Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space – here's her incredible story
You may know about the Space Race, but likely not enough about Valentina Tereshkova.
The Space Race was the battle between the capitalist USA and the communist Soviet Union to prove their military, technological, and ideological dominance.
This led to huge advances in technology. As well as a greater emphasis on teaching science in schools. Plus, anything to do with space is always cool.
The race to step foot on the moon
Competition had been bubbling under the surface since the 1940s. However, the Soviet Union shocked everyone when they beat America to the post. By launching the satellite Sputnik 1 into orbit on 4 October 1957.
It was attached to an intercontinental ballistic missile, and was the first-ever man-made object in space. Of course, this was a feat that would have been unimaginable just 20 years earlier.
And if we fast forward four years, Soviet Yuri Gagarin went on to become the first person to enter space. Then, in 1969, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong claimed victory by becoming the first people to step foot on the surface of the moon.
Sure, everyone remembers the achievements of Aldrin, Armstrong and Gagarin, but the enormous impact of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, is often overlooked.
Who is Valentina Tereshkova?
It’s easy to assume that astronauts must come from privileged homes, but Tereshkova’s background is, in fact, refreshingly humble.
Tereshkova was born in a small village close to Yaroslavl, Russia, on 6 March 1937. Her father was a tractor driver, and her mother worked in a textile plant.
She started school at the age of eight but left by 16 to work, continuing her education via correspondence courses. When she was selected to take part in the space programme, she was employed not as a pilot or engineer, but a factory assembly worker.
Nikita Khrushchev wanted to prove to the world that communism was all for equal rights for men and women. He selected five individuals to be part of his "women in space" programme.
Tereshkova was the most unusual of the lot. She was chosen out of 400 applicants because of her proletariat background. But also because she had a very unusual hobby: parachuting.
A huge PR win for the Soviet Union
On 16 June 1963, the then 26-year-old Valentina blasted off from a base in modern-day Kazakhstan, in a spacecraft named Vostok-6. As she lifted off, she shouted gleefully: "Hey sky, take off your hat, I'm on my way!"
Until that moment, the operation had been completely classified; Valentina's own mother only discovered the truth about her daughter's double life when she heard about it on the radio. For the following 70 hours and 50 minutes, she sped through space, completing 48 full orbits of the earth.
As you can imagine, the mission was an enormous PR win for the Soviet government. But, it also helped scientists test the effects of space travel on the female body.
However, it was not fated to be. Despite reporting that "all systems are working perfectly", it would be almost 20 years before the USSR sent another woman into space. The government quickly decided that the process was too dangerous for a female, after all.
Tereshkova protested this decision, writing a letter to the central communist party committee. She later told the BBC: “On Earth, men and women are taking the same risks. Why shouldn't we be taking the same risks in space?" To this day, she is the only woman - of any nationality - to have completed a solo space flight.
Valentina Tereshkova became a Soviet celebrity
When Tereshkova returned from space, she became a Soviet sensation, and she remains a celebrity till this day. She was subsequently taken to hospital for the obligatory tests. And was drove heroically through Moscow in an open-top limousine to stand triumphantly upon Lenin’s mausoleum, next to Khrushchev.
Tereshkova now holds the Hero of the Soviet Union award - which was the USSR’s highest award. As well as, popular culture dedications to her, including postage stamps and monuments. She even has a crater on the moon named after her.
But Tereshkova is not comfortable with fame. “We all have a personal life and being a public figure disrupts that” she told interviewers in 2013.
If you're curious about her personal life, she married fellow cosmonaut Andriyan Nikolayev in 1963. And thus completed the fairy tale Soviet space story in almost suspiciously perfect style.
What about her later years?
Tereshkova went onto become a political figure. She was appointed to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, partly due to her public standing.
She represented the Soviet Union at UN conferences all over the world, and focused particularly on women's issues. As well as this, she became the first female general in the Soviet armed forces, and even received the United Nations Gold Medal of Peace. Today, she is still involved with space programmes.
Since Tereshkova, over 50 women have made space journeys. But, more importantly, countless little girls have grown up believing that they too can be astronauts.