Tereshkova’s unseen sister

By Tony Quine

Elena Sorkokina photographed recently, wearing her Order of Courage medal (with red ribbon) which she received in 1998 for her work as a ground test subject for future female cosmonauts. Zvezda

Elena Sorkokina photographed recently, wearing her Order of Courage medal (with red ribbon) which she received in 1998 for her work as a ground test subject for future female cosmonauts. Zvezda

In 2012, (Spaceflight, Vol 54, No 6, pages 216-217) I revealed details of ‘Tereshkova’s Secret Sisters’, the group of twenty-three female parachutists, pilots and engineers, who had been seriously considered for selection for the 1962 female cosmonaut team.

Earlier this year I stumbled upon a very short Russian language article about 75 year old Elena Illarianovna Sorokina, a retired employee the JSC Zvezda company, long time manufacturers of Soviet and Russian spacesuit and equipment.

In that brief local news item it was revealed that, at the very beginning of her career, Elena had been a ground-tester of equipment designed for the female cosmonaut team, and had also taken part in a range of extreme physical and psychological tests, in order to gather data on the female body, ahead of the planned space flight by a female cosmonaut.

Curious to know more, I contacted JSC Zvezda in the hope of finding out a little more about Elena, and any other women who had been involved in this challenging and daunting work, at the very birth of the space age. As a result, I was delighted to be offered an ‘e-mail’ interview with Elena Sorokina.

Silent witness
For over 50 years, Elena has maintained a silence about her work, at that time, but she has now provided Spaceflight with a fascinating extended account, of her experiences as a test subject, in the earliest days of manned spaceflight, and also her subsequent career:

Can you please begin by telling me a little about yourself; when and where you were born; your family; and how you decided upon your career path?
I was born on September 3, 1939 in Moscow. Composition of our family: father, mother and older brother (older than me by 3 years). Before the war, we moved to Ramenskoye, 45 km from Moscow on the Moscow-Ryazan road, and into the home of my grandmother. My father was a leading engineer-constructor in the mechanization of the timber industry. My mother raised me and my brother, and was engaged in farming. Subsequently, my brother became a chemist, a production engineer with the Soviet equivalent of the Ph.D. degree in engineering.

Which University or College did you attend? What subject and dates did you study there?
I graduated from the secondary school in Ramensoye with a silver medal. I was interested in everything, including in engineering (I seem to have inherited it from my father). But I got enrolled with Lomonosov Moscow State University, the Biophysics Department of the Biological Sciences Faculty. I graduated in 1957 with a diploma in Human and Animal Physiology.

In a recent short Russian language article about you, you are described as an ‘athlete’. What sports did you participate in?
I used to be doing cycle racing, and I hold the second female rank for road cycle racing (there used to be such a competition type in the 1950s), as well as skiing, for which I hold the third rank. I was also keen on table tennis and chess (second rank!).

When did you join Zvezda? How old were you? What was your first job there? (I believe it was called Plant 918, at that time)
To immediately clarify, when I arrived at plant, the company had changed its name to P /B 1052. A year before my university graduation, the P/B No. 1052 (Tomilino village) representatives would come to our Biology Faculty, tell us about the nature of work at the plant, and suggest considering it.

The fact that both the work and home were in the same direction was also taken into account. I agreed, and in August 1961 I was sent there for pre-diploma practice in the air and space medicine section (Department No. 8). The work turned out to be very interesting: the g-load limits (on a centrifuge) were studied in relation to space and aviation with involvement of research volunteers selected by the Flight Expert Medical Board (the Medical Board) in Moscow.

Doing this work, I was learning various physiological methods (electrocardiogram, plethysmography, pulse wave velocity registration etc), necessary for understanding how the heart works in case of multi-directional overloads in relation to the body longitudinal axis.

How did you become involved as a ‘ground tester’ of space flight clothing and equipment?
After having defended my diploma, I was enrolled with this enterprise (on 13 June 1962). I was 22 years old. The company had already had some experience with involving young and healthy staff as research volunteers to test the pilots or cosmonauts’ means of protection against hazardous flight factors. Once a year, they would pass the Medical Board and get the status of a ‘freelance tester’ entitled to participate in tests without quitting their main place of work (whether they worked as a doctor, engineer, or designer etc).

And I felt I wanted to try myself in this role. I was curious whether I would, or would not be able to do it! This is how it started for others as well, as they wanted to check themselves what they invented, what they designed.

I volunteered! At the same time, my wish and interest coincided with the management suggestion to try and participate. Moreover, it was at that time that the rumours began about launching a woman into space. 

On what date, did you begin this work?
It was May 1962, when I still had my pre-diploma practice. I went to the Medical Board, and was cleared ‘without limits’. The first test that I had to go through was ground ejection on a big vertical catapult (BVC). This is because the first cosmonauts would leave the Vostok spacecraft descent module for landing, in an ejected seat and would go down on a parachute.

Were you involved specifically because it was planned to select, and train, female cosmonauts?
Yes, of course. The task was, first of all, to accumulate at least some data on female tolerance to the extreme flight factors (as concerns men, everything was more or less clear: There was a large number of pilots, and a wealth of flight data). And, secondly, such testing results for women had to be taken into account for the subsequent selection of a cosmonaut candidate.

Can you tell me about the type of ground tests you undertook?
I participated in testing from 1962 to 1965. Over four years, 96 tests were officially recorded. I have already mentioned that I started first tests with the BVC. The BVC loads were increasing gradually: first 6-g, 4-5 days later – 8-g, and thus up to 18-g., i.e. to the nominal values for a male cosmonaut.

Also, there were the following tests: altitude chamber ascents to 25 km in a spacesuit for up to 4 hours; pulled with a parachute through a hydraulic channel with the velocity of up to 4 m/s (15 tests); overground pulling by wind with the use of a parachute with the velocity of up to 22 m/s; centrifuge loads in the cosmonaut position of up to 12.6-g (in relation to the spacecraft manual operation training for re-entry).

What was the most difficult or the most frightening test?
There were no easy tests, all of them were close to the limits. The most difficult for me was the ‘high-altitude’ 4-hour stay in an altitude chamber in a spacesuit with the pressurisation of 0.4 atmospheres: the suit was a little bit too small for my height, plus hypodynamia, a fixed position, and, well, I just had to endure.

Was I scared? I felt no actual fear. Of course, I had prelaunch nervousness before the short-term (dynamic) tests. But in the centrifuge cabin, for example, on the “operation lever” there was physical condition button: if there is anything wrong, you give a signal, and it stops. On a catapult, however, it was somewhat scary, especially with the maximum load (18-g): there was nothing like the above button, you pull the ejection handle and fly 20 m up the rails, closing your eyes, within fractions of a second!!

During these tests, were you ever in fear for your health, or even your life?
I had no fear for my health, because there were calculations, tolerances and, there was a confidence in the expertise of the doctors, engineers, and all other experts, that everything was checked in the detail. In addition, by that time our male testers already tested many things on themselves. In particular, as concerns the spacecraft ballistic descent from the orbit, centrifuge tests were done where the research volunteers, our Department 8 doctors V Kostin and K Talyzin, successfully overcame the load of up to 26-g.

So, I will repeat what I have already said earlier, I had no fear for my health, let alone life, but just prelaunch anxiety, similar to that experience by sportsmen.

In his diary, General Nikolai Kamanin refers to ‘a woman who made a simulated Vostok flight for 10 days, in a ground simulator.’ Was this you? If not, do you know who it was?
No, it was not me. Most likely, it was Galina Viskovskaya (Volkova upon marriage), from Department 11 of our company. At that time, she was actively involved in the testing of space equipment, automatic control systems etc, but did not participate in the centrifuge tests.

Were any other women from Plant 1052, or any other organisation involved in this work?
The first four young women who went through the centrifuge tests: me, Svetlana Novak, Anna Gracheva, and an 18-year old Dina (cannot recollect her surname). By the way, Svetlana Novak (born in 1940), a design engineer, participated in tests from 1962 to 1963 (18 tests), including on the BVC – 18 g, on a centrifuge – up to 10 g, and high altitude climbs in an altichamber. After us, the cosmonaut group girls, Irina Solovyeva, Valentina Ponomareva and Valentina Tereshkova, Zhanna Yerkina, and Tatyana Kuznetsova, passed the centrifuge with up to 10 g. 

Before the flights of Vostok 5 and 6, did you meet Tereshkova, Solovyeva, Ponomaryeva, Yorkina, Kuznetsova. Did you speak to them directly about the work you had undertaken?
Yes, when they came to our Department 8 for the centrifuge, they were encircled by doctors and the management, and I was there in the role of the “visual study aid”: “Look, she has already done her revolutions and all is fine!” I was there to reassure them, but nothing more!

Did you know in advance, when Vostok 6 would be launched? Did you know that Tereshkova was to be the first woman in space? What were your thoughts and emotions, at this time?
There were hints about Tereshkova, that she would be the one to fly. But it seemed that it was still Solovyeva, who was going to be the first. She was very strong-willed, with great self-command, and wanted to fly very much: she even cut off her splendid hair which obstructed the equipment! Ponomareva looked like the next candidate: higher technical education, knowledge of the English language, she passed the centrifuge, parachute jumps. I learned about Tereshkova’s flight, from the radio. 

Was there ever a possibility for you to become a cosmonaut? Did you ever have any ambition, or desire, to fly in space yourself, either in 1961-3 period, or at a later time?
It is difficult to say whether there was such a possibility. Our company people were screaming: “You should go! Who should, if not you!” But, objectively speaking, I was taller than the other women (172), which was a problem at that time; I was not a party member (also a problem), and I did not have any parachute jumps! While speaking subjectively, I had absolutely no such ambitions! And, the most important things, was that I already was very much involved into an interesting and specific research work, and I was afraid of the post-flight “star life” like that of Yuri Gagarin, instead of my interesting research work. Therefore, when Nikolay Kamanin (our supervisor) visited our plant and asked me at the centrifuge hall “wouldn’t I want to fly”, I said absolutely “no”, bringing up the arguments presented above.

I would like to congratulate you on the award of the ‘Order of Courage’. Do you know why you received this award? Can you remember what year it was given to you?
I received the Order of Courage for the active participation as a research volunteer in the preparation of the flight of the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova. The decoration took place in 1998. 

When did your work as a Ground Tester finish?
My active work as a freelance tester ended by 1965. Later on, up until 1969, I would participate in tests from time to time. For example, when there was a question about a possibility to operate a spacecraft on the re-entry into the upper layers of the Earth atmosphere with escape velocity. I was involved (along with men), to assess women’s ability for manual operation with the overloads of up to 14 g-forces. Also, when I was 49 (in 1989), our company was doing an expert assessment of a roller-coaster type amusement ride with up to 5 g overloads. There was a question of admitting different age group users. So, I had to go first through 5.2 on a centrifuge, and then also on the ride. The ride did not disappoint!.

When the Soviet Union selected a second group of female cosmonauts in 1979/80, were you involved again?
No, I did not participate. Since they had Svetlana Savitskaya, a pilot, they did not need me.

Can you tell me a little about your subsequent career at Plant 918 and JSC Zvezda? What is your role there today?
After I defended my diploma, and then a Biological Sciences Ph.D. thesis, my main work at the company is physiological grounding and active involvement in development of an anti-g protection for fighter pilots. This was my primary role. The second role is a medical topic: it is participation in the designing of an Adel-94 suit to treat people with disturbed motion activity and the Regent suit for rehabilitation of the adult post-cranium-cerebral injury patients, participation in the development of an anti-shock Kashtan (Chestnut) suit, as well as the Support Unload Compensator used in space, and on Earth. I am also currently a member of the company’s Elders’ Board and I share my experience with young experts.

I am delighted that this interview places Elena Sorkina’s memories and achievements on permanent record after so many years. It would not have happened without the support, enthusiasm and tenacity of Daria Simikina, Press Officer at JSC Zvezda, who handled all contacts with Elena, and who scoured the Zvezda archive for the photographs, most of which, which have never been published before.

Special thanks are also due to Viktor Sinigin, a former colleague of Elena, who helped to prepare the Russian language draft of her responses.

Also thanks to Lyudmyla Shcherbanyuk and Daria Shcherbakova who both helped with aspects of the translation of the Russian language text.

Finally, if any reader has further information about the other women mentioned in Elena’s comments, Svetlana Fedorovna Novak, or Galina I Viskovskaya (later Volkova) I would be interested to hear more, either through the ‘Spaceflight’ office, or by e-mail, to [email protected].

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