Svetlana Savitskaya – Unsung Hero of Space
In celebration of a woman who did much to shatter the glass ceiling of space exploration.
History remembers the firsts – the first man in space, the first woman in space, the first American woman in space. Yuri Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova, Sally Ride.
For those that come second, far fewer accolades. But the second woman in space, Svetlana Savitskaya, had such an illustrious, record-breaking career both as a talented pilot and a skilled cosmonaut that she did just as much to break down barriers for women as those who came before – and deserves an extra special mention on International Women’s Day.
In 1978 NASA announced that Sally Ride would soon become the first American woman in space. Even though the Soviet Union had already launched the first woman into space in 1963 and even though the Space Race had supposedly ended with the symbolic Apollo-Soyuz joint mission in 1975, the Soviet Union was still keen to beat NASA to the punch. They rapidly selected a female team of cosmonauts, including record-breaking parachutist and test pilot, Svetlana Savitskaya.
Svetlana was born in Moscow on 8 August 1948, the daughter of famous WWII fighter pilot Yevgeniy Savitsky.
By the age of 16 she had decided to become a pilot but her first application to the Moscow Aviation Institute was denied because she was so young! Undeterred, she instead became a keen parachutist and performed 450 jumps before she was an adult. Particularly remarkable was her record-breaking sky dive from 14,252 metres at the age of just 17.
As soon as she turned 18, Svetlana again applied to the premier Moscow Aviation Institute and began training as a pilot.
During her time at the Institute, Svetlana began competing for the Soviet National Aerobatics Team, which involved flying aircraft in daredevil stunts. In 1970 the British press even gave her the nickname of “Miss Sensation” after she and her team became the world champions in aerobatics.
Throughout her career Svetlana earned 23 world records for aircraft speed, 3 records for parachuting, and qualified to fly 20 types of aircraft! Some of her records still stand to this day. She also received a Master’s degree in Flight Engineering. After training, Svetlana went on to become a flight instructor, a test pilot, and a sports pilot.
When the Soviet Union began recruiting new female cosmonauts in the late 1970s, Svetlana easily ticked all the boxes. She joined the cosmonaut training programme in 1980, and was selected for the Soyuz T-7 mission, symbolically timed to beat Sally Ride’s Space Shuttle mission by ten months.
Svetlana launched on 19 August 1982 with crewmates Leonid Popov and Aleksandr Serebrov, becoming the second woman in space and the 53rd cosmonaut overall. While the timing of her mission may have been symbolic to the Soviet Union, her qualifications and tasks during the mission were anything but. She spent nearly eight days performing experiments on the Salyut 7 space station, garnering the respect of her male colleagues in space and in mission control.
But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. When Svetlana arrived the space station, she was reportedly handed an apron from her male crewmates and jokingly told to get to work in the kitchen. But she’s also described in fond terms the flowers she received upon arrival: “They gallantly presented me with flowers they had grown in orbit and those plain flowers in a transparent box were the dearest present to me. We hugged each other, kissed each other, in a word, our meeting was the usual meeting of friends who had not met for a long time.” After this initial meeting she was quickly able to establish a working, professional relationship with her crew.
Svetlana launched into space for a second time on 25 July 1984, as part of the Soyuz T-12 mission, again timed to ensure that the Soviet Union secured another accolade: first female spacewalk. But symbolism aside, Svetlana was again the obvious choice. She spent 3 hours 35 minutes outside the space station, becoming the first person to weld in space, alongside her crewmate Vladimir Dzhanibekov. They performed welding, brazing and metal spraying, testing out a new multipurpose tool. By the end of her mission, she had spent a total time in space of 19 days, 17 hours, and 6 minutes across both missions, and was twice awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest honour bestowed by her country.
It was planned that Svetlana would go on to command the first all-female crew to celebrate International Women’s Day, but in a quirk of history, this was cancelled due to problems with the ageing Salyut 7 station (which had to be rescued in a dramatic mission in 1985). Although Svetlana remained in the cosmonaut corps until 1993, she never returned to space.
After her second spaceflight Svetlana earned another MSc in 1986, this time in technical engineering. She also celebrated the birth of her son in 1986. In 1987 she became the Deputy to the Chief Designer of the Energia project. The Energia was a heavy-lift rocket that was designed, among other things, to lift the Buran space shuttle – Russia’s short-lived answer to NASA’s Space Shuttle.
From 1989 Svetlana entered politics, becoming an elected people’s deputy of the USSR and then a people’s deputy of Russia in 1990. In 1996 she was elected a deputy of the State Duma, as a member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, and has held the position four times since then. She remains in politics today, serving as the Deputy Chair of the Committee on Defence.
Svetlana Savitskaya is not a household name today, but young girls and boys looking for a space hero could hardly do better than her.
A record-breaking pilot and parachutist who became the second women in space, the first woman to perform a spacewalk, the first space welder, and the first woman to fly twice in space.
Here at the National Space Centre, we admire her determination and skill so much that we’ve even nick-named one of our high-altitude pressure suits after her, identical to the type she would have worn as she set about shattering speed and altitude records in the 1970s and 80s.
About the author: Elspeth Lewis is a physics student at the University of Leicester and works as a Science Interpreter at the National Space Centre.