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How to Become an Astronaut

by Brian Dunning, Dec 24 2009
Some of the female Cosmonauts. The bonehead in the white shirt is Sergei Korolev, who led the charge to discredit the women and end their program.

Some of the female Cosmonauts. The fat bonehead in the white shirt is Sergei Korolev, who led the charge to discredit the women and end their program.

So I figured out what I’m going to talk about in Berlin next week. At The Amaz!ng Meeting 7 this year in Las Vegas, I was lucky enough to give a 20-minute talk on the last day, and the topic was the Missing Cosmonauts. It’s been one of the most popular episodes of my Skeptoid podcast, and it concerns the urban legend that a number of Soviet Cosmonauts died in space, on flights that never made it into the history books, and who were subsequently erased from history. These tales are based almost entirely upon interpretations of some recordings made by two young Italian brothers who tuned their radio receivers in to pick up Soviet and American radio traffic during Cold War era spaceflights.

Because of the cool-yet-creepy recordings, and I think also because of the fascinating true-life history involved, it’s been one of my most requested talks, and I’ve been able to refine and expand it since TAM. They tell me that Germans love their conspiracy theories, so I’m going to hit them with this one. If they ride me out of town on a rail and tar & feather me for questioning their conspiracy, then I’ll know I’ve done my job well.

A collateral perk of doing Skeptoid is that I get to learn all sorts of ancillary facts that never make it into an episode, usually because they’re off-topic. I learned one today while working on a few extra slides, dealing with the timeline of the female Cosmonaut program. The most dramatic of the recordings is a woman’s voice, in Russian, apparently in grave peril, pleading for help in her last moments of life (I say apparently, because I don’t want to spoil the talk for those who haven’t heard it yet). According to the timeline of events, there’s no way a woman Cosmonaut could have been in a capsule, or even training yet, at the time the recording was made.

But five women did make it into the training program. The principal skill sought by the program was parachuting ability, as bailing out of the returning capsule was the key life-or-death moment for a Cosmonaut. So five women with parachuting experience, and who were the right height and weight, were selected. But who was to be the first? At the end it came down to two forerunners, textile worker Valentina Tereshkova, and pilot Valentina Ponomaryova, the wife of a Cosmonaut. Academic tests were administered, and it was Ponomaryova who was the winner. By their stated standards, Ponomaryova was the one who best fit their criteria.

But tests and experience were not all that mattered in the Soviet Union. An interview also came into the equation. The final question was “What do you want from life?”

Ponomaryova answered “I want to take everything it can offer.”

Tereshkova answered “I want to support irrevocably the Komsomol and Communist Party.”

Valentina Tereshkova flew into space on Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963. Despite strong support from the senior engineers who considered her best qualified, Ponomaryova was passed over.

But politics dealt Ponomaryova a double whammy, this time aided by flagrant sexism. She didn’t make it into space as the first woman, but she was scheduled for a flight a few years later, along with other women. During Tereshkova’s flight, a problem sent the craft into orbit 90 degrees out of rotation. Tereshkova reported the error and corrected it. It seems almost impossible to believe, but the accounts we have show that certain directors in the space program felt that she should have allowed herself to be killed rather than embarrass the program by reporting an error. These same directors went on to report that Tereshkova vomited during her flight (which is true but hardly unexpected), that she blanked out and couldn’t remember how to operate the controls, and criticized her for some injuries sustained during the ejection. Since, clearly, women could not be relied on to operate a spacecraft, the program was ended and Ponomaryova – whose greatest crime was wanting to be all she could be – never got her chance.

11 Responses to “How to Become an Astronaut”

  1. Ticktock says:

    Yes, but was she pretty?

  2. science-based humanist says:

    Brian, nice story! As a native Russian speaker, I’d love to see what Ponomaryova actually said in Russian; I’ll check out your links. Alas, Russia (and USSR before it) was/is a deeply sexist society.

  3. Carl says:

    Losing the first woman in space wouldn’t have been embarassing, but a slight rotation of the spacecraft was too humiliating to tolerate?

    Did one of these “directors” later become safety head at Chernobyl?

  4. oldebabe says:

    Brian, VERY interesting stuff, but what, which, where, is the `conspiracy’? That the Soviets kept something about their space program secret? Not controversial.

    If it’s whether or not the recording is of a specific Russian woman’s voice pleading for assistance, or a myth, how can I hear the interpretations of, and, the `voice’, since like `science-based humanist’ above, I can understand Russian, but cannot be in that German audience next week…

    • Max says:

      The Skeptoid episode has the recordings.

      I can make out “Five four three two one. One, two, three, four, five” and “How do I transmit this?” I don’t hear anything about crashing and burning. If I try to decipher the rest, it’ll probably just be pareidolia, as in deciphering reverse speech. There’s a Skeptoid episode about that too.

    • Max says:

      The overall tone is more like a phone call with bad reception than a radio transmission. Like, she doesn’t say “over”, and she seems to get interrupted.

  5. Sofa says:

    Interesting, but not very controversial. I’d still love it if you did 911 or moon hoaxers.

  6. Max says:

    “But tests and experience were not all that mattered in the Soviet Union. An interview also came into the equation.”

    The fact the Tereshkova was working-class would’ve come into the equation. The story about the interview sounds a little cartoonish.
    The space race was largely about propaganda, so naturally the Soviets preferred a working-class loyal Communist cosmonaut.

  7. Chris says:

    Brian, about four to five years ago I read a couple of books on women who actually tried become astronauts in the USA, at the very beginning. I am sorry I do not remember the details, but I do have the book names in my file of books I have read (nerd that I am, I keep of list of books I have checked out of the library, it keeps me from checking out something I have already read):
    The Mercury 13 : the untold story of thirteen American women and the dream of space, by Ackmann, Martha.
    Promised the moon : the untold story of the first women in the space race / by Nolen, Stephanie

    Information about the Mercury 13 might provide an interesting parallel/comparison to the Soviet program.