Five facts about Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space

Five facts about Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space

Two decades before Sally Ride, a Soviet woman rose from obscurity to become the first female cosmonaut

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space

Illustration by Matteo Farinella.

1. She came from nothing

For decades, Valentina Tereshkova represented to Russia a version of the Soviet dream: born in poverty, raised during the decade that forged a national identity, and ascendant to the stars, figuratively and literally. Tereshkova was born on a collective farm about 160 miles northeast of Moscow in 1937, at the height of Joseph Stalin's brutal purges. Her father, a tractor operator, died two years later in Russia's brief war with Finland. Her widowed mother scraped by with work in a textile mile. Tereshkova left school at 16 to work in a tire factory and then the mill, where she grew fascinated by the machinery.

2. Parachuting took her to space

When she was 22, Tereshkova learned of a parachuting school in the region. "I didn't believe in my abilities very much – it looked like this sport required courage," she wrote in her memoir, Stars Are Calling. In 1959, Tereshkova made her first jump – before her instructor had told her to do so, and the first of more than 160. She recalled that before a later jump, her mother warned her: "If you crash, don't come home!"

She eventually made more than 200 jumps onto land and into the Volga river. "I learned to wait as long as possible before pulling the cord, just to feel the air; 40 seconds, 50 seconds," she told the Guardian decades later. "It’s not really falling; you experience enormous pleasure from the sensation of your whole body. It’s marvelous.”

By her second year of jumps, Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space, riding aboard the Vostok 1. After Gagarin, Soviet officials were keen to send a woman to space before Americans could, just as they had sent the first satellite, animal, and man. Tereshkova and Soviet propagandists would eventually say that, in the excitement of a radio broadcast about the first two spaceflights, she dashed off an impulsive letter volunteering for service.

But according to Into That Silent Sea, a history of early spaceflight, it was Soviet military bureaucrats who found her name on long lists of parachuting club members – the earliest spaceflights required pilots to parachute out from craft on descent due to the dangers of a heavy landing. The government also needed candidates to fit the ideological bill as card-carrying communists, or at least members of the party's youth club, the Komsomol. Tereshkova, with her working-class background, had the Komsomol ticket. She was invited to Moscow for interviews and exams, under the pretense of joining the national parachute service, and was chosen as one of five women in its cosmonaut program along with a mathematician and member of the national skydiving team.

They were all given basic flight training, and by 1962 commissioned as junior lieutenants in the Soviet air force. Through grueling training in a heat chamber, centrifuge, and "cabin of silence" isolation chamber, Tereshkova bonded with her trainers and Gagarin, who praised her "strength, energy, and willpower." At one point trainees, wearing almost 300 pounds worth of spacesuit and parachute gear, jumped from a plane flying three miles above the sea. Ultimately the biases of the era and propaganda won the day: the general in charge of selecting a cosmonaut thought Tereshkova both competent and charismatic, "a Gagarin in a skirt."

3. She spent three days up in space

Given the call signal Seagull ("Chaika"), 26-year-old Tereshkova was sent to space on a paired mission with Valery Bykovsky, call signal Hawk ("Yastreb"), each in their own spacecraft. Tereshkova blasted off on the Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963, later writing in her memoirs that the rocket was "shivering" with the force of liftoff, "shaking like a thin tree under the wind" and with a roar like thunder.

In space, Tereshkova was asked to perform experiments and manual orientation, to make sure that the spacecraft's automatic systems kept it on track. She suffered nausea and headaches in her first orbits, and failed to perform that orientation on her second day of spaceflight. Years later, she would deny stories that she was too ill in spaceflight to complete experiments and tasks. She managed the orientation the third day, spoke with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, and clocked 48 orbits and over 70 hours. She later reflected that "the further away a spacecraft drifts, the more you start to miss the sounds of nature."

The headlines of a woman in space were the first that Tereshkova's mother heard about her daughter's mission. In Tereshkova's telling, her mother responded to the news by saying, "No, my daughter is just a parachute jumper. She could not be aboard this spaceship!"

4. Tereshkova's shadow loomed large in the US and Russia

After Tereshkova's accomplishment, American officials – nearly all men – lost interest in matching the Russian milestone. American aviator Jerrie Cobb, an enthusiastic NASA trainee (she ranked in the top 2 percent of all candidates) campaigned hard in the 1950s for the US to beat the Soviets to sending a woman into space. But NASA officials rejected her pleas, with one telling her the agency did not engage in "propaganda stunts."

Congress held hearings on gender and spaceflight in 1962, while Cobb become one of the Mercury 13: female pilots who trained to become astronauts in the early years of NASA's program. In June 1963, the same month of Tereshkova's flight, NASA suggested four women astronaut candidates; none made it to the next round of evaluations. The public failed to rally around the the 13's cause. Betty Friedan, the feminist scholar who published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, wrote that sending a woman into space in Tereshkova's path "would seem to be a publicity stunt. I am not for using women as publicity stunts."

Neither country sent a second woman to space until 1982, when pilot Svetlana Savitsakaya went to the USSR's space station. Even in orbit she faced casual sexism, according to Russian papers, which quoted a male cosmonaut as greeting her, "We've got an apron ready for you, Sveta."

Savitskaya is quoted with a ready retort: ''And I thought you would be the one to fix us something to eat." Eight months later, the US sent astrophysicist Sally Ride into space, and two years later Savitsakaya became the first woman to spacewalk. Tereshkova's contemporaries, the Mercury 13, never got to space, though one met Tereshkova during a week of cosmonaut training in 1988. Cobb felt the lost opportunity keenly, saying, "If I had lived in Russia, I would have been the first woman in space."

5. Tereshkova never escaped her own legend

A celebrity overnight, Tereshkova was wed to another cosmonaut, Andrian Nikolaev, mere months after her landing from orbit in a match likely arranged by the government – premier Nikita Khrushchev was in attendance in Moscow and led the toast. Tereshkova remained a member of the national space program as a pilot and trainer; she and Nikolaev had the first child born to parents who had been in space. Tereshkova's face was stamped on postage, stained glass, plaques, statuary, and other propaganda for decades.

Tereshkova and Gagarin remained close, and when he died in 1968 she was one of four honorary pallbearers for his ashes. Not long afterward she retired, possibly on orders from the Soviet government, which she served in a number of roles meant to foster women in the sciences and diplomacy abroad. She attempted and failed to return to the space program in 1978, as the US and Russia began a new round of competition. In the process Tereshkova met her future husband – divorcing Nikoalev in 1982. 

After the collapse of the USSR, Tereshkova gradually returned to public life and won election to Russia's Duma in the early 2000s. At 76, she said she would gladly go on a one-way mission to Mars. At 80, she remains a conservative lawmaker in the Duma, an advocate of president Vladimir Putin's agenda.