Women in Science: Valentina Tereshkova, First Woman in Space

Image Credit: NASA

Most people know that 1961 Yuri Gargarin was the first man in space. Most people also know that 1969 Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon. However, few people know when the first woman went to space.

The first woman in space was Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 – only two years after Gargarin’s tour. This is an incredibly short time considering how long it took the Americans to send their first woman to space. Sally Ride launched with the space shuttle Challenger in June 1983 – 22 years after the first American, Alan Shepard, went to space.

Having left education early, Valentina worked at a textile factory in a small village in Russia. Many might consider this early career unlikely for a future cosmonaut. However, Valentina was a passionate parachutist. This hobby later qualified her to join the cosmonaut training program. Recruitng parachutists to the space program was not uncommon at the time because early cosmonauts and astronauts had to parachute out of their space craft when landing back on Earth.

After winning the race of putting the first man into space, Soviet leadership was determined to also win the race of launching the first woman. Therefore, they sent out incognito spotters to parachuting clubs to find women suited for the cosmonaut training program.

After further tests, Valentina was selected for training along with four other women. Three of them had university degrees in technology and engineering. So, why was Valentina chosen before them? Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev got the final pick and he chose Valentina mainly because she was the best fit for party propaganda. Her father had died as a soldier during World War II and she was clearly of the working class.

Valentina launched into space aboard Vostok 6 on 16 June 1963 and orbited the Earth 48 times. After three days she landed in the Altay region in Kazakhstan.

After her return, Valentina was greatly celebrated by the Soviet leadership and became an important propaganda figure. However, she never flew in space again.

Author’s Comment

Despite being chosen as the first woman in space partly for propaganda reasons, I believe, we can learn something important from Valentina Tereshkova’s career.

Valentina left school early and worked in a textile factory, but managed to join the astronaut program. She pulled off a major career change. This means it is never too late to learn something new, change your career or apply for that training program or course you always wanted to do.

Teenagers today are often told that they need to figure out exactly what they want to do with their lives by the ages of 15 or 16. After that that’s it. You are stuck with your choice. Valentina’s story shows that this is not true. You can start out as a textile worker and end up going to space.

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