Valentina Tereshkova: Hero Or Political Pawn
One of the most important milestones in the early history of space exploration was when Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to leave Earth's atmosphere.
Museum Exhibit: Valenta Tereshkova Autographed Photo
On June 16, 1963, when all astronauts and cosmonauts were men, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. From our modern standpoint, we tend to look back at her flight as a forward-thinking nation’s first step towards gender equality in spaceflight. This isn’t entirely true. Like so many of the Soviet Union’s firsts in the early days of the Space Race, Tereshkova’s flight was politically driven. The first woman in space became a role model for Soviet girls only because the Soviet government decided she should be.
The Early Soviet Space Program
The Soviet Union’s early space program abided by a golden rule: never repeat a mission. They abided by this rule. After the first satellite, Sputnik, the very next launch sent the dog, Laika, into orbit. After Yuri Gagarin made one orbit around the Earth on April 12, 1961, the next cosmonaut, Gherman Titov, spent a whole day in space. Every mission did something new; the country’s leadership knew that staying ahead of the Americans was vital to Soviet success in space. The man behind all the Soviet “firsts” was Sergei Korolev, known at the time simply as the Chief Designer. In 1962, he had another “first” up his sleeve. His country would be the first to launch a woman into space.
Did You Know?
The idea of launching a woman into space pleased the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The national leadership knew it was a stunt but saw the value in a stunt that would promote the idea that the Soviet Union valued its women as much as its men (and much more than the “decadent” West).
Selection for Spaceflight
On February 19, 1962, five female parachute jumpers began cosmonaut training. Among them was Valentina Tereshkova, born on March 6, 1937. She didn’t stand out from the group academically, and her physical performance was average. Her background did fit the needs of Soviet propaganda. After losing her father early in life, Tereshkova took on the role of mother’s helper when she was 10. While going to school, she worked as a seamstress, an apprentice in a tire factory, and finally a loom operator to help support her family. Tereshkova persevered, graduating from the Light Industry Technical School and qualifying as a parachute jumper through the Yaroslavl Air Sports Club. In addition to her devotion to helping her family, Tereshkova was fiercely nationalistic. She was an outspoken supporter of the Communist party and a member of the Young Communist League. She was, in short, a woman who had worked hard her whole life and moved through the Soviet system to achieve great things. She was someone who could stand as a model of hope for young girls throughout the Soviet Union. She was the perfect hero to send into space.
Valentina Tereshkova, call sign Chayka (Seagull), was the pilot of Vostok 6. Hers was a joint mission with Vostok 5, piloted by Valeriy F. Bykovskiy, call sign Yastreb (Hawk). Tereshkova reached orbit 24 hours after Bykovskiy. The cosmonauts didn’t orbit in tandem, though they did establish and maintain radio communication in space. Both cosmonauts also did science experiments, took pictures of the Earth from above, and loosened their set restraints to float freely in the confines of their Vostok capsules. For Tereshkova, the biggest problem was the onboard meal options. With the exception of black bread and tubed onions, the food was so inedible, she said, that it made her throw up. Aside from some nausea, Tereshkova had no significant problems in space. She described weightlessness as being quite pleasant. Tereshkova returned to Earth on June 19, 1963, landing by personal parachute three hours before Bykovsky.
Tereshkova Back on Earth
Vostok 6 was Tereshkova’s only spaceflight and the only flight of a woman for 19 years. Since flying in space, Tereshkova has had an illustrious career working as an aerospace engineer and serving as an advocate for women’s rights and for recognition of women’s contributions in science. Though she was intended to be a pawn of the Soviet government, she has become a powerful role model for women.
Did You Know?
Tereshkova’s flight was the last of the Vostok program. The Vostok spacecraft was incredibly simple. It couldn’t change its orbit, and it didn’t have a man-rated landing system. All cosmonauts had to eject from the capsule during re-entry and land by their own parachutes.