The space race was a fascinating era for those who like to study recent Russian history and there are many notable achievements that can be claimed by the former USSR. While the Soviet Union may have missed out on the ultimate prize of landing a man on the moon, it could claim many other firsts, including the first man in space, the first satellite in space and, in the case of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.
Like many Russian Cosmonauts, Tereshkova’s early years were largely unremarkable. She was born on the 6th of March 1937 in the Yaroslavl Oblast in central Russia, the daughter of a tractor driver and a factory worker.
After leaving school at the age of eight, she continued her own education and subsequently followed her mother into the textile plant.
The young Tereshkova became interested in parachuting at a young age and started to train in skydiving at the local aeroclub. It was here that she made her first successful jump at the age of 22 and the expertise that she showed in this discipline helped her to make the leap from humble plant worker to Soviet Cosmonaut.
In April 1961, the Soviet Union put Yuri Gagarin, the first man into space and this was clearly a major achievement and a massive coup against the USA. Not content with this however, those responsible were clear that it was their patriotic duty to continue to eclipse the Americans and plans began to put the first woman into orbit.
While piloting skills weren’t necessary, parachuting expertise was and therefore, Valentina Tereshkova fitted the bill perfectly. Political leanings were of equal importance to the Soviet space programme and as Tereshkova had become secretary of her local Komsomol (young communist league), her chances had naturally improved.
The race hots up
In May 1962, a Soviet delegation flew to Washington where they were introduced to US astronaut John Glenn who informed them of his country’s intentions to put a woman into space. Desperate not to be beaten, the Soviets returned and plans began in earnest to get ahead of the Americans.
The selection process became the focal point of Soviet strategy and Tereshkova, who was by all accounts the least qualified of five candidates found herself in the final two alongside Valentina Ponomaryova.
While her opponent achieved better test results, Tereshkova’s verbal answers held more of a communist leaning and this crucial aspect saw her chosen for the honour of being the first woman in space.
On the morning of the 16th of June 1963, Tereshkova boarded Vostok 6 which was launched successfully. Her place in history guaranteed, she spent three days in space keeping a flight log and recording vital data.
After leaving the Soviet Space programme shortly after the flight, Valentina Tereshkova served in governmental positions until the early 1990’s. In her life, she had truly served her country in many ways but her lasting contribution to world history will never be forgotten.