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Saturday, June 16, 2007

The First Woman in Space, June 16, 1963

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Today in 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to travel into space. Her flight not only marked a first for her sex, but also gave the Soviet Union another jump ahead in the early space race to the moon, a competition that would continue for the rest of the decade.

Tereshkova was born in March, 1937 in the Central Federal District of the Soviet Union, not far from Moscow. She attended state schools until she was 16, then went to work in a local coat factory. During this time, she acquired an interest in two things that would change her life forever: engineering and skydiving. She began engineering school via correspondence courses and later became a member of a local parachuting club. She made her first jump at the age of 22 in 1959.

After fellow Soviet citizen Yuri Gagarin's historic flight in 1961, many young Russians yearned to follow him into space. That same year, the managers of the Soviet space program decided that a group of women would be selected to train as cosmonauts. Over four hundred women applied, but only five were selected. Among them was Valentina Tereshkova, who was chosen for several reasons. She was from a working -class family and her father died in combat during the Soviet Union's war with Finland in 1939. She was a parachutist, meaning that she was not risk-averse and was at least basically familiar with the operation of aircraft. Finally, she had been a member of her local Young Communist League; she would later join the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The training for cosmonauts was intense. On top of numerous classes, candidates were trained to fly jet fighters, spend long amounts of time in isolation chambers, made flights that simulated weightlessness and were subjected to rigorous centrifuge tests. Dozens of parachute jumps were also including in the training, since the Vostok capsule in use by the Soviets at that time required cosmonauts to eject from the capsule after reentry and come down on their own parachute from a height of 23,000 feet. In the end, it was Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev who chose Tereshkova to be the first woman in space. She was to fly as the pilot of Vostok 6, to be launched while Vostok 5 was still in orbit.

Tereshkova's trip into orbit began on June 16, 1963. She was not only the first woman to fly into space, but the first civilian as well. Her call sign for the flight was 'Seagull'. She orbited the Earth 48 times and stayed aloft for three days. During that time, her capsule and Vostok 5 came to within 3 miles of each other and established radio contact.

There were unofficial reports that Tereshkova's time in orbit was less than pleasant. Vasily Mishin, the second-in-command of the Vostok program, was quoted as saying that the female cosmonaut was “on the edge of psychological instability”. The degree to which this is true remains unclear, but it is known for certain that Tereshkova did not eat during her three days in orbit. For flying the mission, she was decorated Hero of the Soviet Union, her nation's highest award.

Because of Tereshkova's performance during the flight or for other reasons, it was 19 years before another woman traveled into space. Of the five female cosmonauts trained in the early 1960's, only Tereshkova ever flew a mission. After her flight, she attended one of the Soviet Air Force academies and was designated a cosmonaut engineer in 1969. That was the same year the female cosmonaut group was dissolved.

Tereshkova married another cosmonaut, Andrian Nikolayev, in November, 1963. The couple had one daughter, the first human being to have both a mother and father who have traveled in space. They divorced in 1982. Tereshkova went on to receive a doctorate in engineering and then turned her attention to politics. She served as a member of the Supreme Soviet, the highest legislative body in the Soviet Union. Until the fall of communism in Russia in 1991, she served on the Central Committee of the Communist Party. During this time, she remained technically a cosmonaut, a position from which she retired in 1997.

Valentina Tereshkova still lives in Russia, although her days in politics are long over. She is still held in high esteem there as one of the nation's early space pioneers. She was invited to Russian President Vladimir Putin's official residence for her 70th birthday in March, 2007. When the subject of space travel came up, Tereshkova said that she was willing to volunteer for a mission to Mars, even if it was a one-way trip.

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