Monday, July 22, 2013

Major General Valentina Tereshkova

Hey. It's me. Julia. And this is my blog, Calista Jones. If it feels as though we've become strangers, it's because we have. It's not you, it's me. I moved to New York City. It's great, but the move itself took up all of my mental energy; job applications and such. But I'm back now. And after seeing Grace Coddington shopping for groceries at Gristedes in Chelsea, and excitedly explaining to my bf who she is, I remembered that I don't want to quit reminding you that women have always been leaders, warriors, geniuses, truth-tellers, explorers, philosophers, and revolutionaries, no matter what the liberal media* would have you believe. So let's keep chatting, shall we?

In the sixth grade, I decided I wanted to be the first woman on the moon. I made this decision because at the time, I felt like that was a job a person in my position could achieve. Kids always imagine incredible things for their futures and the only quality that made me an exception was that I had the understanding that as a female I could set myself apart as the first of something. So I chose the only job that came to mind: going to the moon. I drew my lunar landing on the cover of a mock Time Magazine for a class project. I created a board game called "Pigs in Space" for another project. And when adults would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I'd proudly announce, "I am going to be the first woman on the moon." They'd chuckle and say, "That's great!"

We've discussed my shortcomings in math. This was also true in science, and as much as I loved explaining how I would convince NASA to reopen the lunar program so I could take the first giant leap for womankind, I knew I would never see the dark side of the moon. It just wouldn't be possible for a girl in my position. I resigned myself to not really thinking too hard about my future after that. 

Puffy sleeves for storing xtra O
and stilettos for
lookin xtra fierce!
It's not that I blame adults for not being more encouraging of this goal or that I think if they had I'd be blogging from space. It's just that, I wish I hadn't known this was just a fantasy; no more real than Astronaut Barbie. I mean, who actually owned one of those, right? It was simply a cute imaginary goal I expressed in my extraordinarily nasally voice, to get attention; always my number one priority. 

Everyone got a kick out of it and I wasn't the only girl who capitalized on the novelty of being female. It was sort of a 90's "thing". Even when we'd repeat after Ginger Spice and shout "Girl Power", we knew it was mostly about being sparkly, loud, and jumpy. (Which were actually radical departures from typical accepted girliness: pastel, quiet, and stationary.) Feminism had become a new outfit, a new token of the cute female tween, a simple trend. Engineering, exploration, and education weren't necessarily required.

There wasn't a seat for me on top of a rocket because why should there be? I can't point to the exact moment I was taught this, but I have a distinct memory of learning about Christa McAuliffe, the teacher selected for a shuttle flight, and being made to feel that if she had just stayed in the classroom, she wouldn't have blown up in the Challenger disaster. Obviously, that was an oversimplification but it was what I deduced from the adults who were teaching me. She was denied her bravery and sacrifice by retroactively being told to stay in her place. I had never heard of Sally Ride, couldn't name another female astronaut, and most certainly not of Valentina Tereshkova. Space was not a woman's place.

Let's chat about Hillary for a second. You know who I'm talking about. The next President of the United States, Hillary Clinton (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)  Let's not get too excited because there are other matters to discuss, but, Hil wanted to go into space too when she was young. She even wrote a letter to NASA to inquire about how one would go about becoming an astronaut. You know what NASA told Hillary, the next POTUS? They told her that girls can't go into space. Or they sent a list of requirements for space travel which would have precluded women. No one is really sure but I don't think there is much distinction between the two letters. Her critics say she obviously didn't want it enough but it seems like an impressionable teenage girl, even one with as much tenacity and determination as she, would feel discouraged by their response. So even without written, documented, proof, take me and Hil at our word, OK? WE WERE NOT ENCOURAGED. And it was because we were girls.

Too bad we didn't grow up in the Soviet Union. 

Yes, you read that right. And even though it is not totally sarcastic with regards to this post, it is obviously not too bad that we did not live in the USSR. And still don't. See, Pussy Riot.
BUT, Russia did do one thing right during the height of the space race. They sent Valentina Tereshkova into orbit. In 1963. 1963. As well versed as I am in feminist history, I had never heard of her until the 50th anniversary of her 3 day mission. I know it's important to know that women weren't allowed to do anything throughout history, however, I feel like it's also important to know that there's never been a time when women were doing nothing. How had I never heard of her until my 28th year of life, two years older than she was during her historic flight? 

Valentina was one in 5 women selected out of about 400 who applied for the female cosmonaut program. This means that not only were there 4 other women cosmonauts, but hundreds of others were brave enough to try out for a chance! That's amazing because even though those women didn't go into space, they put their names down to do something that few at the time had ever done. Men or women. To me this is a tangible example of progress in the world. Tereshkova had dreamed of parachuting and flying as a child. I'm not sure she could have imagined going into outer space but she was given an opportunity to exceed her childish fantasies despite her gender and social status. We should all know about her. 

Tereshkova was given the flight name "Chaika" which in English means "Seagull". She had a tumultuous three days in space. She was nauseous and uncomfortable the entire time which sounds a lot like my daily commute on the subway. (Motion sickness: another practical reason I am not an astronaut. I can't even sit on a porch swing.) Despite the hardship, she completed the entire mission which meant that afterwards she had spent more time in space than all of the American men combined. At 26, she was also the youngest person ever to fly in space. The data and photographs she collected were used to make new discoveries about our atmosphere, thus furthering all space exploration. She played an integral role in our understanding of the final frontier.

In 1969, around the time the space race was coming to a close, the female cosmonaut program was disbanded and it was over another decade before a second Russian woman would venture into zero gravity. Though she was denied a second space flight, Maj. General Tereshkova went onto become a cosmonaut engineer and politician. Out of about 560 people who have gone into space, she is the 10th person to do so. The first woman out of 40 total throughout the history of space exploration. Her accomplishment is monumental. 

It can be said Russia only used women in their space program to acquire another "first" in the race with the US. They certainly didn't make sweeping changes to their treatment of women overall. However, that does not take away from the fact that several women trained for and one completed an actual space mission. We cannot discredit their achievement. We should also remember that during this time space exploration captivated the entire world and while astronauts wives were gossiped about in our country much like the reality show wives are today, Valentina was awarded medals for her scientific exploration. I wish I knew about her when I was in sixth grade. 

Sage advice from Sally Ride.
Cold War tactic or not, the Soviets saw an opportunity to outdo America because of our gender inequality. Should that not be a lesson for us going forward? A societal weakness that could one day cost us valuable resources, intelligence data, or even worse, lives? Sexism has real, damaging costs. Our journeys into space will have effects further reacting than our Earthly borders. Shouldn't we want as many strong, capable, intelligent leaders as possible in order to make the greatest gains?

Elsa with her astronaut gear.
Before I left Chicago, I went to the Adler Planetarium with my best friend Jenny and her family. It was as educational for me as it was for her 5 year old son and 2 year old daughter. It became apparent that going into space will become a lot more realistic for their generation than it is for mine. We watched a documentary called "Space Junk" and spoiler alert people of Earth: we've already managed to pollute the orbit Valentina traveled. I didn't realize how many satellites are already required for powering our day to day systems and it seems that once we pick up our intergalactic litter, us normals will be circling the globe before we know it! I may not go to the moon, but I might take a commercial space flight some day if they develop a motion sickness pill strong enough for me. Maybe Captain Elsa will be piloting my flight! 

Can someone send me a Lego figurine of all the women I've written about so far? 

*Read the first line of the NYT linked article. Read this rebuttal. Accept that I love appropriating Sarah Palin phrases.