In 1963, Tereshkova successfully logged three days in space—more than the total flight time of all American astronauts till that date. Tereshkova, who celebrated her 70th birthday a couple of years ago, said: “If I had the money, I would enjoy flying to Mars. This was the dream of the first cosmonauts. I wish I could realise it! I am ready to fly without coming back.”
Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to cross the threshold of space. In June 1963, she spent three days orbiting the earth. Approaching the half-century mark of her epic feat, Tereshkova remains the only woman to have flown solo in space.
Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova was born on March 6, 1937, in the village of Maslennikovo, then part of the Soviet Union. Her father served in the Soviet Army during World War II. She was two when he died. Her mother, a worker in a cotton factory, raised the family single-handed. Tereshkova was only able to begin school at age 10 and had to complete her education through correspondence. Though her childhood was filled with economic deprivation, her ‘proletarian’ background proved crucial in the final selection of the candidate to be the first woman in space.
In 1959, Tereshkova joined an air sports club and excelled in amateur parachuting. When candidates were recruited for the Soviet space programme, she volunteered, even though she had no experience as a pilot. At the time, parachuting skill was invaluable, because cosmonauts had to eject from their capsules after they re-entered the earth’s upper atmosphere. Tereshkova was one of five women selected as cosmonaut-candidates in February 1962. Though the least qualified, with no higher education, her tally of 126 parachute jumps worked in her favour. All five contenders underwent rigorous training, including weightless flights, parachute jumps, isolation tests and centrifuge tests. They also trained as pilots in MiG-15UTI jet trainers and were commissioned as lieutenants in the Soviet Air Force. Reports emerging from the US that 13 American female pilots who had passed the astronaut physical evaluation were likely to be trained as Mercury astronauts, and one of them would probably make a spaceflight before the end of 1962, provided a strong impetus to the mission. In the event, the Mercury women never made it.
Eventually, Tereshkova and a backup were chosen to fly aboard Vostok 6. Their final training included at least two long ground simulations of six days and 12 days duration. Vostok 5, with cosmonaut Valeriy Bykovsky on board, launched on June 14, 1963. After watching the successful launch, Tereshkova began final preparations for her own flight. On the morning of June 16, 1963, Tereshkova and her backup were both dressed in spacesuits and taken to the launch pad by bus. After completing communication and life support checks, she was sealed inside the Vostok. The flawless countdown lasted two hours. Then Vostok 6 made a textbook launch and Tereshkova became the first woman to fly into space. Her call sign was Chaika (seagull). (It was later commemorated as the name of an asteroid, 1671 Chaika.) Vostok 5 and 6, which had different orbits, passed around 5 km from each other, and the two cosmonauts made radio contact. As with all Vostok recoveries, Tereshkova ejected about 6 km above the earth and descended by parachute. She landed near Karaganda, Kazakhstan, on June 19, 1963, after completing 48 orbits (one every 88 minutes) totalling 70 hours 50 minutes in space. The Soviet propaganda machine immediately swung into action, propelling Tereshkova as a worldwide celebrity. She was decorated with the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, the USSR’s highest award. Among numerous other awards, in October 2000, she was named “Greatest Woman Achiever of the Century” by the International Women of the Year Association.