The First Woman to Fly to Space Was Russian

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

Today, women and men routinely fly to space, to and from the International Space Station. However, there was a time, more than 50 years ago, when only a few men had ever gone to space. Women weren't yet there.  That changed when 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 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, Tereskkova 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 of the era.

Overseen by the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin, the selection process began mid-1961. Since there weren't many female pilots, women parachutists made an excellent field of candidates. Tereshkova, along with three other women parachutists and a female pilot, were selected to train as cosmonauts in 1962.

From Jumping out of Planes to Spaceflight

Due to the Soviet penchant for secrecy, the entire program was kept quiet.

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. The identities of the other women in the cosmonaut program were not revealed until the late 1980s.

Valentina Tereshkova was the only one of the group to go into space.

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 mi) of each other). Scheduled for June of the following year, Tereskova 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 mi) 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 ft) 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 50 minutes in space. She spent more time in orbit than all the U.S. Mercury astronauts combined.

Rumors that Valentina Tereshkova's marriage to fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev in November 1963 was just for propaganda purposes have never been proven. They 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.

It's possible that Valentina may have trained for a Voskhod mission that was to include a spacewalk, but the flight never happened, and the female cosmonaut program was disbanded in 1969.

It 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.

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.