On 16 June 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, orbiting the Earth 48 times in Vostok 6. With her flight, she clocked up more hours in space than all the preceding American manned missions combined. She remained the only woman to have flown in space for 19 years and she remains the only woman to have completed a solo space mission.
Why did Valentina go to space?
The space mission was part of the wider propaganda war between the USA and the USSR in the 1960s. Each side competed to be first to milestones in space exploration. The USSR was determined to have the first woman in space, and created a female cosmonaut group to make sure it happened. Valentina was due to fly in Vostok 5, and her colleague Valentina Ponomaryova was to go up in Vostok 6 two days later. The two capsules would be in simultaneous orbit for one day, passing within 5km of each other. In the end, a male cosmonaut took Vostok 5, and Tereshkova was bumped to Vostok 6. Ponomaryova never flew in space.
At the start of the 1960s, Valentina Tereshkova was working in a textile factory and training to be a competative parachutist in her spare time. The call came for women to become cosmonauts, and 400 applied. Tereshkova was one of five women selected. Her father had been a tank leader in WW2, and died in action in Finland. With her factory employment and her family history, she fit well with the story the USSR wanted to tell. After months of training, she blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on 16 June 1963.
“Hey sky, take off your hat! I’m coming to see you.”Valentina Tereshkova as her rocket blasted off (except in Russian)
Once in orbit, she identified a course error that would have sent her into space instead of back to Earth, and she notified ground control. They corrected it, and safely brought her back into the atmosphere. She parachuted from the capsule when it was four miles above the landing site.
After her return
Lauded as a hero, she received the highest military medals possible and became a member of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. She represented the USSR at the World Peace Council, the UN Conference for International Women’s Year, and the World Conference on Women.
After the collapse of the USSR, Tereshkova was elected to the State Duma. She is still serving in the Duma and has said she would be happy to fly to Mars even if it is a one way trip.