Once revered as the first woman in space, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova has since become a controversial figure as she fought to keep President Vladimir Putin in power.
In June 1983, Americans gathered around their televisions to watch Sally Ride make history as the first American woman in space – but she wasn’t the first Women go to the room.
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That honor actually goes to Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who two decades earlier, in June 1963, made world history during a historic solo mission aboard the Soviet space shuttle Vostok 6. She was also the youngest woman and the 10th person ever. to go into space and circle the Earth 48 times before managing to return.
Valentina Tereshkova’s bad start
Born in 1937 in a poor village nearly 200 miles north of Moscow, the town of Tereshkova had no electricity or running water when he was born. In 2010, it was reported that the village had only nine people living there.
When Tereshkova was only two years old, her father Vladimir died in World War II. As a tractor driver, Vladimir was drafted to work on a tank and died months later on a frozen battlefield.
Soon the Soviet Union itself became a battleground as German forces pressed against Moscow. Tereshkova described herself as “one of the generation of war children without toys”.
Poverty and her mother’s declining health prevented Tereshkova from achieving her dream of becoming a railway engineer, instead she took a job at a tire factory and later at a textile factory to support her family. .
At night, Tereshkova attended school and nevertheless received an engineering degree from the Textile Technical Institute in 1960.
As he worked, Tereshkova dreamed of more. In 1958 she joined a flying club and trained in parachuting. Logging 160 skydives, Tereshkova said, “I felt like I wanted to do it every day.
It was then that the space race caught Tereshkova’s attention. She and her flying club friends watched in awe as Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space in April 1961.
After the inspiring flight, Tereshkova’s mother said: “Now a man has flown into space; then it’s a woman’s turn. And that was that.
Be the first woman in space
So when the opportunity arose to go into space, Tereshkova jumped at it. After Gagarin’s escape, Tereshkova wrote to the Soviet government to volunteer for cosmonaut training. In December 1961, Tereshkova was one of five women selected for the mission.
But the Soviets were paranoid about secrecy. Tereshkova couldn’t even tell her family about the space program. Her relatives believed she was part of a special parachute team.
Tereshkova’s lie was not far from the truth. Soviet cosmonauts had to eject capsules from their space when entering the atmosphere. Parachute training was therefore essential to their mission.
For the next 18 months, Tereshkova and the other female cosmonauts underwent a rigorous training course. In addition to simulated spaceflight, the women studied gymnastics to strengthen their bodies. Tereshkova also spent days in isolation rooms to prepare for confinement in the capsule.
In June 1963, the Soviets selected Tereshkova to pilot Vostok 6 on her own.
On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova ate a light breakfast before boarding the space capsule. With the call sign “chaika”, or seagull, Tereshkova took off and became the first woman in space.
As the capsule soared into the sky, Tereshkova shouted, “Hey sky, take off your hat. I’m on my way!”
Gives the Soviets a head start in the space race
It was while she exploded on live television that her family learned what she had been doing all this time. Tereshkova later admitted that her mother “was very upset that I cheated on her and it took her a long time to forgive me”.
Tereshkova recalls of her escape: “Seeing the planet from space made me realize how small and fragile the Earth is and that it could be destroyed very quickly.”
In space, Tereshkova performed a series of tests and monitored the capsule. It spent a total of 71 hours in orbit before re-entering the atmosphere. As the capsule descended to 23,000 feet, Tereshkova ejected and soared to Siberia in her parachute.
After landing a quarter of a mile from the capsule, Tereshkova called the Soviet Prime Minister to announce her successful mission. “Valentina, I am very happy and proud that a girl from the Soviet Union is the first woman to fly in space and use advanced equipment,” Nikita Khrushchev told the cosmonaut.
The successful mission was a coup for the Soviets in the space race. Tereshkova’s 48 orbits around the planet exceeded those of all American astronauts combined.
After spaceflight, Valentina Tereshkova became an international sensation. In November 1963, her marriage to another cosmonaut made headlines around the world. So did the birth of their daughter in 1964, who was the world’s first child born to two parents who had been in space.
Tereshkova never returned to the room. She devoted the rest of her life to defending women’s rights and space travel. In 2008 and 2014 she carried the Olympic torch.
His controversial legacy
The Soviet Union believed that sending the first woman into space would represent a major victory in the space race—and it did, because the United States chose not to even compete until two decades later.
In the 1950s and 1960s, NASA banned women from participating in the space program. Although women like Jerrie Cobb petitioned Congress and NASA, the program was officially rejected. The only role NASA envisioned for women in space missions at the time was to provide “direct sexual emancipation,” according to a 1971 Mets report.
NASA officials called Valentina Tereshkova’s spaceflight a “publicity stunt.” An anonymous NASA official said the very idea of women in space made him “sick to his stomach.”
In the West, journalists called Tereshkova a textile factory worker. Tereshkova fired back, arguing that her training and solo flight proved she “needed professional knowledge equivalent to that of a man.”
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tereshkova lost her political status and left the space service in 1997. In 2022, Tereshkova is 85 and is believed to have retired to Moscow.
She became a lawmaker in the Russian House of Representatives in 2011 and was criticized in 2020 for supporting a constitutional amendment that could keep President Vladimir Putin in power until 2036. The move was widely opposed, and two petitions to withdraw her name from a street and its honorary titles have been put forth.
But Tereshkova has appeared unfazed by the opposition and has only publicly stated that her critics are simply “unpatriotic”.
About her historic career as a cosmonaut, Tereshkova said: “Anyone who has spent time in space will love it for the rest of their lives. I realized my dream of the child of the sky.
After this look at Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, discovers Wally Funk, the woman who became an astronaut after struggling to get into space for 60 years. Then learn the tragic story of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher killed in the Challenger disaster.