The Soviet Union took a comfortable early lead in the Space Race – they sent up the first satellite (Sputnik), animal (Laika the dog) and man (Yuri Gagarin). Then, in mid-1963, the Russians were first to put a woman into orbit.
Valentina Tereshkova had volunteered for cosmonaut training in the wake of Gagarin’s historic flight in 1961. She wrote a letter begging to go to space, citing amateur parachuting as her experience, and was selected as her poor textile worker image fit the Soviet ideal of a proletarian hero.
On the morning of 16 June 1963, Lieutenant Tereshkova – codenamed ‘Seagull’ – boarded Vostok 6, clad in an orange spacesuit and a white helmet emblazoned with ‘CCCP’ (the abbreviation of the Soviet Union).
The launch took place without a hitch as a smiling 26-year-old Tereshkova beamed: “Hey sky, take off your hat! I’m coming to see you!”
Valentina Tereshkova in training, June 1963 © Getty Images
Her initial jubilation was slightly marred by nausea and discomfort in the 2.3-metre-wide capsule. It has recently been revealed that Tereshkova also forgot her toothbrush, so had to use her finger.
It has recently been revealed that Tereshkova had to report a fault on Vostok 6, which would have sent the craft out into space if not corrected. She was asked to keep the error secret for decades.
Yet she logged more flight time than all the American astronauts combined at that point, completing 48 orbits in 71 hours, and she successfully communicated with fellow cosmonaut, veteran Valery Bykovsky, when her craft came within three miles of his Vostok 5.
Soviet propaganda poster celebrating Valentina Tereshkova’s flight. It reads: ‘Long Live the First Woman Cosmonaut’ © Getty Images
Following her safe return on 19 June, Tereshkova was whisked to a grand ceremony in Moscow.
In attendance was Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who gave Tereshkova a hug before the crowd, both to welcome her home and to show off his nation’s dominance in space. Tereshkova never left Earth again.
Tereshkova became a useful figure in Soviet propaganda. Under pressure from the leadership, she married fellow cosmonaut Andriyan Nikolayev and entered politics.