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Space Exploration

Valentina Tereshkova

Valentina Tereshkova, Mercury astronauts, Radio Moscow, ground control, Karaganda

Valentina Tereshkova, born in 1937, Soviet cosmonaut and parachutist, the first woman to fly in space. Tereshkova flew aboard Vostok 6, from June 16 to June 19, 1963.

Tereshkova was born to a peasant family in the Yaroslavl’ region of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Yaroslavl’ is now part of Russia. Tereshkova began work at a textile factory when she was 18 years old. She soon joined a club of amateur parachutists. In 1961, the same year the Soviet space program began to consider sending women into space, she applied to become a cosmonaut. At the time, relations between the USSR and the United States were tense, and the two countries were battling to show their superior technical power through space travel. The impetus to send a woman into space probably originated with Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev, who suggested sending a woman into space to beat the United States to another space “first.” The selection process began in mid-1961 and was overseen by the first person in space, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. The scarcity of female airplane pilots made female parachutists attractive candidates for the Soviet space program. Tereshkova, three other women parachutists, and a female pilot were selected to train as cosmonauts in 1962.

The program was shrouded with great secrecy. When it came time to report for training, Tereshkova reportedly told her mother she was going to a training camp for an elite skydiving team—her mother only learned she was a cosmonaut when the flight was announced on Radio Moscow. The names of the other women were not revealed until the late 1980s. Tereshkova was the only one of the group to go into space.

The flight targeted for the first woman was the second dual flight in the Vostok program, meaning a mission on which two craft would be in orbit at the same time, and ground control would maneuver them to within 5 km (3 mi) of each other. This flight was slated for June of the following year, which left only about 15 months for training. The women cosmonauts’ basic training was very similar to that of the male cosmonauts’ training. It included classroom study, parachute jumps, and time in an aerobatic jet. All four women were commissioned as second lieutenants in the Soviet Air Force, because the air force had control over the cosmonaut program at that time.

Shortly before the June 16, 1963, launch date, Tereshkova was chosen to fly aboard Vostok 6. Her backup is believed to have been Irina Solovyova. Tereshkova’s training included at least two long simulations on the ground, of 6 days and 12 days duration. Vostok 5, with cosmonaut Valeriy Bykovsky on board, launched on June 14, 1963. Tereshkova launched aboard Vostok 6 two days later, flying with the call sign Chaika (Seagull). The two spacecraft, which had different orbits, came briefly within roughly 5 km (3 mi) of each other, and the cosmonauts exchanged brief communications. As with all Vostok landings, Tereshkova ejected from the capsule some 6000 m (20,000 ft) above the ground and descended under a parachute. She landed near Karaganda, Kazakhstan, on June 19, 1963, after 48 orbits totaling 70 hours 50 minutes in space. Tereshkova spent more time in orbit than all the U.S. Mercury astronauts combined.

Tereshkova married fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev in November 1963. Their daughter Yelena was born the following year, the first child of parents that had both been in space. Tereshkova may have trained for a Voskhod mission that was to include a spacewalk, but the flight never happened, and the female cosmonaut program was disbanded in 1969. The next woman to fly in space was Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya, who went into space aboard a Soyuz flight in 1982. The United States did not send a woman into space until 1983, when U.S. astronaut and physicist Sally Ride flew aboard the space shuttle Challenger. After Vostok 6, Tereshkova received the Order of Lenin and Hero of the Soviet Union awards. She later served as the president of the Soviet Women’s Committee and became a member of the Supreme Soviet, the USSR’s national parliament, and the Presidium, a special panel within the Soviet government.



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