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.”