The first woman in space: Valentina Tereshkova

The first woman and civilian in space was a pioneer for Soviet space exploration.

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Tereshkova holds many honours including the Hero of the Soviet Union (1963) and Order of Honour (2003).

Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova was born in the village of Maslennikovo in the Tutayevsky District of the Soviet Union on 6 March 1937. From an early age she was interested in parachuting, but her upbringing was far from the military beginnings of other cosmonauts. At the age of 22 she was still working as a textile worker and was active in the Young Communist League and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

In 1961, after Yuri Gagarin had beaten the Americans to become the first man in space, the Soviets decided to also go for the accolade of first woman in space. Tereshkova was selected, largely due to her parachuting experience, along with four other candidates out of hundreds of applicants to train for a mission into space. Her involvement in the Communist Party combined with her working class background made her the stand-out candidate.

After rigorous training including weightless flights and spacecraft engineering, Tereshkova was chosen along with two others as the leading candidates in Novemeber 1962. Finally, at the age of just 26, 10 years younger than any of the American Mercury Seven astronauts, she was picked alongside male cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky to fly a joint mission in orbit.

Tereshkova flew to space aboard Vostok 6 in 1963.

On 14 June 1963 Bykovsky took off aboard Vostok 5 and, two days later, Tereshkova followed suit in the last mission of the Vostok programme, Vostok 6. She is said to have experienced some nausea and discomfort during the flight but still managed to complete 48 orbits of Earth and spend almost three days in space. The two spacecraft came within 5 kilometres (3.1 miles) of each other and the two cosmonauts communicated by radio. However, the Soviets were not quite ready to attempt a rendezvous yet, an achievement that would be snatched by the Americans several years later.

Amazingly, another woman would not fly in space for another 19 years until Russian Svetlana Savitskaya. Despite this Tereshkova was a pioneer not only for breaking gender boundaries but also for proving that space was accessible to anyone despite their background. She was an inspiration to many and continues to be so today. Her influence was so profound that she holds a large number of awards and accolades and has many locations and monuments named after her including a lunar crater and a cosmonaut monument in Moscow.

Image credit Alexander Mokletsov and RIA Novosti

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