Towards the end of 1961, Sergei Korolev (good read), the Soviet space program’s Chief Designer and mastermind behind the nation’s earliest space triumphs, was looking for a new first in space. Having already launched Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov into orbit, he needed something new to maintain the Soviets’ lead over America in space. One idea he had was to launch a woman. A female cosmonaut would send the message that the Soviet Union valued its citizens equally and give little girls throughout the nation the belief that they, too, could go into space some day.
The Central Committee of the Communist Party liked Korolev’s idea, and on February 16, 1962, five experienced parachutists became the first all female cosmonaut training group. Among them was Valentina Tereshkova (good read), a textile factory worker and avid skydiver. But more importantly, she was an outspoken supporter of the communist party who had worked throughout her life – she began helping her widowed mother support their family at the age of 10 – within the Communist system to achieve great things. She was, like Yuri Gagarin before her, the picture of success in the Soviet Union.
Valentina Tereshkova spent three days in space aboard Vostok 6, strapped to her ejection seat inside the seven-and-a-half foot wide pressurized cabin. She was wearing an SK-2 space suit. It was, for a spacesuit, a comfortable design, designed to be pressurized only in an emergency situation where the cabin pressure was lost.
Valentina Tereshkova’s mission ended after completing 48 orbits in a little under 70 hours. She used manual controls to hold Vostok steady while firing the rocket engine to slow her capsule and begin the fall back through the atmosphere. After re-entry, Valentina Tereshkova tapped into her parachutist past and ejected from the falling spacecraft to land by her own parachute.
While Valentina Tereshkova has been lauded since her flight as a trailblazer for women in space – and indeed, she’s been an advocate of both women’s rights and space exploration in her post-cosmonaut career.