Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to go to space

Hyperaxion Jun 17, 2020

In 1963, the Russian astronaut spent 3 days orbiting the Earth aboard Vostok 6. Today, over 80 years old, her dream is to join the group that intends to colonize Mars.

On the morning of June 16, 1963, the Soviet Vostok spacecraft entered Earth’s orbit. Inside was Valentina Tereshkova, who at 26 became the first woman to go into space.

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to go to space
Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to go to space. (Credit: Alexander Mokletsov / Wikimedia Commons).

Family of workers

Born on March 6, 1937, on a farm about 300 kilometers (186 mi) northeast of Moscow, Tereshkova was the daughter of workers. Her father, a tractor driver, died in the war against Finland in 1940. At 16, Tereshkova left school to work in a factory and a mill to help supplement her mother’s income, who worked in the textile industry.

Skydiving

At 22, Tereshkova joined a parachuting school in the region. Without even waiting for the instructor’s permission, she made her first jump. She made over 200 jumps landing on land or on 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 in 2017. “It’s not really falling; you experience enormous pleasure from the sensation of your whole body. It’s marvellous.”

The chosen one

Just over two years later, in 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first person to go to space, aboard Vostok 1. The Soviets then decided to undertake a mission to send a woman into space before the Americans did, maintaining the tradition of being the first to send a satellite, an animal and a man.

Military personnel found Tereshkova’s name on a list of members of parachuting schools – on the first flights into space, pilots had to use parachutes, as landing was a dangerous process. They were also looking for candidates who followed the government’s ideological line, who were communists or at least members of the party’s young wing, the Komsomol. Tereshkova fit both requirements and was invited to participate in the cosmonaut program in Moscow.

Later, the story was adapted and both Tereshkova and Soviet propagandists went on to say that, excited by the radio announcement about the flights, she volunteered for the service.

Soviet stamp honoring Valentina Tereshkova. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Space race

In addition to Tereshkova, another 4 women participated in the program, which consisted of seven months of training with physical tests, jet piloting, and isolation. In the end, there were two finalists left, who would go into space on separate missions. At the last minute, however, it was decided that only one of them would go into space.

Although the other candidate, Valentina Ponomaryova, was considered more technically prepared, Tereshkova was more charismatic and considered the ideal Soviet woman: a devout communist and a humble worker.

The flight

Tereshkova departed aboard Vostok from the city of Baikonur on June 16, 1963. In total, she spent 71 hours in orbit, during which she went around the Earth 48 times. The cosmonaut reported nausea, body aches, and psychological malaise, and faced problems during her return to the planet: the spacecraft lost communication with the ground and, when ejecting to continue the parachute descent, Tereshkova almost fell into a lake. In her memoir, she wrote that if this had happened, she probably would not have survived, as she no longer had the strength to swim.

Back to Earth

Valentina Tereshkova during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Back safely in her home country, the cosmonaut was considered a hero. She married another cosmonaut, Andrian Nikolaev, with whom she had a son, the first child whose parents were in space. But Tereshkova never left Earth again: although she remained in the space program, her role was more to support the presence of women in science and diplomacy. In 2011, she was elected deputy for President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. At 82, she wants to be part of the group that intends to colonize Mars and spend her last years on the Red Planet.

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