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Women in space; Comparing their roles on US and Soviet space flights

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Comparisons are bound to be made between the recent space flight of American astronaut Sally K. Ride - America's first woman in space - and the Soviet Union's two space women, Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya.

But if anything useful is to be learned, the comparison must be fair. It must contrast the realities of these events and not the myths that have been incidentally and deliberately wrapped around them.

The Soviets seek a purely chronological comparison: ''Ours were first!'' And they were. Valentina Tereshkova, the world's first woman in space, was launched on June 16, 1963. This was nearly 20 years to the day before the blastoff of America's Space Transportation System 7 (STS-7), with its five-member astronaut team aboard the shuttle Challenger.

That ''first,'' however, has become so enshrouded with myth that it's often difficult to separate fact from fiction. For Soviet propagandists, the flight was used to tout the ''equality of Soviet women under socialism.'' That early space flight led millions of people in the West to believe exactly that.

Then-Prime Minister Nikita S. Khrushchev had decreed that the woman cosmonaut must be a distinctly ''ordinary'' Russian girl. And so she was: Mrs. Tereshkova was an assembly-line worker in a textile factory when she was picked, with three others, to prepare for the flight. Once she flew, the other three were expelled from the space program as superfluous. She, in turn, took her expected place as a touring exhibit of Soviet culture, giving speeches and cutting ribbons forevermore.

The male cosmonauts had always regarded her with a mixture of condescension and contempt. ''They hate me, you know,'' she openly confided to foreign visitors at a reception. Her success had cast a shadow over their machismo, since if a factory girl from Yaroslavl could make it into orbit, what was so tough about space flight?

Such attitudes probably had a lot to do with a plethora of disparaging rumors about her behavior in space.

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