How the Soviets Won the Space Race for Equality

The Cold War was fought as much on an ideological front as a military one, and the Soviet Union often emphasized the sexism and racism of its capitalist opponents — particularly the segregated United States. And the space race was a prime opportunity to signal the U.S.S.R.’s commitment to equality. After putting the first man in space in 1961, the Soviets went on to send the first woman, the first Asian man, and the first black man into orbit — all years before the Americans would follow suit.

In fact, the director of Soviet cosmonaut training wrote in his diary as early as 1961: “We cannot allow the first woman in space to be American. This would be an insult to the patriotic feelings of Soviet women.” Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed, and the search for candidates began.

On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova, a 26-year-old factory worker-turned-cosmonaut, became the first woman in space. She flew a solo mission that orbited Earth 48 times. In three days, she traveled farther than all previous American astronauts combined. Ardent female fans in the U.S.S.R. saw her triumph as a welcome reaffirmation of the Soviet commitment to gender equality, while women outside the Soviet Union took it as proof that there was no limit to what women could achieve.

Tereshkova, who was born the daughter of a tractor driver in a village on the Volga River, became a Soviet poster-woman, and eventually retired as a major general in the Russian Air Force. The first American woman in space, Sally Ride, didn’t go up until 1983.

Beginning in 1967, the Soviet Union and its socialist allies collaborated on space missions through the Interkosmos program. In July 1980, Vietnamese pilot Phạm Tuân became the first Asian and the first person from a developing country to travel to space.

The child of farm workers, Phạm joined the Vietnamese People’s Army in 1965. An outstanding student, he was chosen to train as a pilot and became a national hero after he reported shooting down an American B-52 bomber in 1972 (though the claim is disputed). One of his team’s assignments in space was to study the effects of chemical warfare on the Vietnamese ecosystem to increase food production in the war-ravaged country. The first Asian-American in space, Ellison Onizuka, would follow Pham five years later.

Just two months after Phạm’s voyage, the Cuban Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez became the first person of African descent to go to space, while it would take the U.S. three more years to send an African-American. Like Tereshkova, Tamayo Méndez had impeccable socialist credentials. Orphaned as a baby, he grew up poor and was apprenticed to a carpenter at age 13. He became a revolutionary as a teenager and eventually a pilot in the Cuban Revolutionary Guard. When Tamayo Méndez returned to Earth, Fidel Castro delivered a lengthy speech stressing the cosmonaut’s African ancestry.

Cosmonaut diversity was key for the Soviet message to the rest of the globe: Under socialism, a person of even the humblest origins could make it all the way up.

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