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Happy 80th Birthday to the First Woman in Space

She spent almost three days in space on her first flight

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. This photo was taken in 1969. (RIA Novosti archive/Alexander Mokletsov/Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

In June 1963, a textile worker and amateur parachutist named Valentina Tereshkova orbited Earth 48 times.

The Soviet cosmonaut spent almost three days alone in her spacecraft, the Vostok 6, which she also piloted. Another cosmonaut, Valeriy Bykovsky, was orbiting at the same time and the two spacecraft came within three miles of each other and exchanged communications, writes Tim Sharp for Space.com.  

Tereshkova, born on this day in 1937, wasn’t your average astronaut—not just because she was the first woman in space. With no previous experience as a pilot, she volunteered for the Soviet space program in 1961 after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. She was accepted because of her hobby: she had made 126 parachute jumps, valuable experience as cosmonauts had to swiftly parachute from their capsules during the return to earth.

She was the only woman chosen of the five women who were accepted as prospective cosmonauts after 18 months of testing and training. On her 70-hour voyage, people in the Soviet Union and Europe watched her on TV. They “saw her smiling face and her logbook floating in front of her,” Sharp writes. At the same time, unbeknownst to viewers, a potential disaster was unfolding. An error in the ship’s navigation software was piloting it farther away from Earth. If it hadn’t been corrected, the ship would have slowly drifted into space.

Tereshkova noticed this quickly and was able to make it back safely with a revised flight plan. “Villagers helped Tereshkova out of her spacesuit and asked her to join them for dinner,” he writes. “She accepted, and was later reprimanded for violating the rules and not undergoing medical tests first.”

According to Tereshkova, those outfitting her spacecraft had also missed another detail. It was less important to the mission, but important to her dental hygiene. “She had food, water and tooth paste, but no toothbrush,” writes Maev Kennedy for The Guardian.

Tereshkova married another astronaut, Andrian Nicolayev, later that year. “Their first child, a daughter named Elena, was a subject of medical interest because she was the first child born to parents who had both been exposed to space,” writes NASA. Perhaps this influenced her career path, as she grew up to be a doctor.  

Though the Soviets sent a woman into space first and were generally more progressive towards women in STEM fields than the United States, after Tereshkova’s flight the first program for women cosmonauts was scrapped. Nineteen years passed before another female cosmonaut went up in space.

“We had been preparing for another female flight but it was [head of the space program] Sergei Korolev’s decision not to risk women’s lives because one of the women in the space corps already had a family,” she told the BBC’s Pallab Ghosh in 2015.

In spite of this, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev used her story as a symbol of how socially progressive the USSR was. The United States wouldn’t send Sally Ride into space until 1983.

Editor's note: This article originally misspelled the name of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev; it has now been corrected.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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