Valentina Tereshkova was born on March 6, 1937 in Bolshoye Maslennikovo, a village in western Russia. As a young woman, she worked in a textile mill and parachuted as a hobby. She was chosen to be trained as a cosmonaut in the USSR’s space program. On Jun 13, 1963, she became the first woman to travel into space. In just under three days, she orbited the earth 48 times. After her space flight, she served in the Communist Party and represented the USSR at numerous international events.
The second of three children born to Vladimir Tereshkova and Elena Fyodorovna Tereshkova, Valentina Tereshkova was born on March 6, 1937 in Bolshoye Maslennikovo, a village in western Russia. When she was two years old, father was killed fighting in World War II. Her mother raised Valentina, her sister Ludmilla and her brother Vladimir, supporting the family by working in a textile mill.
Valentina began attending school when she was eight or 10 (accounts vary), and then started working in the textile mill in 1954. She continued her education through correspondence courses, and learned to parachute in her spare time. It was her parachuting experience that led to her being chosen, in 1962, for training as a cosmonaut in the Soviet space program. During the late 1950s and 1960s, the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union escalated for space travel supremacy. The competitiveness between the two nations for "one upping" achievements was fierce and the Soviets were determined to be the first to send a woman into space.
Four women were chosen to become cosmonauts, but only Tereshkova actually went into space. On June 16, 1963, Vostok 6 was launched, with Tereshkova aboard. The first woman to travel in space, she called out, “Hey sky, take off your hat. I’m on my way!” as the craft took off. Tereshkova orbited the earth 48 times in 70.8 hours—just under three days. (By way of comparison, Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, orbited the earth once; and the four American astronauts who flew before Tereshkova orbited a total of 36 times.) While she was orbiting, she spoke with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who said, “Valentina, I am very happy and proud that a girl from the Soviet Union is the first woman to fly into space and to operate such cutting-edge equipment.”
When she returned from her voyage—parachuting from her space craft to earth from 20,000 feet—Tereshkova was given the title Hero of the Soviet Union.
Despite the success of Tereshkova’s flight, it was 19 years before another woman (Svetlana Savitskaya, also from the USSR) traveled to space. Many accounts suggest that women cosmonauts did not receive the same treatment as their male counterparts. The first American woman to go to space was Sally Ride in 1983.
Life After Space Travel
On November 3, 1963, Tereshkova married Andrian Nikolayev, who was also a cosmonaut. On June 8, 1964, their daughter, Yelena Adrianovna Nikolayeva, was born. Tereshkova and Nikolayev divorced in 1980.
Tereshkova graduated with distinction from the Zhukovsky Military Air Academy in 1969. She became a prominent member of the Communist Party, and represented the USSR at numerous international events, including the United Nations conference for the International Women’s Year in 1975. She headed the Soviet Committee for Women from 1968-87, was pictured on postage stamps, and had a crater on the moon named after her.
In 2007, Vladimir Putin invited Tereshkova to celebrate her 70th birthday. At the time, she said, “If I had money, I would enjoy flying to Mars.” In 2015, her space craft, Vostov 6, was displayed as part of an exhibit at the Science Museum in London called “Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.” Tereshkova attended the opening, and spoke lovingly about her spacecraft, calling it “my lovely one” and “my best and most beautiful friend – my best and most beautiful man.”
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