Meet the First Woman in Space!

First Woman in Space

Valentina Tereshkova
Tereshkova receives the Order of Friendship from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on 12 April 2011 at the Moscow Kremlin. Kremlin.ru CC BY 4.0

Space exploration is something that people routinely do today, without regard to their gender. However, there was a time more than half a century ago when access to space was considered a "man's job". Women weren't yet there, held back by requirements that they had to be test pilots with a certain amount of experience. In the U.S. 13 women went through astronaut training in the early 1960s, only to be kept out of the corps by that pilot requirement.

In the Soviet Union, the space agency actively sought a woman to fly, provided she could pass the training. And so it was that Valentina Tereshkova made her flight in the summer of 1963, a couple of years after the first Soviet and U.S. astronauts took their rides to space. She paved the way for other women to become astronauts, although the first American woman didn't fly to orbit until the 1980s.

Early Life and Interest in Flight

Valentina Tereshkova was born to a peasant family in the Yaroslavl region of the former USSR on March 6, 1937. Soon after starting work in a textile mill at the age of 18, she joined an amateur parachuting club. That stoked her interest in flight, and at the age of 24, she applied to become a cosmonaut. Just earlier that year, 1961, the Soviet space program began to consider sending women into space. The Soviets were looking for another "first" at which to beat the United States, among many space firsts they achieved during the era.

Overseen by Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space) the selection process for female cosmonauts began in mid-1961. Since there weren't many female pilots in the Soviet air force, women parachutists were considered as a possible field of candidates. Tereshkova, along with three other women parachutists and a female pilot, was selected to train as a cosmonaut in 1962.

She began an intensive training program designed to help her withstand the rigors of launch and orbit. 

From Jumping out of Planes to Spaceflight

Due to the Soviet penchant for secrecy, the entire program was kept quiet, so very few people knew about the effort. When she left for training, Tereshkova reportedly told her mother she was going to a training camp for an elite skydiving team. It wasn't until the flight was announced on the radio that her mother learned the truth of her daughter's achievement. The identities of the other women in the cosmonaut program were not revealed until the late 1980s. However, Valentina Tereshkova was the only one of the group to go into space at that point.

Making History

The historic first flight of a female cosmonaut was slated to concur with the second dual flight (a mission on which two craft would be in orbit at the same time, and ground control would maneuver them to within 5 km (3 miles) of each other). It was scheduled for June of the following year, which meant that Tereshkova had only about 15 months to get ready. Basic training for the women was very similar to that of the male cosmonauts. It included classroom study, parachute jumps, and time in an aerobatic jet.

They were all commissioned as second lieutenants in the Soviet Air Force, which had control over the cosmonaut program at the time.

Vostok 6 Rockets into History

Valentina Tereshkova was chosen to fly aboard Vostok 6, scheduled for a June 16, 1963 launch date. Her training included at least two long simulations on the ground, of 6 days and 12 days duration. On June 14, 1963 cosmonaut Valeriy Bykovsky launched on Vostok 5. Tereshkova and Vostok 6 launched two days later, flying with the call sign "Chaika" (Seagull). Flying two different orbits, the spacecraft came within roughly 5 km (3 miles) of each other, and the cosmonauts exchanged brief communications. Tereshkova followed the Vostok procedure of ejecting from the capsule some 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) above the ground and descending under a parachute.

She landed near Karaganda, Kazakhstan, on June 19, 1963. Her flight lasted 48 orbits totaling 70 hours and 50 minutes in space. She spent more time in orbit than all the U.S. Mercury astronauts combined.

It's possible that Valentina may have trained for a  Voskhod mission that was to include a spacewalk, but the flight never happened. The female cosmonaut program was disbanded in 1969 and wasn't until 1982 that the next woman flew in space. That was Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya, who went into space aboard a Soyuz flight. The U.S. did not send a woman into space until 1983, when Sally Ride, an astronaut and physicist, flew aboard the space shuttle Challenger.

Personal Life and Accolades

Tereshkova was married to fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev in November 1963. Rumors abounded at the time that the union was just for propaganda purposes, but those have never been proven. The two had a daughter, Yelena, who was born the following year, the first child of parents that had both been in space. The couple later divorced.

Valentina Tereshkova received the Order of Lenin and Hero of the Soviet Union awards for her historic flight. Later she served as the president of the Soviet Women's Committee and became a member of the Supreme Soviet, the USSR's national parliament, and the Presidium, a special panel within the Soviet government. In recent years, she has led a quiet life in Moscow. 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.