of more qualified candidates to help the Soviets achieve yet another milestone in the race for space?

In the early 60s, as America’s space program limped along with Project Mercury, the Soviets were racking up first after first with their Vostok Program. In 1961, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space aboard Vostok 1. Gherman Titov followed four months later in Vostok 2, while the U.S. was still experimenting with unmanned, suborbital flights.

By 1962, even after the Mercury astronauts had finally logged some space time, the Russians once again outdid the U.S., launching Vostok 3 and 4 within a day of each other, allowing the pilots to rendezvous and communicate in orbit. The joint mission caused a sensation—just as Russian space chief Sergei Korolev intended. He was an old hand at staging stunt missions to one-up the Americans. And now he and his party bosses set sights on another Soviet coup: the first woman in space.

Tereshkova was one of five cosmonaut trainees culled from aviation clubs across Russia. She was 24, the oldest and one of the least educated. But she met the chief criteria: skydiving experience. Piloting was unnecessary, since the Vostok capsules were almost completely automated. But cosmonauts had to manually eject from capsules during re-entry and parachute to the ground.

It eventually came down to Tereshkova and Valentina Ponomaryova. Tereshkova had more physical endurance, but Ponomaryova was better at science and engineering. This actually worked in Tereshkova’s favor, since Korolev planned a more complex two-woman mission to follow the initial female launch. So Tereshkova was perfect for the easier first flight. In addition, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev admired Tereshkova’s humble beginnings and considered her a good communist citizen, calling her a moral exemplar possessed of good breeding.

So four short years after her first parachute jump, Valentina Tereshkova—codename Chaika, or Seagull—climbed aboard Vostok 6, and flew into space history.

She slid into orbit about three miles from Vostok 5, which had launched two days earlier in another joint mission. Moscow Radio broadcast her excited words to millions:

“Here is Seagull,” she said. “I see a yellow strip. I see the Earth. Everything is in order. I’m feeling fine. Everything is working well.”

She later appeared on TV, laughing in her capsule, and even spoke to Khrushchev, who radioed his congratulations.

But that fine feeling wouldn’t last. Tereshkova was soon space sick and disoriented. She vomited at least once and was so out of it at times that she didn’t respond to calls from the ground.

To this day Tereshkova insists that her sickness was due to an error in her capsule’s orientation, which couldn’t be corrected without hurtling her out of orbit and into space, never to return. And even when the problem was fixed, she soon grew sore, cramped and bored. As her primary objective was to be the first woman in space, the mission planners didn’t give her much to do beyond the first day.

So it must have been a relief to Tereshkova when after 48 orbits and nearly three days, she was called home. Re-entry went smoothly. But while parachuting down, Tereshkova was drifting toward a large lake. A last minute wind gust blew her clear, but also caused her to land with such force that she bruised her nose on the inside of her helmet.

Despite this rough touchdown, Tereshkova went on to become a national hero, a representative of the Soviet Union the world over and a feminist icon. And that may have been where her story ended. But as it turns out, Tereshkova isn’t done with space.

Now, on the 50th anniversary of her pioneering flight, Tereshkova is ready to make space history yet again. At age 76, the former cosmonaut has announced that she wants to go to Mars. She says visiting the red planet has been a dream, even though it would probably be a one-way trip. This isn’t the first time Tereshkova has expressed her Martian ambitions. She said the same thing when meeting with Vladimir Putin on her 70th birthday.

But there’s been a key development since then. In April, a Dutch company called Mars One called for volunteers to make a one-way trip to Mars. Application fees will fund the mission, as will proceeds from a global reality show that will chronicle the training of the finalists. The final Mars crew will be chosen by audience vote. So let me get this straight: the greatest potential advancement in space exploration since the moon landing may be the result of a reality show? I’m fascinated and horrified.

But something tells me that this won’t be Tereshkova’s path to Mars. She has repeatedly said that space exploration should be reserved for specialists, not squandered on tourists—which is kind of a bold statement for an amateur parachutist who got the luckiest break of all time. But she still has a point.

In any event, if Tereshkova does get her Mars-shot, she’ll have another first under her belt—the oldest female ever to go into space. It would be a fitting legacy for the Seagull’s final flight.