Valentina Tereshkova: 50 years of women in space

The first woman in orbit, a former seamstress, achieved greatness by working her way through the Soviet system.

Valentina Tereshkova
Tereshkova, a member of the Young Communist League, was the perfect role model for Soviet girls [EPA]

On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova, sealed inside her Vostok 6 capsule, rode a modified SS-6 Sapwood rocket into orbit and into history. Early that Sunday afternoon [Moscow time], Tereshkova became the first woman to fly in space.

Fifty years later, we look at Tereshkova as the woman who opened the skies for others to follow, who made it possible for little girls to dream of becoming astronauts. But we tend to ignore the more unsavoury side of her historic flight, namely that Tereshkova was launched in a brilliant move by the Soviet propaganda machine.

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, wasn’t particularly excited about Sputnik when the Soviet Union launched history’s first satellite on October 4, 1957. But when the Luna 3 probe launched towards the Moon two years later (to the day), Gagarin took note. He was seized by the idea of flying in space, so much so that the 25-year-old third class military pilot wrote a report to his commanding officer expressing his desire to be part of the Soviet Union’s move into space.

It’s fairly unlikely this unknown pilot’s plea was taken seriously or even heard, but he did make it through the demanding cosmonaut selection process. Gagarin was one of the 20 cosmonaut candidates – cosmonauts remained “candidates” until they flew in space – selected in 1959.

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But he didn’t stand out. He and the other 19 candidates were plucked from the ranks of the Soviet Air Force, a young enough military branch that all pilots were cut from a very similar mould – they had all recently passed the same demanding physical exams and had logged roughly the same number of hours in similar types of jet aircraft.

A year after his selection, in 1960, it was Gagarin’s height that took him a step closer to securing a spaceflight. At 5 foot 2 inches, he was among the six candidates able to fit most comfortably in the cramped Vostok spacecraft. These six candidates were put in an accelerated training group. And while Gagarin was among the top three vying for the first flight, he still wasn’t the standout candidate. Going by test scores and demonstrated abilities, Gagarin was ranked second.

Then officials in charge started looking at the less tangible qualities that make up a man – his adaptability under pressure, his rapport with fellow cosmonauts, his speaking skills, his political beliefs, and his personal background. It was here that Gagarin took the lead.  

Launching the first woman

After Gagarin’s single orbit around the Earth, cosmonaut Gherman Titov followed in August and spent a full day in space. It was rapid progress, which suited Sergei Korolev just fine. Korolev was the Soviet space programme’s chief designer, the powerhouse behind the nation’s triumphs beginning with Sputnik. Korolev didn’t like repeating missions; he believed that every flight had to advance the state of the art of spaceflight or it was a waste of time.

So not long after Gagarin’s flight, Korolev started planning his next move. One idea was a dual flight: launch two manned Vostok capsules in rapid succession so that they would meet in orbit. The other idea was to launch a woman. Both missions would score firsts for the Soviet Union in what was then the rapidly escalating space race.

But the latter mission would score an additional coup for the nation. Sending a woman into space would convey a message to the world that the Soviet Union valued its women just as much as its men. A female cosmonaut would stand out not only against her male cosmonaut peers but against NASA’s all-male astronaut corps. At the time, the US space programme was choosing astronauts from the ranks of military test pilots, which excluded women.

The Central Committee of the Communist Party saw the value of a female cosmonaut as well and approved Korolev’s idea. On February 16, 1962, five experienced parachutists were selected from 400 applicants as cosmonaut candidates for the first all-female training group: Tatiana Kuznetsova, Valentina Ponomaryova, Irina Solovyeva, Valentina Tereshkova, and Zhana Yerkina.

Like Gagarin before her, Tereshkova wasn’t the standout in her class. Based on academic and physical performance, she was ranked second. But also like Gagarin, it was her background and demeanour that put her in line to fly.

From seamstress to cosmonaut

Valentina Tereshkova was born in Maslennikovo near Yaroslav, Russia, on March 6, 1937. Her father, a tractor driver and soldier with the Russian army, was killed in the Finnish War when Tereshkova was just two years old. Her widowed mother was left to raise the family’s three children alone on the meagre wages she earned working in a cotton mill.

Manned spaceflight, for both women and men, is historically firmly rooted in the political need to best an adversary.

Tereshkova took on the burden of helping her mother support the family when she was just 10. At the same time that she entered school, Tereshkova began working. She worked as a seamstress, an apprentice in a tire factory, and finally a loom operator, all while pursuing her education. In spite of the demanding responsibility she shouldered, Tereshkova successfully graduated from the Light Industry Technical School. She also learned to parachute jump as a member of the Yaroslavl Air Sports Club, making her first jump when she was 22.

Having overcome a trying family situation to become one of the nation’s first cosmonauts, Tereshkova was a perfect model for success under Communist rule. She was an ordinary girl who achieved greatness by working her way through the Soviet system. She was also nationalistic, outspoken in her desire to support the Communist party, and a member of the Young Communist League. She was the female counterpart to Gagarin’s poster-boy image and the perfect role model for young Soviet girls. When she launched in her Vostok 6 capsule that day in June, Tereshkova was proof that girls throughout the Soviet Union could reach the stars, something that seemed impossible for American girls at the time.

A 19-year gap

But neither Tereshkova’s flight nor the selection of an all-female cosmonaut class ushered in an era of gender equality in spaceflight. Tereshkova’s three-day joint orbital mission with male cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky, which turned out to be the last of the Vostok programme, was a propaganda move. For Korolev and the government officials controlling the Soviet space programme, putting a woman in space was merely a way for the nation to score another “first” over the United States. And while there were plans to launch more female cosmonauts during the 1960s, none ever came to fruition. The Voskhod and early Soyuz flight were all piloted by male cosmonauts. None of the other women from Tereshkova’s all-female cosmonaut class ever flew in space. The group was quietly dissolved in 1969.

As though emphasising Tereshkova’s flight as a propaganda move, it was 19 years before another woman would follow in her footsteps. And, interestingly, the second woman in space was another Soviet. On August 19, 1982, cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya launched as part of the Soyuz T-7 crew. She was followed less than a year later by Sally Ride who, on June 18, 1983, became the first American woman to fly in space, as part of the STS-7 crew.

The situation surrounding her flight, of course, says nothing about Tereshkova as a parachutist, cosmonaut, or as a woman. Since flying in space she’s worked as both a pilot and a research scientist, and she’s also been an outspoken champion for women’s rights. But she began her career and gained notoriety in a politically motivated flight. Which actually puts her firmly in the same category as her male counterparts, both Soviet cosmonauts and US astronauts.

Piloted spaceflight – for both women and men – is historically firmly rooted in the political need to best an adversary. 

Amy Shira Teitel has an academic background in the history of science and now works as a freelance science writer specialising in spaceflight history. She maintains her own blog, Vintage Space, and contributes regularly to Discovery News, Scientific American, Motherboard, DVICE.