Why does Russia send so few women to space?

Yakov Khalip/Sputnik
Overall, five Russian women have been to space in over half a century. Is it true that they are just not keen to fly to space?

“Our research over the past 50 years, and even more now, shows that there is no big difference between men and women [in space],” said Anatoly Grigoriev, academic head of the Institute of Biomedical Problems, back in 2014. Almost all countries with their own space programs share the stance.

However, there’s still a long way to go to achieve parity between men and women on space flights: internationally, women account for a mere 11 percent of participants on all orbital flights. They primarily come from the United States - a total of 53. Meanwhile, just five Russian women have been to space over the 61-year history of human spaceflight. Too few, especially taking into account that the current team of Russian cosmonauts includes only one woman, Anna Kikina, who was enrolled back in 2012.

So, why is that?

Who was selected

Ironically, the Soviet Union was the first country to send a woman to space. It was 25-year-old Valentina Tereshkova. In 1963, she orbited Earth 48 times.

The first team of female cosmonauts was selected based on not only their mental and physical qualities (Tereshkova was beaten by other candidates in this respect and was “the worst among the best”). Back then, a much greater role was played by her roots, biography, party membership and public speaking skills (we recounted in detail how she was selected here). 

So, initially, sending a woman to space was primarily a political goal. The next 19 years of calm proved this. Valentina Tereshkova became the first, setting a world record, which no one has beaten to date: she made a solo flight (Later on, women were only sent to space as part of joint missions). Yet, it was her mistakes and health issues during the flight that caused female missions to be suspended.

The next Russian woman in space was Svetlana Savitskaya, back in 1982. A qualified pilot and instructor, she had set three world records in parachuting from the stratosphere and 18 aviation records on jet planes prior to her orbital flight. She flew to space twice and, during her second mission in July, 1984, she became the first woman in the world to enter open space.

Svetlana Savitskaya

Soviet women cosmonauts’ records didn’t stop there. In the next one, engineer Elena Kondakova took part in two space missions in the 1990s, one of which lasted five months. In the years that followed, no other woman spent that long in orbit.

Yelena Kondakova

Seventeen years later, in 2014, engineer Elena Serova, the fourth Russian woman in space, boarded the ISS.

NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore, cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova

37-year-old actress Yulia Peresild became the fifth — and the latest —  Russian woman to be sent into space. Her mane of fair hair floating in zero gravity has since become a meme. Peresild is the only one to have had nothing to do with space prior to the flight. At some point in the past, she had to spend a night at a railway station for the sake of her career and, now, she’s flown to the ISS, where she starred in the first ever full-length movie shot in outer space, having beat Tom Cruise to it.

Cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, actress Julia Peresild and director Klim Shippenko

Many more were prepared than sent 

Initially, at the dawn of human spaceflight, both the USSR and NASA feared problems that could arise, due to the female physiology. For instance, medical workers suggested in earnest that during a menstruation in zero gravity blood could be released not outside the body, as normal, but inside — into the abdominal cavity through the fallopian tubes. 

Another issue that everyone was concerned about was the effect on women’s fertility. However, as early as after the second launch, it became clear that spaceflight didn’t affect offspring: Tereshkova gave birth to a healthy daughter a year after her flight, followed by Savitskaya. Concerns about menstruation were also proved groundless. Even then, all of this made scientists confident that women in space were not in any way different from men.

Valentina Tereshkova with her daughter

Academician Anatoly Grigoryev says that although not many women from the USSR flew to space, a lot more were prepared for this.

Valentin Glushko, the then chief designer of the scientific production association ‘Energy’ (NPO ‘Energia’), cherished the idea of developing female spaceflight: he wanted to launch a women-only crew. To make it happen, in the late 1970s, a whole team of female cosmonauts did medical check-ups in the Institute of Biomedical Problems. About ten women were greenlit to pass on to a special training program. A total of four were selected. All of them were doctors: a gastroenterologist, an intensive care doctor, endocrinologist and a hormonal control specialist. The launch of the female crew, led by Svetlana Savitskaya, was slated for the mid-1980s.

Svetlana Savitskaya (center) in weightlessness training.

“But the girls were unlucky. Bad news came from the orbital station: Vladimir Vasyutin [the cosmonaut stationed there] fell ill. So, the all-women flight was scrapped and, in the next three-four years, the program was scrapped. In the early 1990s, there was already no trace of this intention whatsoever,” says Anatoly Grigoryev.

Tough HR issue

Whatever the case, even in 2019, some astronauts cited physiology as the reason why there were so few women in space. Now, though, such statements cause nothing but a scandal, as was with cosmonaut Sergey Ryazansky’s remarks during the airing of the ‘Complex Matters in Plain Words’ (‘Prosto o slozhnom’) program. He stated at the time: “Boys have a primitive physiology and stable hormonal levels. No one is going to adapt a space shuttle launch, venturing out into outer space or an emergency to a woman’s period.” He immediately met a backlash from his colleagues, who drew attention to NASA still making multiple launches of women astronauts. Ryazansky explained this differently: Russian women don’t want to fly to space, because of their focus on family.

Cosmonaut Elena Serova at a training session

“Boys need this - to rush to seek for adventures, heroic deeds and so on. Girls are more down-to-earth, they care about their families, kids,” Ryazansky suggested.

“From the physiological point of view, there are no hurdles to women flying to space,” reiterates Mark Belakovsky, a space doctor, who initiated the project ‘Mars-500’ (experiment to imitate a flight to Mars).  “I believe, there are two factors which hamper Russian women joining the ISS crew: the national mentality and biased judgment.”

In terms of the national mentality, it’s more likely about a long-standing belief that spaceflight is men’s cup of tea. As explained by cosmonaut Elena Serova, there has been a tacit vision since the Soviet time that there are certain typically male professions. 

“It all started at the time of the war [World War II], which saw the population shrink greatly and women were not allowed into men’s professions to preserve their health. These are stigmas, which have, unfortunately, come to stay in our society,” she says.

Also, according to cosmonautics popularizer Vitaly Egorov, there is another factor which makes it more difficult for women to become cosmonauts and fly to space. “In Russian cosmonautics, there is no division between men’s and women’s standards. All sport tournaments, including the Olympics, have such a division, but not in this case. Even if a woman has good health and education, it’ll be harder for her to meet the standards that apply to men. NASA’s requirements for men and women are also the same (part of them, at least) but they have been set up based on women’s standards.”

Female crew of

The reason for this is the conservatism of Russian cosmonautics, experts believe.

So, whatever statements the Roscosmos head makes, in reality, at lower levels, “everyone wishes to work like they are used to - with men”.

This position has only led to “a tense HR situation”, as the Rosmos admission committee dubbed it.

Attempts  are being made to change the situation. For example, the experiment ‘Moon-2015’, which simulated a manned flight to the Moon, included a crew of six women: they spent eight days in an enclosed space.

“We put together such a crew to draw attention to the importance of women’s flights to space. The participants of the experiment did their best and showed good results. Later, some of them took part in the experiment SIRIUS-17 [Scientific International Research In Unique Terrestrial Station], while others are helping carry out research of four-month isolation,” Mark Belakovsky says.

In 2019, Roscosmos state corporation announced a new enrolment in a cosmonaut team and openly called on women to be “more active”.

“We wouldn’t like to balance it all out artificially, but hope that young Russian women can easily meet all the universally tough requirements for cosmonauts and, thus, balance out the team, which has become too male,” said Dmitry Rogozin, the then head of Roscosmos.

However, even after that, it didn’t work out well for women. Only 64 out of 2,200 candidates made it to the in-person selection round; merely nine of these were women and none managed to pass the physical tests.

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