In the history of spaceflight, only one nation has made contributions that rival or supersede those of the Soviet Union or Russia. While the Soviets are credited with making the historic firsts that launched the “Space Age“, the contributions made by Russian scientists predate this period considerably. In terms of theory, the history of Russian space exploration goes back to the 19th century.
However, as with the United States, the practice of sending missions to space did not begin until after World War II. It was at this time, during the fabled “Space Race” between the east and the west, that the Soviet Union conducted several pioneering missions in robotic and crewed spaceflight. These contributions have continued since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, ensuring Russia’s continued role as a superpower in space.
When it comes to the “Space Race” of the 1960s, several names come to mind. Names like Chuck Yeager, Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shepard, and Neil Armstrong, but to name a few. These men were all pioneers, braving incredible odds and hazards in order to put a man into orbit, on the Moon, and bring humanity into the Space Age. But about the first women in space?
Were the challenges they faced any less real? Or were they even more difficult considering the fact that space travel – like many professions at the time – was still thought to be a “man’s game”? Well, the first woman to break this glass ceiling was Valentina Tereshkova, a Soviet Cosmonaut who has the distinction of being the first woman ever to go into space as part of the Vostok 6 mission.
Tereshkova was born in the village of Maslennikovo in central Russia (about 280 km north-east of Moscow) after her parents migrated from Belarus. Her father was a tractor driver and her mother worked in a textile plant. Her father became a tank officer and died during the Winter War (1939-1940) when the Soviet Union invaded Finland over a territorial dispute.
Between 1945 to 1953, Tereshkova went to school but dropped out when she was sixteen, and completed her education through correspondence. Following in her mother’s footsteps, she began working at a textile factory, where she remained until becoming part of the Soviet cosmonaut program.
She became interested in parachuting from a young age and trained in skydiving at the local Aeroclub. In 1959, at the age of 22, she made her first jump. It was her expertise in skydiving that led to her being selected as a cosmonaut candidate a few years later. In 1961, she became the secretary of the local Komsomol (Young Communist League) and later joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Much like Yuri Gagarin, Tereshkova took part in the Vostok program, which was the Soviet Unions’ first attempt at putting crewed missions into space. After the historic flight of Gagarin in 1961, Sergey Korolyov – the chief Soviet rocket engineer – proposed sending a female cosmonaut into space as well.
At the time, the Soviets believed that sending women into space would achieve a propaganda victory against the U.S., which maintained a policy of only using military and test pilots as astronauts. Though this policy did not specifically discriminate on the basis of gender, the lack of women combat and test pilots effectively excluded them from participating.
In April 1962, five women were chosen for the program out of hundreds of potential candidates. These included Tatyana Kuznetsova, Irina Solovyova, Zhanna Yorkina, Valentina Ponomaryova, and Valentina Tereshkova. In order to qualify, the women needed to be parachutists under 30 years of age, under 170 cm (5’7″) in height, and under 70 kg (154 lbs.) in weight.
Along with four colleagues, Tereshkova spent several months in training. This included weightless flights, isolation tests, centrifuge tests, rocket theory, spacecraft engineering, parachute jumps, and pilot training in jet aircraft. Their examinations concluded in November 1962, after which Tereshkova and Ponomaryova were considered the leading candidates.
A joint mission profile was developed that would see two women launched into space on separate Vostok missions in March or April of 1963. Tereshkova, then 25, was chosen to be the first woman to go into space, for multiple reasons. First, there was the fact that she conformed to the height and weight specifications to fit inside the relatively cramped Vostok module.
Second, she was a qualified parachutist, which given the nature of the Vostok space craft (the re-entry craft was incapable of landing) was absolutely essential. The third, and perhaps most important reason, was her strong “proletariat” and patriotic background, which was evident from her family’s work and the death of her father (Vladimir Tereshkova) during the Second World War.
Originally, the plan was for Tereshkova to launch first in the Vostok 5 ship while Ponomaryova would follow her into orbit in Vostok 6. However, this flight plan was altered in March 1963, with a male cosmonaut flying Vostok 5 while Tereshkova would fly aboard Vostok 6 in June 1963. After watching the successful launch of Vostok 5 on 14 June, Tereshkova (now 26) began final preparations for her own flight.
Tereshkova’s Vostok 6 flight took place on the morning of June 16th, 1963. After performing communications and life support checks, she was sealed inside the capsule and the mission’s two-hour countdown began. The launch took place at 09:29:52 UTC with the rocket lifting off faultlessly from the Baikonur launchpad.
During the flight – which lasted for two days and 22 hours – Tereshkova orbited the Earth forty-eight times. Her flight took place only two days after Vostok 5 was launched, piloted by Valery Bykovsky, and orbited the Earth simultaneously with his craft. In the course of her flight, ground crews collected data on her body’s reaction to spaceflight.
Aside from some nausea (which she later claimed was due to poor food!) she maintained herself for the full three days. Like other cosmonauts on Vostok missions, she kept a flight log and took photographs of the horizon – which were later used to identify aerosol layers within the atmosphere – and manually oriented the spacecraft.
On the first day of her mission, she reported an error in the control program, which made the spaceship ascend from orbit instead of descending. The team on Earth provided Tereshkova with new data to enter into the descent program which corrected the problem. After completing 48 orbits, her craft began descending towards Earth.
Once the craft re-entered the atmosphere, Tereshkova ejected from the capsule and parachuted back to earth. She landed hard after a high wind blew her off course, which was fortunate since she was descending towards a lake at the time. However, the landing caused her to seriously bruise her face, and heavy makeup was needed for the public appearances that followed.
Vostok 6 would be the last of the Vostok missions, despite there being plans for further flights involving women cosmonauts. None of the other four in Tereshkova’s early group got a chance to fly, and, in October of 1969, the pioneering female cosmonaut group was dissolved. It would be 19 years before another woman would fly as part of the Soviet space program – Svetlana Savitskaya, who flew as part of the Soyuz T-7 mission.
After Vostok 6:
After returning home, certain elements within the Soviet Air Force attempted to discredit Tereshkova. There were those who said that she was drunk when she reported to the launch pad and was insubordinate while in orbit. These charges appeared to be related to the sickness she experienced while in space, and the fact that she issued corrections to the ground control team – which was apparently seen as a slight.
She was also accused of drunken and disorderly conduct when confronting a militia Captain in Gorkiy. However, General Nikolai Kamanin – the head of cosmonaut training in the Soviet space program at the time – defended Tereshkova’s character and dismissed her detractors instead. Tereshkova’s reputation remained unblemished and she went on to become a cosmonaut engineer and spent the rest of her life in key political positions.
In November of 1963, Tereshkova married Andrian Nikolayev, another Soviet cosmonaut, at a wedding that took place at the Moscow Wedding Palace. Khrushchev himself presided, with top government and space program leaders in attendance. In June of 1964, she gave birth to their daughter Elena Andrianovna Nikolaeva-Tereshkova, who became the first person in history to have both a mother and father who had traveled into space.
She and Nikolayev divorced in 1982, and Nikolayev died in 2004. She went on to remarry an orthopaedist named Yuliy G. Sharposhnikov, who died in 1999. After her historic flight, Tereshkova enrolled at the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy and graduated with distinction as a cosmonaut engineer. In 1977, she earned her doctorate in engineering.
Her fame as a cosmonaut also led to several key political positions. Between 1966 and 1974, she was a member of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. She was also a member of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet from 1974 to 1989, and a Central Committee Member from 1969 to 1991. Her accomplishments also led to her becoming a representative of the Soviet Union abroad.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tereshkova lost her political office but remained an important public figure. To this day, she is revered as a hero and a major contributor to the Russian space program. In 2011, she was elected to the State Duma (the lower house of the Russian legislature) where she continues to serve.
In 2008, Tereshkova was invited to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s residence in Novo-Ogaryovo for the celebration of her 70th birthday. In that same year, she became a torchbearer of the 2008 Summer Olympics torch relay in Saint Petersburg, Russia. She has also expressed interest in traveling to Mars, even if it were a one-way trip.
Legacy and Honors:
For her accomplishments, Tereshkova has received many honors and awards. She has been decorated with the Hero of the Soviet Union medal (the USSR’s highest award) as well as the Order of Lenin, the Order of the October Revolution, and many other medals.
Foreign governments have also awarded her with the Karl Marx Order, the Hero of Socialist Labor of Czechoslovakia, the Hero of Labor of Vietnam, the Hero of Mongolia, the UN Gold Medal of Peace, and the Simba International Women’s Movement Award. She has honorary citizenship in multiple cities from Bulgaria, Slovakia, Belarus and Mongolia in the east, to Switzerland, France, and the UK in the west.
Due to her pioneering role in space exploration, a number of astronomical objects and features are named in her honor. For example, the Tereshkova crater on the far side of the Moon was named after her. The minor planet 1671 Chaika (which translates to “Seagull” in Russian) is named in honor of her Vostok 6 mission call sign.
Numerous monuments and statues have been erected in her honor and the Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow features her image. Streets all across the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc nations were renamed in her honor, as was the school in Yaroslavl where she studied as a child. The Yaroslavl Planetarium, built in 2011, was created in her honor, and the Museum of V.V. Tereshkova – Cosmos exists near her native village of Maslennikovo.
The Space Age was a time of truly amazing accomplishments. Not only did astronauts like Tereshkova break the surly bonds of Earth, but they also demonstrated that space exploration knows no gender restrictions. And though it would be decades before people like Svetlana Savitskaya and Sally Ride would into space, Tereshkova will forever be remembered as the woman who blazed the trail for all female astronauts.
Her mission was far longer, lasting nearly 3 days (70 hours 50 minutes) for a total of 48 orbits of Earth at altitudes ranging from 180 to 230 kilometers (110 x 144 mi). She conducted biomedical & science experiments to learn about the effects of space on the human body, took photographs that helped identify aerosols in the atmosphere and manually piloted the ship.
“Hey, sky! Take off your hat, I’m coming!” she said in the seconds prior to liftoff.
“I am ready [to go to Mars],” she said in remarks on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of her June 16, 1963 blastoff, according to Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency. Apparently Mars is her favorite planet!
“Of course, it’s a dream to go to Mars and find out whether there was life there or not,” Tereshkova said. “If there was, then why did it die out? What sort of catastrophe happened?”
Tereshkova’s landmark flight on Vostok-6 was made ever more historic in that it was actually a joint space mission with Vostok-5; which blasted off barely two days earlier on June 14 with fellow Soviet cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky.
Vostok-5 and Vostok-6 flew within 5 kilometers (3 miles) of one other at one point. They spoke to each other by radio as well as with the legendary Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev. Her call sign was “Seagull”. Bykovsky’s call sign was “Hawk”.
Sergei Korolyov, the father of the Soviet space program, called her “my little seagull.”
Korolev wanted to launch a woman to space to score another spectacular first for the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War with the United States.
So she had been selected as a member of the cosmonaut corps just a year earlier in March 1962 along with four other female candidates. Teseshkova was the only member of that female group ever to achieve orbit.
Tereshkova, a textile factory worker, was chosen in part because she was an expert parachute jumper – a key requirement at that time since the Vostok capsule itself could not land safely. So the cosmonauts had to eject in the last moments of the descent from orbit at about 7,000 m (23,000 ft) and descend separately via parachute.
It would take nearly two decades before another woman – also Soviet- would fly to space; Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982.
The first American female space flyer – Sally Ride – finally reached orbit a year later in 1983 aboard the Space Shuttle.
To date, woman comprise about 10% of the people who have flown to space-57 out of 534.
Today, June 16, there are two women orbiting Earth out of 9 humans total – NASA Astronaut Karen Nyberg aboard the International Space Station and Chinese astronaut Wang Yaping aboard Shenzhou 10.
Vostok-6 was the last of the Vostok spacecraft series.
Bykovsky flew a total of 5 days and 82 orbits. He landed 3 hours after Tereshkova on June 19.
Tereshkova became an instant heroine upon landing, a ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ and will forever be known as the ‘First Lady of Space.’
On June 14, Russian Television aired a special 50th anniversary program celebrating the flights of Vostok-5 and Vostok-6 – “Valentina Tereshkova – Seagull and the Hawk”
And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013