Valentina Tereshkova worked at a textile mill as a teenager and began learning to parachute in her early 20s. As the space race between the US and the Soviets hastened, she applied to be an astronaut. On June 16, 1963, she climbed into a tiny capsule that would make her the first woman to ever be launched into space. Then she proclaimed: “Hey sky, take off your hat. I’m on my way!”
What a badass.
Inspired by Yuri Gagarin’s first spaceflight in 1961, Valentina Tereshkova wanted in to the Soviet space program, so she wrote to the program asking to be included in any future training.
Tereshkova is a great example of smashing through imaginary glass ceilings. Born in a rural Soviet region to a farmer and his wife, Tereshkova finished school and took up work in the same factory as her mother. In her spare time, she learned to parachute and eventually sky dive. By the time the Soviets began looking for potential pilots for their space program, the amount of hours she’d logged jumping out of aircraft helped her get into a position to jump into one – and be launched outside Earth’s atmosphere.
The Soviet-manufactured Vostok 6 spacecraft launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on June 16, 1963, with a hitherto unseen cargo: A human woman.
That woman was Valentina Tereshkova.
Her mission? To collect data on the effects of space flight on the female body. At the time, only male astronauts had been sent outside of Earth’s orbit in the accelerating space race between the Soviets and the US. In their attempts to outdo each other, the two global powerhouses knew that sending a woman to space would be a huge feather in their respective caps.
Her first (and last) spaceflight was relatively drama-free. Strapped into the Vostok 6, solo, Tereshkova was required to maintain a log, perform experiments and communicate with another Russian spacecraft, the Vostok 5, that was also in low Earth orbit at the time.
She was in space for almost three days, completing 48 orbits of the Earth.
Even more badass? On the first day, Tereshkova picked up on a programming glitch that meant, on re-entry, the spacecraft would ascend instead of descend from orbit. This error was a state secret that Soviet spacecraft designer Sergey Korolev had asked Tereshkova keep to herself. She did, until 2007, when another Soivet spacecraft designer spoke out about the mishap.
Upon re-entry, Tereshkova had to eject from the spacecraft seven kilometres from the ground, as was common practice with the Vostok program. Even with her extensive history of parachuting and skydiving, the return was bumpy – she ended up with a bruise on her face. Still, she turned up for the cameras looking fresh as a daisy, makeup obscuring the fact that her return to Earth wasn’t an easy one.
Some 15 years after Tereshkova first escaped Earth’s atmosphere, NASA hired a new batch of female astronauts as trainees. Eventually, all six of these women would fly on at least one mission to space. Most well-known is Sally Ride, who was the first American women to go to space, in 1983, some 20 years after Tereshkova made history.
To date, 60 women have broken away from their Earthly tethers and ventured into the cosmos, but the first will always be Valentina Tereshkova.
In 2013, she revealed that – should humans take a one-way ticket to Mars – she’d love to be on the first space flight to the Red Planet.
At 80, she continues reaching for the stars.
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