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Svetlana Savitskaya: Second woman in space, 1st female spacewalker

Svetlana Savitskaya, the second woman in space and the first woman to go to space twice
Svetlana Savitskaya, the second woman in space and the first woman to go to space twice (Image credit: Bettmann / Contributor via Getty Images)

Svetlana Savitskaya is an ex-cosmonaut who enjoyed an illustrious record-breaking career where she not only became the second woman in space, but the first to fly in space twice. Her tenacious spirit and exceptional flying ability paved the way for female cosmonauts. Savitskaya continues to exude great influence to this day as a respected political figure.  

Early life and passion for flight

Svetlana Evgenievna Savitskaya was born in Moscow, on Aug. 8, 1948. She inherited her passion for flight from her father, Yeveniy Savitsky, who served as Commander of the Soviet Air Defense Forces and became a national hero after his performance as a fighter pilot in WWII, according to the New Mexico Museum of Space History

Savitskaya was interested in aviation from a young age, and by the time she was 16 years old had decided that she wanted to be a pilot, according to astronautix.com, a website about space history. Her career got off to a rough start when she applied to a flying school at age 16, only to be rejected because she was too young. She was, however, permitted to take up parachuting instead. 

Savitskaya attempted to keep her parachuting training secret from her parents but was busted by her father who found her parachuting knife in her school bag, according to astronautix.com. But her father encouraged her daring pursuit and by the time she was 17, she had already completed 450 parachute jumps, according to the New Mexico Museum of Space History

Related: Pioneering women in space: A gallery of astronaut firsts 

Savitskaya's determined spirit and experience in skydiving paid off when she was admitted to the prestigious Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI) when she was just 18 years old. In parallel with her studies at MAI, Savitskaya took flying lessons at a paramilitary technical school called the Central United Flight Technical School at the Central Committee of the DOSAAF where she qualified as a pilot-instructor in 1971. Savitskaya graduated from MAI in 1972, at age 24, according to Roscosmos.

She went on to hone her skills at the aircraft department of the Test Pilot School of the Flight Research Institute (LII) of the Ministry of Aviation Industry (MAP) in Zhukovsky, 24 miles (40 km) south-east of Moscow. She graduated from the institute as a Test Pilot MAP 4th class in 1976, according to Roscosmos.

Then in 1986, Savitskaya successfully completed her doctorate degree at the Bauman Moscow State Technical University, according to Roscosmos.

Flying high as a world class record breaker

Savitskaya demonstrated her head for heights when she took part in a record breaking stratospheric skydive from 46,758 ft (14,252 meters) when she was only 17 years old. Over the span of her career, Savitskaya racked up 18 world records in aviation according to the The World Air Sports Federation (FAI), including a 1667 mph (2,683 km/hr) flight speed record for a female pilot in a MiG-21 aircraft, a type of supersonic jet used by Soviet Air Forces. 

Throughout her time at MAI, Savitskaya was an active member of the Soviet National Aerobatics Team where she became a world champion and in 1970, was dubbed "Miss Sensation" by the British press after her performance at the world aerobatics competition in Hullavington, U.K, according to the National Space Centre.

Savitskaya's flying talent was not limited to aerobatics; the certified Test Pilot, Second Class is qualified to fly over 20 different types of aircraft, according to Roscosmos, and had impressively racked up over 1,500 hours of flight time before she was recruited as a cosmonaut. 

Spaceflight firsts (and seconds)

Svetlana Savitskaya on board the Salyut 7 space station. (Image credit: Roscosmos)

Having already wowed the world with her impeccable flying skills and parachuting ability, Savitskaya set her sights even higher (both figuratively and literally). 

When the Soviet Union set up a recruitment drive for female cosmonauts in 1979, Savitskaya was the perfect fit. After passing a series of medical examinations and tests, Savitskaya joined the cosmonaut training program in 1980 and was selected for the Soyuz T-7 mission to Salyut 7.

Finally, 19 years after Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, Savitskaya followed in her footsteps. On Aug. 19, 1982, Savitskaya flew alongside fellow cosmonauts Leonid Popov and Alexander Serebrov on the Soyuz T-7 spacecraft to the Soviet space station Salyut 7. Their mission lasted seven days, 21 hours and 52 minutes, according to Roscosmos. After completing several experiments on Salyut 7, the crew returned to Earth and Savitskaya made headlines as the second woman to travel into space, beating NASA astronaut Sally Ride by 10 months.  

But Savitskaya wasn't finished with her space exploration milestones quite yet. Just two years later, she returned to Salyut 7. On July 25 1984, Savitskaya launched into space on the Soyuz T-12 mission alongside Vladimir Dzhanibekov and Igor Volk. During this mission, Savitskaya not only became the first woman to go to space twice, but was also the first woman to perform a spacewalk

During the EVA (extravehicular activity) Savitskaya donned a bulky spacesuit that had already been worn eight times by Salyut 7 cosmonauts, according to spacefacts.de, a website about human spaceflight, and performed a series of welding experiments on the space station alongside Dzhanibekov.  

Cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya performing a spacewalk during the Soyuz T-12 mission.  (Image credit: TASS / Contributor via Getty Images)

The spacewalk lasted more than three hours and the record-breaking 36-year-old Savitskaya made headlines once again. After 11 days, 19 hours and 14 minutes, Soyuz T-12 returned to Earth. The mission was Savitskaya's last trip to space. Over the span of her two missions, Savitskaya spent a total of 19 days, 17 hours and seven minutes in space. 

Post-cosmonaut life and accolades

There were plans for Savitskaya to return to Salyut 7 as commander of an all-female crew for International Women's Day in 1986, but the mission was cancelled due to technical problems with the aging space station according to the National Space Centre. Though Savitskaya did not return to space, she remained with the cosmonaut corps until her retirement in 1993.

Since then, Savitskaya has led a successful political career, and remains in politics today, currently serving as Russia's deputy chair of the Committee on Defense according to the U.S. Russia Business Council.

Savitskaya is undoubtedly one of the most revered women in spaceflight history. Not only can her accomplishments be measured by the countless world records she broke, but also by the numerous awards she received throughout her career. Savitskaya was twice awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, which is the highest honor granted by her country. She also received two Orders of Lenin (1982 and 1984) and the Order of the Badge of Honor in 1976 according to Roscosmos. Savitskaya's accolades are not limited to Earth; asteroid 4118 Sveta, which resides within the main asteroid belt, was named in her honor. 

Savitskaya's influence on female cosmonaut opportunities, spaceflight and scientific exploration is remarkable, and the ex-cosmonaut remains an inspiration to many. 

Additional resources:  

  •  Learn more about the female astronauts of recent history in this countdown from NASA
  •  Read more about the first female cosmonauts, from Smithsonian Magazine.  
  •  Here's a short documentary honoring women astronauts, from NASA.  

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Daisy Dobrijevic

Daisy is a Staff Writer for All About Space magazine. She has completed a PhD in plant physiology and holds a Master's in Environmental Science. Before joining All About Space, Daisy completed an editorial internship with the BBC Sky at Night Magazine and worked at the National Space Centre in Leicester, U.K., where she enjoyed communicating space science to the public. Daisy is currently based in Nottingham, U.K.