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The Textile Worker Who Kicked Off Half A Century Of Women In Space

  • Nikola Krastev

NEW YORK -- Half a century ago, Valentina Tereshkova made history.

On June 16, 1963 the former Soviet textile worker was strapped into the Vostok-6 craft and blasted into orbit, becoming the first woman in space.

And although Tereshkova never made it into space a second time, she instantly became a Soviet hero and pop-culture icon. Some 57 other women followed in her path over the past five decades.

At a ceremony this past week in Vienna marking the anniversary of her flight and 50 years of women in space, Tereshkova, now 76, was jubilant. Speaking at the event, organized by the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs, she said she was inspired by the euphoria that ensued in the U.S.S.R. following Yury Gagarin's historic flight in April 1961 when he became the first man in space.

"After Yury Gagarin's flight in 1961, many young men and women in the Soviet Union not only wanted to look like cosmonauts but they also aspired by any means to be accepted in the selected group of suitable candidates for space flights," Tereshkova said.

Gagarin and Tereshkova would later become close friends.

He was supervising a group of five women who were selected as candidates to become the first female cosmonauts. Tereshkova was initially not considered a prime candidate. But she was ultimately selected by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev due to her proletarian background.

Tereshkova's flight took place at the height of the Cold War, in the early stages of the Soviet and U.S. space programs. It came less than six years after the Soviets launched Sputnik-1, the first artificial Earth satellite launched into space in October 1957.
Russian President Vladimir Putin) shows the way to Valentina Tereshkova during a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence on June 14.

Russian President Vladimir Putin) shows the way to Valentina Tereshkova during a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence on June 14.

Having launched the first satellite, the first man, and, with Tereshkova, the first woman, Moscow appeared to have a clear advantage in the space race.

For Tereshkova, it meant sitting strapped into a chair in her spacesuit for three full days in a five-cubic-meter sphere. The experience, she said, caused her to feel nauseous.

And although Soviet media at the time reported that the flight went off flawlessly, Tereshkova said this was not entirely the case.

"During the first 24 hours of flight I discovered a preprogrammed error," Tereshkova said. "I think the error was not intentional but it was preprogrammed. The space module was oriented in such a way that the engine propulsion thrusters would actually increase the module's orbit [away from Earth] instead of decreasing it [toward Earth]."

Working with mission control on the ground, Tereshkova was able to correct the error and redirect the spacecraft properly.

Months after her flight in 1963, Tereshkova visited UN headquarters in New York with Gagarin. At a joint press conference, Gagarin was repeatedly asked questions about the Soviet space program, particularly about a possible lunar mission.

Tereshkova, on the other hand, was asked whether she would be married on Earth or in orbit.

"You will definitely find out when I get married. There's no way to hide it from reporters," she said, eliciting laughter. "We have plenty of cosmonaut couples with children, being in a family does not prevent them from carrying on with their duties. I am one of them too so [when I get married] I think I will be up to the task."

In fact, there were no married cosmonaut couples at the time.

But Khrushchev, eager to show the world the first married space travelers, encouraged Tereshkova to marry fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev. The Soviet leader presided over the wedding ceremony and the couple later had a daughter.

But the marriage was not a happy one and ended in divorce in 1982. Tereshkova remained a celebrity to this day. She is currently a deputy in the Russian State Duma with the ruling United Russia party.

Despite Tereshkova's fame, it would be 19 years before a second woman, Svetlana Savitskaya, also a Soviet citizen, would reach space.

Speaking in Vienna, Tereshkova attributed that interval to the 1966 death of Sergei Korolyov, the founder of the Soviet space program, who was an advocate of female cosmonauts.

"In 1966 Korolyov died [and] a new person came in his place. The new space carrier Soyuz was in the development stage," Tereshkova said. "I wouldn't like to offend the guys' sensibilities here, but what happened was that the female cosmonaut team was sidelined at that point and we were told that until a safe space carrier was developed -- women will not participate in the preparation for space flights."

Nevertheless, Tereshkova's flight served as an inspiration for women the world over.

At a UN-sponsored event in April commemorating the Gagarin and Tereshkova flights, Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-American engineer and tech entrepreneur who flew to the International Space Station in 2006, said that it was Tereshkova's flight that inspired her.

"My biggest motivation is to provide an inspiration and role model for young women and young girls in schools and universities to encourage them to select fields in math and sciences, especially in an area that is dear to my heart, which is the space program, space sciences," Ansari said. "And I believe that those fields will benefit tremendously by involvement of more women in these areas. I'd like to show them that not only [that] it's possible but it's going to be a lot of fun and an exciting career for them."