Russia Space Agency looking for women cosmonauts

The history of spaceflight by Russian female cosmonauts goes back half a century. Source: Lori / Legion Media

The history of spaceflight by Russian female cosmonauts goes back half a century. Source: Lori / Legion Media

Although Russia was the first country to send a woman into space, women in the country tend to shy away from becoming cosmonauts.

A number of women candidates have made it to the final stage in this year’s cosmonaut selection process, according to information from the Russian Space Agency. The agency has, however, decided to not disclose the exact figure at the moment. The space industry in Russia is still dominated by men. While other “space nations” boast of an increasing number of women who have left Earth’s atmosphere, Russia has yet to establish such a trend.

Nevertheless, the history of spaceflight by Russian female cosmonauts goes back half a century. In 1962, out of thousands of candidates, five were selected: engineer Irina Solovyova, mathematician and programmer Valentina Ponomareva, weaver Valentina Tereshkova, teacher Zhanna Yerkina, and secretary and stenographer Tatiana Kuznetsova.

To test the resistance of their bodies to high temperatures, the women were kept inside a heat chamber at 70°C with 30 percent humidity, dressed in full flying gear, until the body temperature climbed 2.5°C and the pulse rate hit 130 beats per minute. The MiG-15-Spark was used for weightlessness training. During one flight, the plane made 3-4 steep climbs, and tasks were assigned during each 40-second period of weightlessness. First, the pilot had to write her full name and date and sign a piece of paper, she then had to try to eat from a tube, and finally to pronounce a given phrase over the radio.

The sea trials were also not a walk in the park. They were designed to train the cosmonauts for a splashdown. The spacesuit was the same for all: specially engineered, not made-to-size, and large (for someone 168-170 cm tall). Meanwhile, the group was divided by height: Tereshkova, Kuznetsova, and Yerkina, at 164 cm, were designated the “tallies,” and Ponomareva and Solovyova, at 161 cm, the “shorties.”

The women themselves tell of how, at splashdown, the pressurized helmet would jerk forward, the headset slipping over the eyes. They had to simulate a parachute cutaway, but the fasteners would not stay in place. The inflated suit and gloves compounded matters. The fasteners were hard to reach, let alone open. The slightest delay caused the body to start overheating.

Having successfully completed the general training, the unit was officially presented to Sergei Korolyov, head of the USSR’s space program, who expressed dissatisfaction with the group in no uncertain terms.

On June 16, 1963, two members of the team — Tereshkova and Solovyova — were ready at the launch pad in full gear. Just moments before, when Irina Solovyova was being kitted out, the pressurised suit tore around the neck. Ponomareva’s suit had to be brought in urgently. If Tereshkova’s suit had ripped, no such replacement would have been available due to the height difference, in which case the first woman cosmonaut would have been Irina Solovyova.

During Tereshkova’s 3-day flight, the whole unit waited at the launch pad with baited breath. On June 19, the Vostok space ship and cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova descended separately by parachute and landed safely near each other. It became clear that in flight Tereshkova had felt a bit queasy (to put it mildly) and had not been able to complete all the mission tasks.

Tereshkova’s outwardly triumphant flight did not, however, change Korolyov’s views regarding women cosmonauts. The unit was finally disbanded due to “lack of utilisation” in 1969, after Korolyov’s death.

Only Tereshkova remained at the Cosmonaut Training Center, and was there in an official capacity until 1997.

A team of eight women was selected by RSC Energia to make flights to stations in low-Earth orbit, but only two of them — Svetlana Savitskaya (daughter of fighter ace Air Marshal Savitsky) and Yelena Kondakova (wife of cosmonaut and deputy head of Energia Valery Ryumin) — made the journey.

Prior to 2004, the only woman in the cosmonaut corps was Nadezhda Kuzhelnaya (who lacked a highly placed relative). Despite being considered a highly qualified specialist, in ten years of service she did not fly to space. Currently, the unit’s only female member is Elena Serova, but her cosmic destiny is unclear. A member since 2006, she has yet to be assigned to any mission...

Meanwhile, studies on the impact of space flight on women's health are far from optimistic. Here are some salient points from a recent NASA report:

1. The level of radiation in low-Earth orbit, let alone in deep space, is such that it hinders the ability to become pregnant, even on returning to Earth. For a normal pregnancy, levels of radiation should not exceed 500 micro-roentgens (µR) for the whole period of pregnancy (no more than 50 µR per month). On board the ISS, this level varies depending on the position of the station, but it would be around 35,000 µR over an entire period of pregnancy. Space can cause a deficit of ovulation and reduce the level of estrogen, which, among other things, leads to loss of calcium in the bones and osteoporosis (more so in women than in men).

2. In the absence of gravity, congealment of the blood in the pelvic organs may increase the risk of endometriosis (a hormonal disorder of the female sexual organs [author’s note]).

3. Ahead of lift-off, astronauts are recommended to deposit their eggs and sperm for storage, if they plan to become parents at a later date.

Dr Rostislav Beleda, a space expert with a doctorate in medicine, having worked for 14 years as a sexual pathologist at the Central Research Aviation Hospital, believes that space flight has a negative impact on all functions of the female body, but especially the reproductive organs. No American female astronaut has ever become pregnant after flying to space. Men also experience problems after days-long flights, not with conception, obviously, but with potency.

As for the idea of conceiving in orbit, the international scientific community has sadly concluded after years of research that it is impossible, at least given current knowledge. The ISS crew conducted repeated experiments on Japanese quail chicks, which they bred in orbit. All the chicks later died, some on board the station. Those that survived in space did not withstand the g-force on landing. They were unable to eat normally and became disorientated. A solution to the problem has yet to be found.

Finally, impartial U.S. data exists regarding the fate of those who have journeyed into space, in particular women. No American woman astronaut (they number over 30) has ever given birth after a space flight. The U.S. astronaut corps counts just one married couple: Margaret Seddon and Robert Gibson. The other, Ronald Sega and Bonnie Dunbar, broke up last year. They had no children. 63 percent of men and 80 percent of women astronauts suffer from sexual dysfunction.

Such unresolved health issues were very likely what forced Vitaly Davydov, deputy head of Roscosmos [Russia’s Federal Space Agency], to admit late last year that "insufficient applications from women" had been received to join the space-flight programme.

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