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Valentina Tereshkova: Cloth Maker to Cosmonaut

On the 6thof March 1937 a daughter was born to farm worker Vladimir Tereshkov and his textile worker wife Elena. The daughter came at economically challenging times for the country which was on the brink of World War Two and shortly after the birth Vladimir joined the army as a tank commander. Vladimir was subsequently killed in 1939 when his daughter Valentina was only two years old. Elena continued to work at the local mill and raised Valentina and her two siblings as a single mother. Due to the pressures on the household, Valentina didn’t attend school until aged ten, and then, in 1954, joined her mother working as a cloth maker at the local mill.

Whilst working at the mill in 1959, Valentina joined the Yaroslavl Air Sports Club and over the following two-years became an accomplished amateur parachutist, jumping 126 times during that period. Inspired by Yuri Gagarin and his achievements on behalf of the Soviet state and her experience as a parachutist, Valentina decided to apply for the role of cosmonaut in 1961.  At the time cosmonauts were required to parachute from the capsule so being a parachutist was a huge plus for selection.

The Soviet Union had decided to launch a one-off mission into space with a woman onboard and Tereshkova was one of five shortlisted for the mission. Tereshkova received an honorary military rank in the Russian Air Force and embarked on eighteen months of training to become a cosmonaut. Tereshkova’s commitment to succeeding was described by her fellow cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, “It was hard for her to master rocket techniques, study spaceship designs and equipment, but she tackled the job stubbornly and devoted much of her own time to study, poring over books and notes in the evening.”

Tereshkova with Gagarin

Her tenacity and commitment to the project and State, influenced by the fact her father was considered a war hero, meant that Tereshkova was selected to be the pilot on Vostok VI, with another woman cosmonaut following her into space a day later. This flight roster was changed and Valentina was moved to Vostok VI as a solo cosmonaut, an appointment that was confirmed by President Khrushchev himself.

Early on the morning of 16 June 1963 Tereshkova and her backup were dressed in their spacesuits and following a tradition started by Gagarin, she urinated on the wheel of the bus before being transported to the rocket launch pad. The launch took place without a hitch at 12:30 pm after a two hour countdown and Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman, and technically the first civilian, in space.

Tereshkova made forty-eight orbits (1,200,000 miles) in 70 hours, 50 minutes in Vostok VI coming within 3.1 miles of the previously launched Vostok V, which was piloted by cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky. By comparison, all of the American astronauts who had been in space to this point had a combined total of thirty-six orbits.  On her return to earth Tereshkova was hailed a hero of the Soviet Union and is still, to this day, the only woman to carry out a solo space flight. 

After the flight the Tereshkova worked as an aerospace engineer as part of the space race as well as a global ambassador for equality in the Soviet Union and aerospace. She married her fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev, in November 1963, who had orbited the earth sixty-four times in the Vostok III. Their daughter, Yelena Adrianovna Nikolayeva, was born on June 8, 1964.

From 1966 until the present day Valentina Tereshkova has been part of the political elite in Russia and has served in several senior positions within the Communist Party. At 81 years old, she still continues to serve as a role model and global advocate for women who aspire to high achievement within the STEM fields.

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