On the Vostok 6, she orbited the Earth 48 times and spent almost three days in space. While some questions have been raised about the mission, Tereshkova's star has never dimmed.
Born in Yaroslavl Oblast on March 6, 1937, Tereshkova worked in a textile factory after leaving school. Her first taste of flying was going down rather than up, when she joined a local parachutist club. And it was her hobby of jumping out of planes that got her involved in the Soviet Union's space program.
After Yury Gagarin's space flight in 1961, the Soviet leadership sought a woman to fly into space as well. They wanted a parachutist, under 30, under 170 centimeters tall, and under 70 kilograms.
"I am ready to fly there and never come back."
Tereshkova fit the bill perfectly. After a rigorous selection and training process she blasted off into orbit on June 16, 1963.
The mission was a propaganda coup for the Soviet Union -- both at home and abroad. From factory worker to cosmonaut -- a local Komsomol head whose father had died a tank hero on the Finnish front.
President Putin met with Tereshkova on her birthday (TASS)
And in the Cold War-era space race, the Soviet Union had beaten the United States once again, this time by being the first to send a woman in space.
Behind the propaganda, though, there were always lingering questions. Rumors circulated that there were doubts about Tereshkova's abilities, and that she hadn't been allowed to take the controls of Vostok 6 as a result.
In a recent interview with "Rossiiskaya gazeta," Tereshkova revealed what she called the secrets of her mission.
At one point in the flight, she said, there was an error in the control program and the spacecraft was ascending rather than descending from orbit. Tereshkova said she noticed the mistake and the head of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev, repaired it.
But none of that mattered in 1963. Back on Earth, Tereshkova was a celebrity -- feted in pop songs, her face appearing on postage stamps.
After months of rumors -- and bawdy jokes about sex in space -- she married fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev in November 1963. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev attended their wedding.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Tereshkova led a high-profile political career, for a while as a member of the Supreme Soviet. She also worked as an ambassador for the Soviet Union abroad, serving as a member of the World Peace Council in 1966.
At home, she remains a hero, awarded a chestfull of medals, including the highest Hero of the Soviet Union. She even has a moon crater and asteroid named after her.
Russian journalist and writer Vladimir Gubarev told RFE/RL's Russian Service that Tereshkova is second only to Yury Gagarin.
"When they [Gagarin and Tereshkova] flew, and were preparing to fly, we had the impression of being first. It is a feeling that we regretfully have lost," Gubarev said.
There was another "first" Tereshkova never did get to achieve: flying to Mars.
Speaking at a news conference on the eve of her birthday, the former cosmonaut said going to the red planet had been a long-time dream of hers.
"I am ready to fly there and never come back," she said.