Apparently there is a generation of Americans who think that Sally Ride was the first woman in space. Those of us who came of age before Ride's historic first trip on the space shuttle are well aware that cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was launched into space in 1963. She spent three days in orbit aboard Vostok 6, then became a poster child for the Soviet’s accomplishments in space exploration. The idea of sending a women to space came up on the heels of Yuri Gagarin’s flight in 1961.
Immediately after that, Nikolai Kamanin, head of the cosmonaut program and legendary Soviet pilot, proposed the idea of female cosmonauts to Soviet Air Force and space program designer Sergei Korolev. Kamanin, according to the Encyclopedia Astronautica, believed “it was [the space program’s] patriotic duty to beat the Americans in putting a woman in space. He wanted to find a female cosmonaut who would be a dedicated Communist agitator in the same class as Gagarin.” Korolev agreed, and the search for lady cosmonauts was on.
The Vostok was automatic, so while piloting skills weren’t necessary, parachuting skills definitely were. Since Kamanin had actually co-founded the DOSAAF, he looked there for candidates, and Tereshkova was among the many called up to Moscow. After several trials, she wound up in the top five; notably, she was the only one of the finalists who had no higher education. The final choice for who would fly came down to Nikita Khrushchev himself. He chose Tereshkova because she “embodied the qualities expected of the New Soviet Woman. She was a reliable communist, a factory worker from a humble background, and a ‘good’ girl.’”
Tereshkova’s space flight was publicity stunt, and she wasn’t a trained pilot or scientist. However, she had more to do with the success of her flight than anyone knew at the time. And even outside of that flight, Tereshkova was a fascinating woman who wanted better than what the circumstances of her early life left her -that’s why she learned parachuting, which led to her stint as a cosmonaut. After her historic flight, she earned an engineering degree, fought for the female cosmonaut program, and entered politics. Read about the life of Valentina Tereshkova at The Mary Sue.
(Image credit: Alexander Mokletsov / Александр Моклецов)