AidSpace Blog

Happy Birthday to the World’s First Woman in Space

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Happy birthday Valentina Tereshkova! March 6th marks the 78th birthday of the world’s first woman to fly in space.

Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Vladmirovna Tereshkova in the Vostok 6 spacecraft.

Valentina Vladmirovna Tereshkova

Nearly 52 years ago, beginning on June 16, 1963, Tereshkova became the first woman to orbit the Earth for two days inside her Vostok 6 spacecraft—a similar spacecraft to the one that carried Yuri Gagarin into space. She had been selected from among five finalists. Their names, Tatyana Kuznetsova, Irina Solovyova, Zhanna Yorkina, and Valentina Ponomaryova, remain obscure to all but the most acute observers of the Soviet human spaceflight program. Tereshkov trained with these women for a little over a year before her flight in 1963 and into the 1970s until the hope of sending an all-woman, multi-person crew to orbit the Earth was abandoned. The Vostok 6 flight was a co-orbiting flight with Soviet cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky and his Vostok 5 spacecraft. Tereshkova’s flight remains controversial in some Russian circles as engineers at the time complained that she had not properly executed her assignments in flight. In the United States, her flight was controversial because a Soviet woman flew in space at a time when women were not even considered to take part in the astronaut program. Five months after her flight, Valentina Tereshkova married a fellow cosmonaut, Andrian Nikolayev—they separated and divorced soon after the birth of their daughter, Elena. Tereshkova went on to assume political and diplomatic roles throughout her career. Even today she makes occasional appearances throughout the world as one of the last two surviving Vostok cosmonauts.

This birthday is especially significant for Valentina Tereshkova. For the first time in almost 17 years, there is another Russian woman in space. It might seem odd to some that the country that led by launching the first woman in space has fallen so far behind the United States. To date, the U.S. has sent 43 women into space. Twelve women have represented other nations through either single or dual citizenship, including two women “Taikonauts” from China. Only four Russian or Soviet women have flown in space.

What happened to the promise of equal opportunity in space for Russian women?


The first six cosmonauts, left to right: Pavel Popovich, Yuri Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova, Adrian Nikolaev, Valery Bykovsky, German Titov.

Valentina Tershkova’s flight in 1963 was initially one of opportunity. Unlike her male counterparts, Tereshkova was not selected based on her flying skills; she had thrived at parachute training but had never operated an aircraft before her selection. Only one of her colleagues in the women’s brigade was an accomplished pilot and possessed a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. None of the Soviet women pilots from World War II, who were known as “Night Witches,” had been included in the ad hoc recruitment. After the group was disbanded, there was no thought of reconstituting a women’s brigade or of recruiting women for the regular cosmonaut program. This was until NASA announced the “Astronaut Group 8″ in 1978; the first class of astronauts selected exclusively for the Space Shuttle program. Among them were six women, three black men, and one Asian man. As an almost knee-jerk response, Soviet space planners plucked Svetlana Savitskaya from a career as an aerobatic sports pilot and sent her to the Salyut 7 Soviet space station after two years of training. Almost a year before Sally Ride became the first American woman in space aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, Savitskaya became the second Soviet woman in space. Two years later, Savitskaya returned to space, this time to perform a spacewalk three months before Kathryn Sullivan’s announced spacewalk on board the shuttle. In the years after Savitskaya’s spacewalk, there was some lip service paid to recruiting female cosmonauts to the Soviet program, but none flew again for a decade. Finally, Elena Kondakova made a five-month stay on board the space station Mir in 1994-5. Kondakova continued her spaceflight career when she flew on board the space shuttle in 1997 as part of US-Russian cooperative planning for building the International Space Station (ISS).

The last 17 years have witnessed a reorganization of the Russian space program. Funding has declined, the Russians no longer have their own space station, and Russian Soyuz rockets now carry crews exclusively to the ISS. During this time there have been a few Russian women cosmonaut candidates—perhaps one in every other entering class—but none had actually made it to space in almost 17 years.

The one successful candidate was Elena Serova, who was in the selection class of 2006. She made her first spaceflight in September 2014, flying in the Soyuz TMA 14M to become a part of Expedition 41 on board the ISS. She remains in orbit today, planning for a return to Earth later this month. The significance of Serova’s flight, returning Russian women to orbit, was not lost on Russian television audiences. At the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2012, Tereshkova and Serova joined together to represent the past and present of women cosmonauts in the Russian and Soviet space programs. This picture shows them together at the Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City near Moscow. However, this photograph might be a fleeting image of the progress that Russian women are making in the cosmonaut corps. The Russian cosmonaut class of 2014 has only one woman, Anna Kikina.


Elena Serova (left) and Valentina Tereshkova at the Cosmonaut Training Center.

I anticipate that Elena Serova will join us all in wishing Tereshkova a happy birthday. Perhaps there will no longer be a decade-long break between her return to Earth later this month and the next Russian woman cosmonaut.

In the meantime, we’re happy to celebrate the birth of the first woman in space. Here is to you Valentina! We all hope that there will be more Russian women to continue your legacy in the near future. С Днем Рождения!

Cathleen Lewis is a curator in the Space History Department at the National Air and Space Museum.


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Celebrating “Star Trek,” Remembering Nimoy

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News of Lenoard Nimoy’s passing was felt far and wide at the National Air and Space Museum. It may come as no surprise that many members of our staff—the same folks who have dedicated their careers to inspiring and educating the public about aerospace history—are also huge Star Trek fans.

As we remember Nimoy’s legacy, we can’t help but recall our own experiences meeting the man and celebrating the series. In 1992, the Museum opened a temporary exhibition on Star Trek and cast and crew of the beloved show descended upon the Museum throughout its run. Two staff members, past and present, reflect on that experience.

From left to right, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley at a panel discussion at the 1992 Star Trek exhibition opening.

Marilyn Kozak retired from the Smithsonian as director of donor relations in 2011, but in 1992 she was asked to serve as the gallery supervisor of the Museum’s Star Trek exhibition.

They kept coming. Sometimes over 4,000 a day. Some wore uniforms, others had memorized entire scripts, many were just curious. The president of Mozambique, Sonny Bono, Chelsea Clinton, David Copperfield, and Gary Busey all came to see. But the usually crowded Star Trek gallery at the National Air and Space Museum was quiet and empty early one morning when Leonard and Adam Nimoy came to visit. How can a fan (me) NOT be excited about standing under the model of the Starship Enterprise with Spock in the flesh. But my role that morning was gallery supervisor, not “fan.” That meant no pictures, no autographs, just a casual conversation about how the ears took SO long to get JUST right, the raging controversy over that first bi-racial kiss, and the “state-of-the-art” special effects that, well, just didn’t look quite that special anymore. We ended the visit watching the video clip of Joan Collins getting killed by a car as a devastated James T. Kirk looks on. The Nimoys smiled, it was time for them to move on. As we exited the gallery, I showed them the guest book with the names of, and comments from, thousands of visitors. Mr. Nimoy seemed genuinely moved as he paused to read the many pages of tributes, recollections, and expressions of appreciation from fans of a low-rated, often panned, sometimes cheesy but highly relevant television show.

Not everyone at the Smithsonian thought the Star Trek gallery was a good idea and they were unprepared for the huge crowds that visited every day during its short run. Leonard Nimoy was initially conflicted about his role as Spock and I suspect he was just as unprepared for the intense notoriety that waned and waxed over the years.

But just as the Smithsonian remains a much beloved institution, Nimoy, as an actor, artist, musician, director, and of course as Spock continues to inspire. Thank you for encouraging us to go boldly and allowing us to join you on your journey to explore strange new worlds. It’s been a blast!

Those famous Spock ears that took, “SO long to get JUST right.”

Linda King currently serves as a project manager at the Museum, but in 1992 she found herself momentarily stuck in a freight elevator with the cast of Star Trek.

The Museum hosted two events before opening the Star Trek exhibition—a morning press conference and an evening reception. For these events, each Star Trek cast member was paired with a staff escort; I was paired with Nichelle Nichols who played Lieutenant Uhura. I remember the evening event in particular. We all assembled in the parking garage and then boarded the freight elevator on our way to the second floor where the exhibition was on display. Before the elevator ascended to the second floor, it abruptly stopped. That’s right, the freight elevator momentarily stopped operating. To this day I don’t remember who said it, but within moments one lone voice on the elevator said, “Scotty, we have engine trouble.” The elevator roared with laughter. Moments later it became operational again and we were taken up to the second floor to attend the opening reception.

As I was looking through some of my project files, I stumbled across the logistics memo for that day and wanted to share with you who attended and who in the Museum served as escort.

Star Trek Cast Member …. Staff Escort

William Shatner (Captain Kirk) ….. Valerie Neal/Kathie Spraggins
Leonard Nimoy  (Mr. Spock) ….. Bob Craddock/Patti Woodside
DeForest Kelly (Dr. McCoy) ….. Bea Matkovic (Mowry)
Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) ….. Linda King
James Doohan   (“Scotty”) ….. Mandy Young
Walter Koenig (“Chekov”) ….. Mike Tuttle
George Takei  (“Sulu”) ….. Priscilla Strain
Majel Barrett Rodenberry ….. Raymond Stephens
Bill Theiss (costume designer) ….. Barbara Brennan
Robert Justman ….. Jack Van Ness
Martin Davis
& Brandon Tartikoff,
Larry Levinson
Harry Anderson
(all Paramount execs) ….. Susan Beaudette

Star Trek artifacts on display in the Museum’s 1992 exhibition.


You’ve heard from Marilyn, Linda, and previously from Bob. Now, we encourage you to share your own stories here in the comments. What did Mr. Spock mean to you? 


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To Me, Mr. Nimoy Was Mr. Spock

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All actors create characters. Some of these characters even achieve iconic status. However, what Leonard Nimoy created was legendary. Spock appeals to so many different people in so many different ways.

Leonard Nimoy (right) and William Shatner at a panel discussion with fellow cast mates at the opening of the Museum’s Star Trek exhibition in 1992. Photo: Mark Avino (SI-92-1547-28A)

Prior to Star Trek, most television characters were formulaic. Dad wore a hat, mom wore a dress, and the children were all sugar coated. Spock was alien not only because he had pointed ears, but because he was smart. Very smart! Spock knew thousands of years of world history as well as any form of higher math and physics. Spock was so endearing because he was one of television’s first true intellectuals. And Nimoy was so convincingly smart as Spock that he often had scientists ask him for his opinion about things. Nimoy made it cool to be smart.

In a crew as diverse as the Enterprise’s, Spock was also different, and the struggle Spock had with his identity (both on screen and in real life it seems) is something everyone feels at some times in their lives. To find peace, we must accept who we are and appreciate that our differences are what make us special. There were so many times where Nimoy showed us that this was the case.

It was Nimoy’s idea to make Spock and the Vulcan culture focused on logic and to control all emotions. In our own culture men and even boys are taught not to show any emotions (“boy’s don’t cry”). It is no wonder Spock was so appealing, particularly to males. Even Spock cried sometimes.

Sometimes Spock needed rescuing. Sometimes it was Spock who did the rescuing. Whatever the circumstances, it was obvious that Spock was a true friend who his crewmates could always count on. What’s not to like about that? Through Spock, Nimoy created someone all of us can identify with and admire.

My late mother, who was also an avid Spock fan, used to say, “Star Trek is about hope.” I think she was right. However, that hope is set in the future. While I appreciate the optimistic outlook Star Trek portrayed about the future, the underlying message that we can apply to today is that we should treat everyone with dignity no matter how different or alien they are.

The author, Bob Craddock (center), and Leonard Nimoy (right) at the opening of the Museum’s 1992 Star Trek exhibition. Photo: Carolyn Russo

The entrance to the Museum’s Star Trek exhibition in 1992. Photo: Mark Avino (SI-92-7742)

I had the opportunity to serve as Mr. Nimoy’s escort when the Smithsonian opened the Star Trek exhibit in 1992. I spent the better part of two days with him and his wife, Susan Bay. Probably the thing that impressed me the most about him was that he always had time to talk to a fan. Despite hearing the same questions or comments over and over all day, he never lost patience. He treated everyone with dignity. In that short time I had the privilege of being with him, it was obvious that he lived the message of Star Trek. Mr. Nimoy was indeed Mr. Spock.

Bob Craddock is a planetary scientist and avid Star Trek fan in the Museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies.

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Vance Marchbanks’ Contribution to Public Health Policy on Sickle Cell Disease

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Dr. Vance Marchbanks, Jr. is famous in both the black history and aerospace history communities for his accomplishments as one of the first in his field. He was one of two black MDs to complete the United States Army Air Corps School in Aerospace Medicine at the beginning of World War II. His fame continued through his association with the 99th and 301st Fighter Groups, who later became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. He served as their flight doctor during the war. His fame among the black community continued through the early years of the American Mercury space program when he was detailed to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to monitor the health of John Glenn in orbit from a listening station in Kano, Northern Nigeria. Even after he retired from the Air Force as a colonel, Marchbanks’ fame rebounded with each new accomplishment as an employee at Hamilton Standard, where he worked on the life support systems for the Apollo program. Nevertheless, one of Vance Marchbanks’ greatest accomplishments was less frequently heralded. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, he used his considerable political and personal clout to challenge the U.S. Air Force on one of its medical dogmas.

Dr. Vance Marchbanks, Jr., served on the flight control team in Kano, Northern Nigeria.

Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) gained its name from its initial medical identification in 1910. A young doctor coined the term after examining a blood sample from a patient who had complained of both chronic and acute pain and anemia. Instead of the round donut shaped red bloods cells that he expected, the doctor saw cells that were shaped like sickles, a hand-held agricultural tool with a curved blade. The disease that he described had existed for thousands of years under various local names among people in Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Near East—largely in regions where Malaria is endemic. It was not until the late 1940s and early 1950s that the genetic nature of the disease began to be clear to doctors in the U.S. and Britain. In 1949, two articles appeared independently showing conclusively that SCD was an inherited, recessive gene. During the 1950s, it became possible to screen for SCD. This was a life-saver for those who inherited two copies of the gene and the ability to identify those who carried single copies of the gene made genetic counseling possible for SCD. Carrying a single copy of the gene was dubbed as having Sickle Cell Trait (SCT).

Once scientists had identified the molecular expression of SCD, they sought to identify the causes of the periodic acute episodes like the ones that the 1910 patient had suffered. Looking at the anecdotal evidence, scientists surmised that stress and hypoxia caused attacks. Doctors further speculated that even those who carried a single copy of the gene could be subject to sickle cell attacks. The United States Air Force (USAF), using an overabundance of caution, acquiesced to preliminary hypotheses of biologists and geneticists and declared that no pilot-candidate with the single gene for SCD and known as having Sickle Celt Trait would be allowed to participate in any altitude duties. They argued that the limited medical knowledge concerning the effects of stress and the environment on individuals with SCT justified this action. The result was that any man screened as having SCT could not become a pilot.  What had been characterized as a caution within medical circles had become USAF doctrine. The doctrine became public in 1979, when a candidate to the Air Force Academy with SCT was dismissed from the academy because of his genetic trait. The young man sued.

When it came to the attention of the community of black doctors in the U.S. that the USAF had instituted this policy based on the unproven belief that the trait alone could cause health issues for pilots, they went to Vance Marchbanks for any data that might have been recorded during World War II to either prove or disprove the Air Force’s justification for excluding pilot candidates with SCT. Of course, the USAF did not have the capacity to screen for SCD during the war, but Marchbanks had maintained contact with his fighter pilot colleagues and was able to assemble a contact list from which doctors could determine the prevalence of SCT among the Tuskegee Airmen. Dr. Oswaldo Castro at the Howard University Center for Sickle Cell Disease conducted the testing and Dr. Marchbanks determined that out of 154 veterans of World War II, 10 were found to have SCT. All had flown in unpressurized aircraft without evidence of any hazard. One of the 10 had amassed a total of 600 flying hours in combat. Marchbanks published his data in the Aviation, Space and Environmental Medical journal in March 1980, and reprinted the results in the Journal of the National Medical Association the following year.

Effective on May 26, 1981, the Air Force rescinded its policy on flight crews and Sickle Cell Trait. The Department of Defense issued guidance to all the military services to do likewise. Today, we know much more about SCD, its causes, treatment, and screening. But it is thanks to Vance Marchbanks and his long career that screening for the trait ceased to be a United States Air Force dogma.

Vance Marchbanks died in Connecticut in 1988.

Cathleen Lewis is a curator in the Space History Department at the National Air and Space Museum.


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Obscure Objects: WWI U.S. Army Protective Helmet Used by American Rocket Society

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What does a piece of World War I Army surplus have to do with early rocketry? Well, a helmet from the war, painted white for easier visibility, provided protection for American Rocket Society members during rocket testing in the 1930s.

Ed Pendray, wearing the WWI surplus helmet, uses a tracking device during solid-fuel rocket flight tests in Midvale, New Jersey, 1937.

Ed Pendray, wearing the WWI surplus helmet, uses a tracking device during solid-fuel rocket flight tests in Midvale, New Jersey, 1937.

One such member was G. Edward Pendray a newspaper reporter and editor, freelance writer, and public relations man in New York City. In the 1920s, he and his wife, Leatrice “Lee” Gregory, became excited about the prospect of space travel. They began meeting with friends — mostly science fiction fans and writers — at Nino and Nella’s, an Italian restaurant/speakeasy in New York City, to talk about the possibilities of space flight. One day a regular at the meetings, David Lasser, the editor of the science fiction magazine Science Wonder Series, suggested they organize. Thus, in 1930 the American Interplanetary Society (AIS) was born, and Lasser became its first president.

Pendray replaced Lasser as president in 1932, and the focus of the AIS began to change from a group that promoted the wonders of space travel into a society that built and tested small rockets. As the organization evolved, the members decided to rename it the American Rocket Society (ARS) in 1934. Eventually, most of the original science fiction devotees began to drift away and were replaced by scientists and engineers.

Much later, in 1963, the ARS merged with the Institute of the Aerospace Sciences (originally the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences) to form the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), which is now the world’s largest technical society dedicated to the global aerospace profession.

Pendray contributed to the field of aerospace throughout his life. Today, the AIAA awards the “Pendray Aerospace Literature Award” in recognition of his achievements.

The helmet used by ARS members during early rocket tests is made of steel and was mainly used from 1935 to 1941. It was given to the Museum by Ed Pendray in 1968. The helmet is now on display in the 1,000 Years of Rocketry case at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

World War I U.S. Army helmet used by the American Rocket Society (ARS).

For additional reading on the subject, see Tom D. Crouch, Rocketeers and Gentlemen Engineers: A History of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics…and What Came Before (Reston, Va: AIAA, 2006) and Frank Winter, Prelude to the Space Age (Washington, DC: SIP, 1983)

Kathleen Hanser is a writer-editor in the Office of Communications.




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