Whenever the Soviets beat us to a milestone in space, it caused a moral-scientific panic in the United States. They got a satellite up there first in 1957, sparking “Sputnik Mania.” Their space program was the first to put a man in space in 1961, sending the American effort to redouble its efforts. “We look back now [at Gagarin’s flight] and say, ‘Oh, that was just a small incident,’ but in those days there were serious writings about the future of communism around the world, whether it was going to be a dominant factor,” astronaut John Glenn recalled. “We took this very seriously — the administration, President Kennedy and President Eisenhower after he came around to believe in the importance of it. At the time, we looked at this as representing our country in the Cold War.”
So, one might have expected great movement when Valentina Tereshkova left the Earth’s atmosphere on June 16, 1963 to become the first woman in space. After all, Tereshkova spent three days in space, completed 48 orbits around Earth, and logged more time in orbit than all the Americans (three) who had been in space to that point. She’d proven that a woman was physically capable of withstanding the rigors of spaceflight. Surely, the Americans would rush to get a woman into space! Rosie the Riveter, perhaps, dusting herself off after her stint as a factory laborer in the successful war effort?
But no, there was no Tereshkova moment. In fact, one NASA official who declined to give his name to a reporter, said it made him “sick to his stomach” to think of women in space. Another called Tereshkova’s flight “a publicity stunt.”
It would be another 20 years before Sally Ride, who died yesterday at the age of 61, would become the first American woman in space.
The truth is: the sexism of the day overwhelmed the science of the day.
Read more. [Image: NASA]