When Valentina Tereshkova embarked on her groundbreaking flight on Vostok 6, she became the first woman to fly in space. Although this was a momentous occasion, the door to space exploration was still a difficult one for female cosmonauts to prise open, and it took 19 more years for another woman to fly into space. This woman was Svetlana Savitskaya.
The stars seemed aligned for Savitskaya’s success as a cosmonaut, as she was the daughter of a Soviet war hero. Yevgeniy Savitsky served as commander of the Soviet Air Defence Forces, had been a flying ace in WWII and was regarded as a national hero. Under her father’s influence and by age 16, Savitskaya decided that she wished to become a pilot.
Headstrong and driven, after her application to join a flying school was rejected due to her young age she began to secretly take parachute training instead. It did not remain private for long as her father discovered her parachute knife stashed in her school bag. Far from being angry, her father actively encouraged her interest and by the age of 17 she had completed 450 parachute jumps. She was finally able to begin the pilot training she so desperately desired at 18, when she enrolled in the prestigious Moscow Aviation Institute.
During her time studying at MAI she joined the Soviet National Aerobatics Team and became a world champion, even catching the attention of the British press who dubbed her ‘Miss Sensation’ in 1970. When she graduated from MAI she took up work as a flight instructor, but her true aim was to test aircraft and she attended school to do just that. Yet again Savitskaya flew through the ranks and set world record after world record. She qualified to fly on 20 different types of aircraft and was certified as ‘Test Pilot, Second Class.’ By 1976 she was a test pilot for the Yakovlev Design Bureau, a Soviet aircraft manufacturer.
In 1980, the USSR was keen to launch its own female team of astronauts in opposition to NASA’s plans for female astronauts on the Space Shuttle and Savitskaya became part of this group. Although her family connections aided her selection, she completed a full course of training for flight missions and earned her place as a key member of the team.
Ten months before Sally Ride would become the first American female astronaut in space, Savitskaya became the second woman and 53rd cosmonaut in space. On 19 August 1982, Savitskaya and two others flew the Soyuz T-Z spacecraft to the Salyut 7 space station and conducted several experiments. After nearly eight days they returned to Earth.
Two years later, in July 1984, Savitskaya engaged in her second spaceflight on the Soyuz T-12. During this flight she performed an EVA (extravehicular activity) to conduct welding experiments on Salyut 7. This was the first time a woman had ever walked in space, and she also became the first woman to enter space twice. Soyuz T-12 returned to earth after 11 days, 19 hours and 14 minutes.
It was to be Savitskaya’s last time in space. There were plans for her to command an all-female crew to Salyut 7 on International Women’s Day, but this was cancelled due to problems with the station. Savitskaya eventually retired from the cosmonaut corps in 1993 and now, in her sixties, serves as deputy chair of the Committee on Defence. During her illustrious career Savitskaya received a multitude of awards, including the Order of Lenin and Hero of the Soviet Union, twice, as well as the Order of the Badge of Honour. Savitskaya’s total time in space was relatively short – 19 days, 17 hours and six minutes – but her contributions towards female astronauts, space exploration and research as a whole, are remarkable.