Valentina Tereshkova: A Legend in Our Time

valentina-tereshkova
Valentina Tereshkova

On 16th June 1963, Soviet Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova broke boundaries and set multiple records which, to this day, have not been broken.

Valentina (Valya) Tereshkova was born 6th March 1937 in Maslennikovo, Central Russia. At the time of her birth both parents worked on farmland. Her father, Vladimir Tereshkov, was a tractor driver. He was killed during the first six months of WWII, before Valentina had reached her third birthday.

Her mother, Elena Tereshkova, now widowed with three children, relocated over 30km west to increase the family’s future education and employment prospects. This was wartime, and as such Valya didn’t begin school until she was more than 8 years old.

Valentina left school aged 16 and began her first job in a tyre factory. Soon after she moved her focus and worked at a textile mill.

During this time she continued her education via correspondence courses with Moscow’s Light Industry Technical School. She graduated in 1960.

Even with such a demanding schedule, she still managed to indulge in her fascination with skydiving. Her dedication to this pass time was so intense that, after completing her first jump aged just 22, she became competitive in the sport. She managed to keep this hobby a secret from her family during her early days in this arena.

Following the historic first manned space flight by Uri Gagarin in 1961, a story in an American newspaper began a series of events that would change the course of history.

Female pilots in the US were now to train as astronauts. A new race had begun. The man to bring this story to the attention of the new but credibly experienced Soviet space programme was Nikolai Kamanin. He was determined to ensure that America didn’t tread on their tails.

A selection programme was set to recruit five woman for a new mission programme. A strict physical criteria (maximum height & weight etc) was stated with only area of experience required. Applicants must be able to confidently parachute. By the time selection was underway, Valya had completed 126 jumps.

400 applicants were narrowed down to the final five in February 1962. Months of basic training was completed before the mission was set.
Valya was the first choice for many in charge. Her father’s early passing whilst fighting for his country would be great propaganda.

Initially targeted to fly as part of a two person flight, the plans soon changed.

Following the delivery of the first man made satellite into orbit, Sputnik, in 1957, the pace of development of orbital craft increased dramatically.
The Vostok rocket was developed by the young and proud Soviet Space Programme soon after, and was ready for testing by 1960.

Following the successful launch of the prototype Vostok in early 1961, a second version (V2K) was intended to be used for photographic reconnaissance missions by the USSR. This was later renamed “Zenit Spy Satellite”.

New and hurried changes to the nation’s game-plan were now in order. Further developments were required to accommodate a human occupant for the craft.

Even with these changes, the only possible way for a person to complete their mission was ejecting the descending module to parachute the last leg of the journey.


The upgraded Vostok 3KA rocket was topped with a spherical module designed to accommodate a single passenger/pilot. This was first used in “Vostok 1” on 12th April 1961. This was the first crewed space flight in history, flown by Uri Gagarin.

Following a successful Earth orbit in under 2 hours, Gagarin began his descent. He safely ejected his module at 20,000ft, completing his return journey under a silk canopy.

Ten Vostok vessels were built, with eight flown and only six crewed. The final of these (Vostok 6) was that of Valentina Tereshkova, before the retirement of the programme. The most recent and rapid developments in space travel have since overshadowed the incredible leaps made by Valentina Tereshkova.

The man who initiated this competition to orbit, Nikolai Kamanin, would later dub her “Gagarin in a Skirt”.

Upon arriving at the launchpad for her mission, she continued the tradition set by her male counterpart – urinating on the back wheel of the bus. This tradition (thankfully) ended due to the redesign of the suits worn by cosmonauts.

The Vostok design became the basis for it’s successor, the Soyuz, in 1966.
After 54 years the Soyuz still operational, providing essential supplies and crew transportation to and from the ISS.

Since the retirement of the US Shuttle Programme in 2011, right up until just last month, this has been the only route available, globally.
The international collaboration between so many powerful nations (including NASA & ESA) in scientific discovery is now proven.

The recent success of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon just a couple of weeks ago has changed that dynamic. Reusable machines are the only way to progress to the next level – Mars. Now this has become a reality the Soyuz is sure to fade out of service.

Vostok 6 launched on 16th June 1963, etching the name of this courageous woman into our history books.

Codenamed “Seagull”, Tereshkova was the first woman in space.

She completed 48 orbits of the Earth, she spent 2 days 22 hrs 50 mins in space during her first and only orbital mission, she is – to date – the only woman to fly solo beyond our atmosphere and she is still the youngest woman ever to enter space, aged just 26 years.

With the current lunar landings planned within the next 4 years, this demonstration of what’s possible can be used to inspire the next generation of space-faring travellers.

About Ryanne Day 3 Articles
Ryanne has followed the work and progress of NASA ever since watching the launch of the Hubble telescope at the age of ten years. A dedicated interest in space science and exploration has grown as more companies join the race back to the moon and beyond. Her life long dream became reality when she was able to watch Shuttle Discovery launch during a visit to Florida in 2010, and a SpaceX launch in March 2020.