On June 16, 1963, a twenty-six year former Soviet textile worker inspired a generation of women to dream about their own space adventures when she became the first woman in space. Strapped into the Vosok 6, Valentina Tereshkova spent three days orbiting the earth. In that single mission, she logged more time in space than all of the previous American space missions combined.
Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, inspired her to dream of becoming a cosmonaut too. After his historic flight in 1961, she entered the Soviet space program along with four other female candidates. Though she had never flown a plane before, she was an avid parachutist, and this extreme hobby helped her land the coveted spot in the Soviet space program.
“Anyone who has spent any time in space will love it for the rest of their lives. I achieved my childhood dream of the sky.” Valentina Tereshkova
Her historic first flight was part of a dual mission. Two days earlier, the Vosok 5 launched in the opposite direction. The two ships were to establish a radio communications link as they passed each other in orbit. Initially, Tereshkova was set to pilot of the Vosok 5, and another female cosmonaut would follow her in the Vosok 6. At the last minute, the flight plan changed; a male pilot, Valery Brykovsky would fly the Vosok 5 instead.
Tereshkova’s had a flawless launch, and a half hour after liftoff, she connected with Brykovsky by radio. Not long after that, Soviet and European television audiences were treated to views of Tereshkova broadcasting live pictures from space. Though the two cosmonauts never spotted each other with their naked eyes, they came within three miles of each other on Tereshkova’s first orbit. Through nauseous and experiencing physical discomfort in her leg, shoulder and under her helmet, she did forty-seven more orbits. With each one, the Vosok 5 and Vosok 6 drifted further apart and their communication link was lost.
During the first twenty-four hours of the flight, Tereshkova discovered a problem with the automatic navigation program that caused her capsule to move further away from Earth, and she worked quickly with ground control to correct the problem and reconfigure a new landing procedure. On June 18, 1963, she safely returned to earth via a manual landing. Her parachuting experience was critical for reentry to Earth, for she needed to perform a mandatory ejection from the capsule from 20,000 feet.
Tereshkova’s successful first space flight turned out to be her only mission, but she continued to career in the space program working as a test pilot and instructor before earning a doctorate in technical sciences. She became a fierce advocate for women’s equality and became the head of the Soviet’s Women’s Committee. The Soviets lauded her with many honors and awards including Hero of the Soviet Union, the USSR’S more prestigious honor.
“If women can be railroad workers in Russia, why can’t they fly in space?” Valentina Tereshkova
It took nearly twenty years for another woman to follow Tereshkova into space. In 1982, Svetlana Savitskaya, another Soviet cosmonaut, became the second women in space. In 1984, Savitskaya became the first woman to walk in space. The United States didn’t launch a female astronaut until 1983 when Sally Ride flew with the seventh Space Shuttle mission. The date of Ride’s takeoff auspiciously marked twenty years to the day of Tereshkova’s successful landing. June 16th is not only notable for Tereshkova’s flight. On June 16, 2016, Liu Yang became the first Chinese woman in space.
When Tereshkova launched into space over fifty year ago, she inspired many women all over the world to pursue their space dream, and in 2013, she revealed she wasn’t finished dreaming. The septuagenarian’s new aspiration is to be part of the first mission to Mars.