“I could see fires in South America and cities at night”
Valentina Nikolaeva-Tereshkova was born in 1937. After her father’s death in the ‘Winter War’ she was raised by her mother, a cotton mill worker. She began formal education aged 10 and graduated the Light Industry Technical School aged 23. In 1961 she joined the soviet space programme, and by 1963 she was the first woman in space; although her only flight, it would turn her — with a little help from Khrushchev and his government — into a national icon.
Among her other achievements Tereshkova graduated Zhuykosky Air Force Engineering Academy (1969): achieved a degree in technical science (1976); built a successful political career and remained in the Russian Air Force until her compulsory retirement aged 60 having reached the rank of Major General (hon.).
Space programme officials looking to study the effects of space travel on female bodies recruited Tereshkova. Her experience as an amateur parachutist landed her the job (pun intended). After spending less than two years in training, including 6 months training and selection for the Vostok 6 mission, she was selected against 400 others for the 7 hour and 50 minute solo flight, (to this day she is the only woman to have flown a solo space mission), accumulating more flight hours than all American astronauts combined to that point.
The launch, described in her debrief as “excellent”, took place on the morning of June 16th 1963. Tereshkova said she had “no problems” with the launch, zero G or communications, but had issues with manual orientation; which took 2 attempts. She complained that the spacesuits and craft were designed for men, making it hard to complete certain objectives. She did not perform biological experiments, for example, because she “could not reach the equipment” and said she had some issues going to the loo. Some 40 years later she would reveal that she very nearly didn’t make it back to Earth as a coding error disrupted her re-entry sequence, almost sending her back into space. Thankfully she realised and was able to rectify the error.
Due to various issues with the spacecraft the Soviet Space programme decided to stop the Vostok missions shortly after Tereshkova’s flight — and with it the training of female cosmonauts. Tereshkova was to be the only woman to have been into space until Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982.
Upon completion of her mission Valentina Tereshkova was used by the Soviet Union and its media as a figurehead to inspire young girls within the USSR to embark upon a scientific career, and also to demonstrate the role of the Soviet Union in improving the condition of women in Russia. The Soviet newspaper Pravda published a radio conversation between her and Khrushchev which allegedly took place while she was on Vostok 6. Khrushchev repeatedly called Tereshkova “Our girl” and proudly claimed that “among our women there is rejoicing”. This desire by the Soviet Union to politicise her accomplishments would put Tereshkova at the forefront of Soviet identity politics. Less than one week after her mission, Moscow hosted the International Women’s Congress where she was greeted by over 2,000 women and awarded the order of Lenin. Between the years 1963-1970 Tereshkova made 42 diplomatic visits, more than any other cosmonaut. She met key world leaders including Castro and Elizabeth II, and represented the Soviet Union at the World Peace council and the UN conference for International Women’s Year. During this time Tereshkova maintained an active role in the domestic policy of the Soviet Union firstly on the local Yaroslav soviet and then on the supreme soviet in 1967, (the Soviet Union’s national parliament). Tereshkova was elected to the state duma (the Russian lower house) in 2007 and still holds that position to today.
— By Thomas Hilless and Evan Miller