The Soviet Space Program Was Not Woke

Sending the first women into space isn’t the same as developing an astronaut program that values equality.

The Russian cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova
The Russian cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova (AP)
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series reflecting on the Apollo 11 mission, 50 years later.

About this time 50 years ago, three men returned home from a long journey. They had flown to the moon, planted an American flag in the silver regolith, and flown back. After a decade of jostling, the United States became the indisputable winner of the space race.

But the Soviet Union netted another kind of victory, according to a recent story in The New York Times: “The Soviets won the space race for equality.” The story points out that after the Soviet Union made Yuri Gagarin the first man in space in 1961, the government sent the first woman, the first Asian man, and the first black man into orbit around Earth.

It took the United States years to reach the same milestones, but the Soviet space program was not as woke as the Times story suggests. Nationalist intentions, not a push for equality, were behind the many “firsts” of that era, and focusing on those flashy events ignores what unfolded after the supposed win.

The effort to bring women into the Soviet astronaut corps began when Nikolai Kamanin, the head of cosmonaut training, heard that female American pilots were training to become astronauts. (There was no official NASA program to recruit female astronauts, but the doctor in charge of providing examinations to male astronaut candidates gave the same tests to women at his own clinic in 1960.) “We cannot allow that the first woman in space will be American,” Kamanin wrote in his journal. “This would be an insult to the patriotic feelings of Soviet women.” A search began shortly thereafter, and the first female astronaut candidates reported for training in 1962.

Kamanin couldn’t have said it any more plainly. The impetus was nationalistic—any egalitarian impulse was in service of that primary motivation. Soviet women would fly to space for one of the same reasons that the rockets carrying them did: to beat their Cold War enemy. The historic flight would demonstrate the superiority of the Soviet space program and, by extension, its socialist government over the capitalist United States.

Valentina Tereshkova, a 26-year-old textile worker with a love for skydiving, was launched into orbit in the summer of 1963 after months of training. If there was one moment that might have verged on equality in this propaganda exercise, it was when Tereshkova, dubbed by Soviet officials as “Gagarin in a skirt,” was allowed to pee on the tire of the bus that delivered her to the launchpad, a tradition set by the first man in space. She spent three days circling Earth in a small, spherical capsule. When she returned, Tereshkova had racked up more hours in space than all the American astronauts combined.

Tereshkova was celebrated as a national hero and a role model for young girls in the Soviet Union. “News items and feature stories openly encouraged girls to strive for the highest levels of achievement in science and technology, loudly affirming that in the USSR there were no limits on female aspiration,” Roshanna Sylvester, a scholar in residence at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies Russian history, wrote in Into the Cosmos: Space Exploration and Soviet Culture in 2011. Tereshkova made dozens of trips abroad in the years after her flights, representing the Soviet government at international conferences on women’s issues, before being elected to the Russian State Duma, where she still serves today.

But as Soviet leaders publicly touted her accomplishments, they continued to debate in private whether women should be astronauts. The masquerade didn’t last. Tereshkova never flew to space again. Neither did the other women who had trained with her. Tereshkova revealed decades later that the head of the space program decided against flying another woman because she “already had a family.” It was clear where the Soviets felt women belonged. A female cosmonaut would not fly again for another 19 years.

The Soviets’ other firsts in space were similarly short-lived efforts. The Soviet Union sent foreign astronauts, including Phạm Tuân, a Vietnamese military pilot, and Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, a Cuban military pilot of African descent, to the country’s Salyut space station in 1980. By then, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had little to compete over in outer space and had actually begun to collaborate. The first-time travelers, accompanied by cosmonauts, were part of a Soviet program that was intended to bolster connections with other socialist nations in eastern Europe and Asia, and ended in 1988.

The U.S. was driven by the same motivations as the Soviet Union in its own space efforts. After Gagarin went to space, the Johnson administration began a search for an African American candidate for NASA’s astronaut program. In the divisive Cold War climate, astronauts were “goodwill ambassadors” dispatched to promote American political ideals, Douglas Brinkley, a historian who has written about the American effort to land on the moon, told The New York Times in a different recent story. “You put a person of color in space and it’ll show how noble our democracy is,” he said.

An Air Force pilot, Ed Dwight, was in the running in 1962 to become the first black person to go to space, but he never became an astronaut, despite a recommendation from the military to NASA. Unlike the other trainees, Dwight experienced frequent racist encounters and, reportedly, daily taunts from his commander encouraging him to quit. The space agency never provided an explanation for why he wasn’t selected. The first African American to become a NASA astronaut, Robert Lawrence, died in a plane crash during training in 1967.

It wasn't until 1983 that Guion Bluford flew on the space shuttle, becoming the first African American in space. Ellison Onizuka, the first Asian American in space, followed two years later.

For both Cold War powers, demonstrating prowess mattered more than enacting progress. And if history books had ceased printing in the 1980s, then sure, they would say the Soviet Union bested its Cold War rival in the space race for equality. But the hard work of equal representation is more than a matter of giving one woman or one black man a rare opportunity, and a half century later, the Soviet, now Russian, space program has fallen way behind.

Over the decades, as the Americans caught up, the Russians backtracked. Since Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, NASA has flown nearly 50 female astronauts to orbit. Russia has sent four, including Tereshkova. At NASA, motherhood was not considered disqualifying; in 1984, Anna Fisher flew on the shuttle 14 months after giving birth.

NASA’s latest astronaut class, selected in 2017, includes six men and five women, and five recruits are people of color. Russia’s newest eight recruits, announced last year, are all white men.

The director of the spaceflight program offered an explanation for the absence of women that seems to belong in the 1960s: “One of the main requirements for those willing to join the crew is determination, the desire to become a cosmonaut. Apparently, the percentage of women willing to become cosmonauts is a bit lower.” But stereotypical assumptions about women are not uncommon in the modern Russian space program.

“There are definitely cultural mind-sets about women’s roles, and it takes some time to prove your value in some way,” Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut, recently told The Washington Post, describing her experience training with cosmonauts in Russia before launching together to the International Space Station. “But it’s totally doable, and I felt like I did become very close and become very respected by the Russians, which I think is very important.”

To imagine what the beginning of her training was like, Whitson said, “set your watch back 40 years.”