In 1963, Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space, and the only one to travel in a spaceship by herself
Valentina Tereshkova (Терешко́ва) was born on March 6, 1937, to a working-class family in the village of Maslennikovo in central Russia. Her father was a tractor driver and her mother a seamstress at a textile plant. When she was two and a half years old, her father was killed in the battles between the Soviet Union and Finland in early WWII, leaving her mother alone with their three children.
Young Tereshkova was forced to leave school after eighth grade to help support her family, but did not give up her education entirely. While working, she studied via correspondence in the school for industrial studies, and even received her high school diploma. She was also an enthusiastic communist, and was an active member in the party's youth organization. At the age of 22, Tereshkova fulfilled her childhood dream of skydiving. She fell in love with it and joined the local skydiving club, where she spent most of her spare time.
Following the successful space mission of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, the Soviet Union set to be also the first nation to send a woman to space. Lieutenant General Nikolai Kamanin, head of the cosmonaut training program wrote that “Under no circumstances should an American become the first woman in space – this would be an insult of Soviet women.”
A specialized committee, headed by Gagarin himself, convened in order to choose a candidate for the mission. Preference was given to women who met the physical requirements, but also to uneducated, working-class women, in order to prove to the west that in a communist country anyone can fly a spaceship.
Aside from female pilots, women with experience in skydiving were also welcome to apply. Due to safety concerns, the Soviets preferred that the cosmonauts and the spacecraft arrive on the ground separately; i.e., the cosmonauts would have to abandon the spacecraft and dive from a height of about six kilometers, so they would need to be skilled skydivers.
No less than 400 women applied for the program. Tereshkova’s advantage stemmed from her vast skydiving experience (126 dives) and her political activity. The fact that her father was a war hero also did not hurt. Tereshkova and four other candidates were selected for the program and underwent a long, thorough, and strenuous training, similar to that of the male cosmonauts.
“While it may have been a challenge for her to deal with the large amounts of study material,” said Gagarin, “she was tenacious and surrounded herself with the textbooks in her spare time, too.” The hard work paid off and Tereshkova was chosen to be one of the five women to board the first flight.
On the morning of June 16, 1963, she was launched to her mission on a Vostok 6 spacecraft. The camera documenting the launch inside the spacecraft caught her screaming, “Hello sky, take your hat off! I am coming to see you.”
Tereshkova’s call sign in this flight was Chaika – seagull in Russian. After she entered orbit around Earth, the seagull reported: “I can see the horizon. Blue light, a beautiful strip! This is Earth, it is so beautiful. Everything is great!”
Despite her optimistic exterior, Tereshkova dealt with many struggles in space. She suffered from nausea and discomfort due to zero gravity, but successfully completed her missions. During the flight, the cosmonaut realized that the Soviet space agency forgot to equip her with a toothbrush. “I did what any woman would have done in that situation – I had toothpaste, water and my finger.”
The biggest challenge, however, was unraveled shortly after the spacecraft entered orbit. Tereshkova found a mistake in the automatic flight program of the spacecraft, driving it away from Earth, which posed a threat to her chances of coming back safely. She later said that “Had I not found the mistake in time, I would have drifted further and further away from Earth instead of returning for landing. I reported the mistake to ground control and they fixed it.”
To protect the technician that was responsible for the mistake, and save him from serious punishment, Tereshkova kept the whole incident a secret for 30 years. Upon landing, after nearly three days in space, she became a national hero in the Soviet Union, and a symbol across the world. She proved that women can handle the physical and mental challenges of space travel and her flight was an achievement for women across the globe. Nevertheless, she did not exactly start a new era of gender equality, at least not in space. It will be 19 years before the next cosmonaut will fly to space, and the first American woman in space only came in 1983.
Tereshkova continued her studies and completed a PhD in Engineering. She remained in the Soviet Air Force and became a general. In addition, she was a member of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, and was later elected to the Duma – the Russian parliament. Among her many honors, are a crater on the moon that bears her name and an asteroid named Chaika, seagull – the first female space pilot’s call sign.
Translated by Elee Shimshoni