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Flying into space wasn’t something women were exactly encouraged to do during the second half of the 20th century. Being a part of a space exploration team was exclusively reserved for men, although there were women out there interested in pursuing an astronaut career. However, they were hindered by a strategically articulated prerequisite of needing to have a substantial amount of pilot experience, regardless if they had actual astronaut training or not.
Nonetheless, during the 1960s, the Soviet Union decided to be the first country to send a woman into space. Valentina Tereshkova was the woman pioneer who in 1963, managed to fly into space and orbit the Earth, not once, but a total of 48 times in the span of three days.
From a Textile Mill to Parachuting
Valentina Tereshkova was born in a small village Bolshoye Maslennikovo in the west of Russia, on March 6, 1937. She was one of three children of Elena Tereshkova and Vladimir Tereshkov who died in World War II when Valentina was merely two years old. Her mother Elena raised her three children alone after her husband was killed, and worked hard as a textile worker.
When Valentina turned 18 years old, she got a job at the same textile mill where her mother was working, but soon afterwards decided to pursue amateur parachuting as well. It didn’t take long for her to start broadening her horizons and to develop a hunger for flying. As fate would have it, Valentina applied for astronaut training overseen by Yuri Gagarin in 1961, just as the Soviet Union was looking to start training women for space. This, obviously, had nothing to do with the Soviet Union being feminist-oriented but rather with the competition with the United States, where each of them wanted to be the first in as many things possible connected to space exploration.
And Off She Went
As official records state, Valentina Tereshkova became the first ever woman in the world to be a part of an active astronaut team and was sent into space on June 16, 1963. It was previously questioned whether or not women can withstand the rigorous training as well as the harsh conditions in space. As it turns out, they can, and then some. The tests conducted during the flight showed that women are actually even better equipped than men when it comes to tolerating gravitational forces.
Tereshkova and her teammate Bykovsky were celebrated all over the Soviet Union upon their return. Tereshkova was even given the title of the Hero of the Soviet Union and was decorated by Brezhnev himself. Although she dedicated much of her time after the flight to spreading feminist values across the world, and was praised for her efforts, the Soviet Union wasn’t as kind to her and other female astronauts as one would conclude. While the rest of the world thought that the Russian women were treated as equal to men in their home country, the reality was much different. The opportunity given to Tereshkova was used as a marketing ploy to keep the appearance of an egalitarian society, when the truth was that they weren’t considered to be the same, not in the home setting nor in regards to the flight opportunities.
An Ambassador for Women Across the World
In 1963, Tereshkova married a Soviet astronaut Nikolayev, who went into space only a year before she did. A year after they were married, on June 8, 1964, they welcomed a daughter into their family, who they named Yelena Adrianovna Nikolayeva. Although they feared that their daughter might suffer some health consequences related to their own exposure to space radiation, nothing alarming was ever found.
After her career as an active astronaut, Tereshkova went on to take up aerospace engineering, but also made substantial contribution to the Soviet culture and society, not only by heading the Soviet Women's Committee and the USSR's International Cultural and Friendship Union, but also by inspiring countless women to go after their dreams no matter what obstacles lie ahead.