She made space for women in the stars as the first female cosmonaut to pilot a spacecraft into the Earth’s orbit.
All puns intended, there are so many ways to appreciate Valentina Tereshkova. As a Russian cosmonaut, she literally forged a path for women through unchartered territory, especially given the constraints that women faced with daunting gender barriers in the 1960s.
Valentina’s courage is undeniable and her fearlessness, immense. Her success makes a compelling case for women’s equality especially knowing that women would not have another chance to orbit into space for another 20 years after Valentina; and it would be a second Russian woman, Svetlana Savitskaya aboard the Soyuz T-7.
But what intrigued me as much about Valentina and the details of her story, was how simple her rise to fame really was. In fact, it all seemed almost too simple to believe.
In many respects, Valentina was plucked from obscurity and placed into a Cinderella-type fairy tale. If this is true and the government placed pressure on her to be a “Russian darling”, this only heightens Valentina’s resilence and ability to weather even more than I first imagined.
Born in 1937 with a beautiful smile and attractive girl-next-door looks, Valentina grew up wanting to model herself after Jackie Kennedy, a woman she admired greatly. Unlike Jackie, Valentina came from very working-class roots that were arguably more attractive to millions of people in Russia who admired her transformation and very popular, relatable First Lady persona.
This began in Valentina’s hometown village of Maslennikovo and with her decision to drop out of school at just sixteen. Taking a job as a laborer in a textile factory, Valentina joined the Communist Party and the Yaroslavl Air Sports Club. With the Air Club, she learned to parachute jump – an attractive sign of Valentina’s bravery, given the more than 126 air dives that she logged.
Valentina’s parents were laborers on a collective farm, where they infused strong Socialist values passed down from the 1920s under Joseph Stalin’s Communist leadership.
Agrarian villages throughout Russia maintained these economic reforms and political ideologies and organized around land and labor. Valentine’s birthplace was no exception. Large-scale production facilities were used to boost collective output and nationalist ties.
In September of 1961, when Yuri Gagarin’s spacecraft successfully orbited the Earth, Russia celebrated its victory and countries cheered mankind’s progress. Yuri’s success inspired patriotism and interest in the space program. A few months later, Valentina learned that her letter of interest to the Space Center was accepted. As she traveled to Star City, a military town in Moscow, she hoped to follow in Yuri’s footsteps.
By this time, Valentina was 24 and her parachute experience drew atention to her physical and mental strength. She lacked any real formal education, pilot training or a proven predisposition to scientific study, but this would be true for all women at the time.
After centrifuge tests and zero-G flights were done to measure Valentina’s resilience and grit, she and three other women were invited into the official training program. Again, a remarkable feat given Valentina’s experience and the non-existence of any kind of space program for women anywhere in the world.
I still wondered however if this seemed too simple for Valentina to earn a spot on the cosmonaut training team. In contrast, Yuri was a Senior Lieutenant with the Russian Air Force when he began his cosmonaut training.
After 18 months of vigorous training, all four women were promoted to Junior Lieutenant status in the Russian Air Force. Valentina and Tatyana Torchillova started training for the Vostok 6 flight, and Valentina became the leading contender.
Valentina’s spacecraft launched into orbit June 16th, 1963. It followed on the heels of a fellow male cosmonaut – Valeriy Bykovsky – who had gone into orbit aboard Vostok 5 two days earlier. Together, both cosmonauts orbited the Earth at the same time, flying dangerously too close at one point. In fact, they averted crashing in what remained a well-kept secret for 40 years.
When Valentina and Valeriy finally landed safely along the Kazakhstan-Mongolia-China border, they returned to Moscow with great fanfare. Together, they gave speeches and celebrated in the Central Square over Lenin’s tomb.
In total, Valentina spent 70 hours in space and orbited the Earth 48 times. While she hoped to return to space, this was her only mission. Instead, Valentina became a symbol of Soviet science as television viewers around the world watched “her smiling next to her floating logbook.” Songs and dances celebrated her bravery, and she appeared on postage stamps.
To add to her Cinderella story, Valentina married a fellow cosmonaut, Andriyan Nikolayev and had a daughter, Alyonka. At their wedding, Nikita Khrushchev, the First Statesman of the Communist Party, gave Valentina away and photographers splashed photos of the happy couple across popular magazines.
Sadly, they divorced after Alyonka grew up, but it’s rumored they couldn’t divorce without the approval of Leonid Brezhnev – the Secretary-General of the Communist Party. But this didn’t hinder Valentina’s ensuing political career and celebrity status. She continued to serve in various Parliamentary roles including Chairwoman of the Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs.
In a planetarium built in her home town, there’s a huge stained glass portrait of Valentina sporting a sci-fi halo for a crown. While I still wonder if Valentina’s life was hijacked to serve the Communist Party, she remains an incredible inspiration and advocate for women everywhere and an unwavering patriot of Russia.
Given the vast sums of money invested in today’s space travel, by billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, the world seems to be having a renewed love affair with space. It will be interesting to watch what’s next for women in this frontier.
Since Valentina’s flight, more than 60 women have gone into space. Her dedication and fearless spirit have increased Russia’s national prosperity and remind the world that there are no gender boundaries to bravery and determination.