Valentina Tereshkova: First Woman in Space  | Rock & Art

Valentina Wladirimovna Tereshkova, the first woman in space, has an extraordinary and inspiring story. One might expect that being the third person ever to enter outer space, and the first woman, she would have made a lasting impact in the male-dominated field of space exploration.

Unfortunately, it would take another 20 years until another woman, Swetlana Sawizkaja, followed in Tereshkova’s footsteps and broke through earthly barriers of opportunity. Despite facing numerous challenges on her path to becoming a national hero, Tereshkova’s greatest trials would come after orbiting the Earth longer than anyone before her.

A Star is Born 

Valentina Tereshkova was born on March sixth, 1937 in Maslennikov in the USSR. Her father was a tractor driver and her mother was a textile factory worker. While cultivating a burning interest in parachuting, and achieving academic success in maths and science, her dreams remained out of reach amid socialism.

Before changing the course of history, Tereshkova settled for a life in the working class, joining her mother in the textile factory. Unknowingly, she prepared for a bright future as she simultaneously began skydiving at a local flying club, making her first jump at only 22 years of age in 1959.

Gagarin in a Skirt

In 1961, the Soviet government announced a new mission to find a female astronaut to continue their streak after successfully launching the first human into space, Yuri Gagarin. Sending the first woman into space was likely also an attempt to outpace the Americans, who had recently introduced their First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs) program, promoting women’s roles in the NASA astronaut corps. She applied for the traineeship at the cosmonaut school near Moscow. She was chosen along with 400 other women applicants authorised by the Soviet government to ensure Soviet citizenship.

Valentina Tereshkova: First Woman in Space  | Rock & Art

While Korolev wanted to demonstrate socialism’s potential by sending a woman from the working class to space, Tereshkova proved that, even after becoming a global icon, women must continuously assert their position and fight for equality. Most applicants to the ‘Gagarin in a Skirt’ program included military personnel, athletes, acrobats, and parachute jumpers. Out of these 400, only 23 advanced through the initial selection process, with 18 passing the medical tests. 

On February 16, 1962, the final five candidates were selected for the training program: Tatyana Kuznetsova, Irina Solovyova, Zhanna Yorkina, Valentina Ponomaryova, and Valentina Tereshkova.

During several months of intensive training, the women underwent preparation for weightless flights, isolation tests, centrifuge trials, 120 parachute jumps, and jet aircraft pilot training. Four women successfully passed the final exams and were commissioned as lieutenants in the Soviet Air Force. Technically an honorary rank, Tereshkova thereby became the first civilian to fly in space. Following the exams in 1962, Tereshkova, Solovyova, and Ponomaryova emerged as top candidates, with the final decision resting with Korolev personally.


The original plan for Vostok 5 and 6, the two-spacecraft intended for spaceflight, differed from what occurred. Both Tereshkova and Ponomaryova were initially slated to make the journey, each in a separate spacecraft. The plan was for consecutive days to see the second and third individuals travelling to space as women. However, this plan was quickly abandoned. Instead, Valeri Bykovsky was chosen to pilot Vostok 5, making him the second person to embark on the longest spaceflight.

Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Solovyova were then selected by authorities for a joint mission aboard Vostok 6. Khrushchev personally selected Tereshkova over the other four women, viewing her as the epitome of the ‘Soviet Woman,’ aligning with the hidden agenda of the mission. Despite being a woman from the working class, employed in a traditional domestic role, Tereshkova surpassed expectations.

Valentina Tereshkova: First Woman in Space  | Rock & Art

On June 16, 1963, preparations for take-off began. After final checks on life support systems and communication, the two-hour countdown commenced. For the first time in history, Vostok 5 and 6, two manned spacecraft, were simultaneously in space, orbiting the Earth as the world watched with great anticipation. Valentina Tereshkova was 26 years old when she made history.


What seemed impossible to mankind, and even more so to womankind, was finally reality. Together with Valerie Bykovsky (who took off two days earlier), Valentina Tereshkova orbited the earth 49 times, for two days, 23 hours, and 12 minutes. Travelling a total of 82.5 million kilometres, Tereshkova’s televised image was broadcast to the USSR with all eyes on the first female space traveller.

‘Chaika’ (seagull) was her radio call signal, enabling her to speak to Khrushchev with the whole world on the other line. But Tereshkova did more than just fly around space, bragging to the world about her view. She maintained a flight log and carried out tests to collect data on the bodily reaction to spaceflight, the harsh reality of which she had to endure first-hand.

On top of that, she took photographs of the earth and horizon, which would later be used to identify aerosol layers within the atmosphere. The mission for the flight, besides the quite obvious propagandistic intentions, was to solve biomedical questions regarding the female constitution in space, aiming to prove that gender-specific physiological characteristics aren’t a limit to the suitability for spaceflights. Tereshkova certainly proved the latter upon her cheerful return, however the inside of her capsule knew better. 

Gagarin in a Skirt or Tereshkova in Pants?  

“The legacy of space exploration is not just scientific discoveries; it is the inspiration it provides for the future generations”.

After a successful mission in space, Valentina Tereshkova travelled the world, inspiring little girls everywhere. In her home country, Tereshkova was honoured with the ‘Order of Lenin’, the highest civilian award in the USSR. She was also awarded the United Nations Gold Medal of Peace and the Hero for the Soviet Union title, making her a national hero. Not just nationally, Tereshkova also received honorary citizenship in various countries, making her a worldwide icon- that is for everyone except for Nikolai Koroljow, chief designer and head of the cosmonaut training.

Revealed many years after the mission by General Lieutenant Kamanin, Tereshkova was a little less than cooperative upon her arrival from o uter space. During the critical phase of landing, Tereshkova was completely out of reach. She didn’t give any feedback or response to any of the pleading enforcement reports. With great tension, Koroljow and the whole control centre waited for Tereshkova’s return, completely unaware of her well-being while expecting the worst of all scenarios.

Except for an injury on her head from parachuting in reentry (the capsule at the time had not yet developed any soft landing capacities), Tereshkova landed in safety. The final phases of the mission, however, did not solely involve her so-called ‘unprofessional’ behavior. During the spaceflight, Tereshkova apparently did not strictly adhere to the plan; she often refused to carry out various tasks, slept when she shouldn’t have, and woke when she shouldn’t.

At times, there was no radio signal and thoughts of ending the mission earlier roamed in the control centre back on earth. What Koroljow and his team didn’t know though, was that Tereshkova suffered severe physical challenges due to zero gravity, a concept fairly unexplored at that time. Depending on each individual, the two men before her did not suffer any medical issues. Today, it is understood that physiological responses vary among individuals, regardless of gender.

Tereshkova unfortunately experienced severe nausea, which prevented her from eating and caused continuous dizziness and vomiting. Despite this, she kept her suffering private, even upon returning to Earth and reporting on her mission. Korolev was deeply upset by what he perceived as Tereshkova’s lack of transparency and her perceived amateurish behavior, to the extent that he hesitated to allow another woman to enter a domain traditionally dominated by men.

Should Tereshkova be blamed for this? Could her openness about her condition have jeopardised the newfound respect and inclusion of women in a field that had previously marginalised them? Would the world have attributed her illness solely to her gender, potentially undermining Tereshkova’s historic mission? Perhaps during her 2 days, 23 hours, and 12 minutes in space, the first female cosmonaut struggled to conceal her suffering to protect what she had once thought impossible.

But Valentina Tereshkova didn’t let those obstacles stop her from continuing her quest for availability and involvement. She carried on to inspire thousands of women, advocating for women’s rights and space exploration. She trained forthcoming astronauts and passed on her knowledge and wisdom about the stars and universe, ultimately changing ours.

‘As the first woman in space, I felt a great responsibility to represent all women and show that gender is not a barrier to achieving our dreams.’ And although her recent political involvement in the constitutional amendment supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin carries a particularly bitter aftertaste, her work in space exploration was undoubtedly invaluable to the women of the world, and to the women of space. Finally, after 20 long years, Swetlana Sawizkaja could go on to travel with Soyuz T-7  and prolong the streak of female cosmonauts. 

Valentina Tereshkova’s journey is proof of human resilience and the relentless pursuit of exploration. Her courage and determination in the face of immense challenges paved the way for future generations of women in space and beyond. Tereshkova’s legacy reminds us that breaking barriers is not just about reaching new heights but also about inspiring others to follow in those groundbreaking footsteps.

As we continue to push the boundaries of what is possible, it’s crucial to honour and build upon Tereshkova’s achievements. The contributions of women in science and technology have been invaluable, yet there is still much work to be done to ensure true equality and representation in these fields. By supporting and encouraging the next generation of pioneers, we can foster an environment where everyone has the opportunity to contribute to the advancement of human knowledge and discovery.

Join us in celebrating the achievements of women like Valentina Tereshkova by advocating for greater inclusion and opportunities in science and technology. Whether through education, mentorship, or policy change, your support can make a difference. Together, we can ensure that the spirit of exploration and innovation thrives for generations to come. Let’s continue to reach for the stars, inspired by the trailblazers who have shown us that the sky is not the limit.