1963: Valentina Tereshkova is 1st woman in space
On June 16, 1963, 26-year-old Valentina Tereshkova, under the radio call name Chaika (Seagull), rocketed into space solo aboard the Soviet spacecraft Vostok 6. Thus she went down in history as Earth’s first and youngest woman in space. She spent nearly 71 hours total in space, orbiting the Earth 48 times.
As part of her mission, Tereshkova performed tests collecting data on how her body responds to being in a weightless environment. At the same time, she maintained a detailed flight log. This was later compared to how her male cosmonaut colleagues were affected. Also, she took photographs of Earth from orbit, which were used to identify aerosol layers in the atmosphere.
Tereshkova’s mission lasted an impressive two days, 23 hours, and 12 minutes. That’s longer than all the U.S. Mercury astronauts had flown up to that date combined.
The public heralded Tereshkova’s flight as a leap forward for women. Even though the next female cosmonaut, Svetlana Savitskaya, did not fly until 1982. The United States’ first female astronaut, Sally Ride, rocketed into space 20 years after Tereshkova, on June 18, 1983.
Valentina’s early life and selection as a cosmonaut
Valentina Tereshkova was born on March 6, 1937, in the village of Bolshoye Maslennikovo, near Yaroslavl, Russia. She became interested in skydiving as a teenager, and made her first jump in May 1959 at the age of 22. Her mother worked in a textile factory and her father was a tractor driver. Before she was selected to be a cosmonaut, she also worked in a textile factory.
Tereshkova was one of five women chosen out of more than 400 applicants. The others were Tatyana Kuznetsova, Irina Solovyova, Zhanna Yorkina and Valentina Ponomaryova. Subsequently, all of them trained for several months. Training included weightless flights, isolation tests, centrifuge tests, 120 parachute jumps and pilot training in jet aircraft.
In the original plan, Tereshkova would go to orbit on a Vostok 5 rocket, followed by Ponomaryova on the Vostok 6. But that changed in March 1963. A male cosmonaut, Valery Bykovsky, flew in Vostok 5 at the same time as Tereshkova, on June 16, 1963.
People celebrated her flight, with her image broadcast all over the Soviet Union. She also spoke to Premier Nikita Khrushchev by radio. Novopromyshna Square in Tver, near Moscow, was renamed Tereshkova Square in 1963 in her honor.
Her life after her historic space flight
Even though Tereshkova did not return to space again, she did become a colonel in the Soviet Air Force by 1976. In April 1977, she earned a doctorate in aeronautical engineering. And she continued as an instructor at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. Finally, she retired from the Soviet Air Force in 1997, after achieving the rank of major general. She has mentioned that she would like to fly to Mars one day, even if it meant that it was a one-way trip:
If I had money, I would enjoy flying to Mars. This was the dream of the first cosmonauts. I wish I could realize it! I am ready to fly without coming back.
But while she remained enthusiastic about space travel for cosmonauts, Tereshkova did say in 2013, on the 50th anniversary of her space flight, that she disapproved of space tourists. She was also concerned about the risk of an asteroid collision with Earth, she told The Guardian in 2017:
People shouldn’t waste money on wars. But come together to discuss how to defend the world from threats like asteroids coming from outer space.
Bottom line: Valentina Tereshkova, a Soviet cosmonaut, was the first-ever woman to go to space, in 1963.