Valentina Tereshkova was born in 1937 in a rural village in the Yaroslav region of central Russia. She was the child of a tractor driver who died a war hero in World War II, and a factory-worker. After leaving school at sixteen, she too went on to work in factories, inspiring many later headlines: “Factory-worker becomes first woman to fly into space”.
While working in factories, Tereshkova continued her education via evening classes and correspondence courses, later qualifying as a technician and eventually an engineer. She also became secretary of the Young Communist League before joining the Communist Party, and pursued a qualification as a skydiver after performing her first jump in 1959. This keen interest in parachuting determined the course of her life.
In 1961, the Soviet space programme was launched and the Russian government began looking for a female cosmonaut to send into space. It sounds great, but of course, the agenda was far from feminist. The official explanation was an interest in the female body’s reaction to being sent into space, but the actual reason for the programme was political. Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev was determined to upstage the USA in the space race with another first: by sending a female cosmonaut into space before the US even allowed women to become pilots, the communist regime could be depicted as the better provider of equal rights.
Tereshkova proved to be the right person for the job. In order to be eligible, female applicants were required to be pilots or parachutists under the age of thirty, up to 170cm tall and up to 70 kg heavy. Over four hundred Soviet women applied. In 1962, five were ultimately selected to train for just fifteen months before their mission. The programme was shrouded in such secrecy that Tereshkova didn’t even tell her mother that she’d been selected.
Comprising of classes, parachute jumps and time in an aerobatic jet, the training mirrored the one designed for male cosmonauts, and after it, Tereshkova was deemed the best candidate.
The mission was dual flight: two crafts, Vostok 5 and 6, would be launched a few days apart from each other and be in orbit at the same time, with ground control manoeuvring them within a short distance of each other. The other craft was to be controlled by a male cosmonaut.
Tereshkova was launched into space on 16 June 1963 with the call sign “Seagull” (which she was to retain a long time). Her mission wasn’t uncomplicated. She reportedly became sicker than foreseen, at one point becoming momentarily unable to steer the craft. Moreover, she realised that Vostok 6 had been mistakenly programmed not to descend on her return to Earth, but to ascend. At increasing speed. Into outer space. Heroically, Tereshkova was able to fix this problem while communicating with ground control.
Tereshkova orbited Earth forty-eight times and, after almost three days, she had spent longer in space than the combined time of all American cosmonauts up to that point. She only went to space once and might have trained for a second mission entailing a space walk, but the space programme was dismantled in 1969, and the interest in women going to space waned. Tereshkova and her fellow female cosmonauts in training protested, but to no avail. The Soviet government would not send another woman into space until the 1980s, when the USA became a serious threat in the space race.
After 1969, Tereshkova, already a leading member of the Communist Party, became increasingly involved with politics. She became a member of the Central Committee, an honour reserved to the most strongly politically-minded members of the Party. She spent the rest of her professional life as an ambassador for the Soviet Union and its space programme.
Now retired and a grandmother to two children, Tereshkova enjoys a more private life even though she still occasionally makes public appearances to talk about her time in space. She recalls looking at Earth and feeling overwhelmed by its beauty and fragility. She recently volunteered for a one-way trip to Mars. She is over eighty years old.