That the Cold War was a tense and perilous time in history cannot be denied, and is perhaps a bit of an understatement. The world stood on the edge of Armageddon for most of it, occasionally stepping slightly over the line, and thankfully stepping back before any damage was done.
As nerve-wracking as the Cold War was, it had one redeeming quality: it turned us into a spacefaring species. Propelled by national pride and the need to appear to be the biggest kid on the block, the United States and the Soviet Union consistently ratcheted up their programs, trying to be the first to make the next major milestone. The Soviets made most of the firsts, making Sputnik and Gagarin household names all over the world. But in 1962, they laid down a marker for a first of epic proportions, and one that would sadly stand alone for the next 19 years: they put the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into space.
First At Any Cost
The decision to send a woman into space came right from the top: Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev. Hot on the heels of Yuri Gagarin’s successful orbital flight and eager to stick another thumb in the Americans’ eye, Kruschev started the wheels in motion for the first crop of female cosmonauts. Gagarin himself, only a few months after his triumphant return to Earth, was put in charge of the recruitment effort in mid-1961.
There was a problem, though. The search for astronauts and cosmonauts is a merciless process where candidates wash out for the smallest of weaknesses, and so a large pool of candidates is needed to arrive at even a small corps of trainees. Both the Soviet and American space programs drew heavily from the military, particularly from the test pilot community, to staff their space program, but there were vanishingly few qualified female pilots in the Soviet Union.
To expand the pool of female candidates, the Soviets turned to a somewhat unlikely source: skydivers. What exactly recruiting parachutists said about the confidence the Soviets had in their spacecraft is hard to say, but since courage and a sense of daring would seem to be necessary preconditions for spaceflight, they could have done worse than to draw from a group that regularly jumps out of perfectly good airplanes. Thinking about it further, skydivers are used to rapid acceleration, maneuvering in three dimensions, and dealing with emergency procedures. The recruiting plan worked out: of the five women chosen for cosmonaut training in 1962, four were skydivers.
The Flight of the Seagull
How Valentina Valdimironova Tereshkova came to be one of those skydivers is a bit of a mystery given her early life. She was born in 1937; her father drove a tractor but died in the Winter War in Finland in 1939. She was raised by her mother, a textile plant worker, and didn’t go to school until she was eight. When she was seventeen she started working, first in a tire factory, then at textile plant like her mother. Perhaps as an escape from the grind of factory life, she joined the local skydiving club and went through their training program. She made her first jump in 1959 at the age of 22, and would eventually make 163 jumps.
When the word went out that female parachutists were needed for cosmonaut training, Valentina applied. From 400 applicants, she and four others were selected, and for the next seven months this tiny group of women trained together. They piloted MiG-15s, made multiple parachute jumps in spacesuits, and did the usual rounds of zero-gravity plane rides, centrifuge spins, and the other kinds of carnival ride challenges that are part of learning to work in space. She and three of the other candidates passed training in 1962, becoming the first female cosmonauts.
Valentina didn’t have long to wait for her chance to go to space. The original idea was to send two of the women into space at the same time in different spacecraft, but as was often the case with the early Soviet program, the mission was changed at the last minute. Valentina would pilot Vostok 6, launching a day after cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky rode Vostok 5 to orbit. After watching Bykovsky rocket away on June 15, 1963, Valentina climbed into Vostok 6, checked in with the callsign Chaika, Russian for “Seagull,” and joined Bykovsky in orbit.
She reported significant nausea during her mission, but she spent almost two full days in space without any other major problems aside from a programming glitch that caused her orbit to increase rather than decrease. Valentina noticed the error and reported it to controllers, who radioed instructions to fix the issue. During her 48 orbits, she took pictures, made notes, and maneuvered her capsule to within five kilometers of Vostok 5 for capsule-to-capsule communications experiments. Both capsules landed safely within three hours of each other, although Tereshkova received a nasty bump on the head during the rough Soviet-style land touchdown.
A Hero Is Forged
Tereshkova, the first woman in space as well as the first civilian, could now write her own ticket. She asked the Soviet government to find the spot on which her father had died; they did, and erected a monument on the spot. She enrolled in the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy, advanced to the rank of major general in the Soviet Air Force, and earned a doctorate in engineering. She also became active in Soviet politics, serving in the Supreme Soviet. The list of her honors and awards includes the Order of Lenin and Hero of the Soviet Union, plus a crater on the far side of the moon named after her and an asteroid, 1671 Chaika, after her callsign.
None of the other female cosmonauts ever flew in space, and it would be 19 years before another female cosmonaut, Svetlana Savitskaya, would return to orbit. It would be another year before the Americans would send their first woman astronaut, Sally Ride, up on the Space Shuttle. There have been a total of sixty women in space so far, and there are sure to be many more to come. They all will follow the path blazed by Valentina Tereshkova, but it’s not likely that any of them will repeat the feat of a solo mission in space like she did.