Fifty years ago, on June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova—a 26-year-old textile worker from the Russian city of Yaroslavl—became the first woman in space. With the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the Soviets had taken a lead in the space race, sending Yuri Gagarin, the first man, into orbit in a Vostok capsule in 1961. After Gagarin’s flight, hundreds of Soviet women, including Tereshkova, wrote volunteering to match Gagarin’s feat.
Tereshkova knew that a Vostok descended by parachute, and as an excellent parachutist, dreamed that she would go into orbit. When the Space Agency decided to fly a woman, they looked among the letters for parachutists—it takes courage to jump from an airplane. They also looked at candidates with technological degrees, winnowed the list to five and brought them to Star City, the space center near Moscow.
Russian women won suffrage in 1918, two years before Americans. Russian women fought at the front in World War II—and in the sky in 1941, the “Night Witches,” a female squadron, glided silently over German targets, dropping bombs and swiftly escaping. By contrast, American women pilots were excluded from the Army Air Corps and it was only in 1977 that women who piloted cargo flights, some of whom lost their lives in the line of duty, were retroactively regularized into the Air Force.
Tereshkova’s flight was secret. Her mother only learned of it when, standing in a public square watching a television screen, she recognized Tereshkova in the Vostok capsule. Tereshkova knew on May 21 that she would fly, but she did not know that Valentina Ponomareva would be her backup until the day they arrived at Baikonaur, in Kazakhstan, before the flight. Premier Nikita Khrushchev described her as “Gagarin in a skirt.” Like Gagarin, Tereshkova’s family suffered in the war. Her father died at the front and she worked with her mother at a textile factory. There she led the Komsomal, the Soviet youth group, and was an excellent public speaker.
Tereshkova flew the sixth Vostok. The fifth had gone into orbit the day before; this would be the first time two separate Vostoks shared the sky. Her flight was not perfect. She sat strapped into her seat in a helmet with electrodes measuring brain activity that prevented her from turning her head. She became nauseated—what is now called Space Motion Sickness—the first day and vomited, and did not obey instructions to take a required pill. Nonetheless, she continued in orbit for three days, and was able to correct the angle of the Vostok for a safe descent.
When she landed, villagers came to help her out. Before the team from Baikonaur arrived, she distributed her leftover food. She scarcely ate after vomiting but left no way to measure how much food she consumed. She explained that the food was in the Russian tradition of hospitality. Then there was the crack in the windshield, a puzzle to the engineers. Days later Tereshkova mentioned that on removing a cassette from her camera, it smashed the window. Ponomareva, her deputy, defends her silence. “In those days, always better not to talk.”
Infuriated, Sergei Korolev, the “Great Designer” of the rocket program, swore “never to get involved with broads again.” But he did not make personnel decisions. Khrushchev did and declared Tereshkova’s mission a sign that “men and women are treated equally in the Soviet Union.” He made her a Hero of the Soviet Union and a recipient of the Order of Lenin. In November, he presided over the first State Wedding in Moscow between two cosmonauts, Tereshkova and Adrian Nikolayev. A year after her flight she gave birth to a daughter.
Fifty years ago the American press dismissed the flight as a “stunt.”
Sending a woman flying alone in space was no way to treat a lady. A few outliers, like the playwright Claire Booth Luce, disagreed, saying American women didn’t want to be treated like dolls, that the Russians were smarter about women.
At just this moment, The Feminine Mystique was published, tapping a deep vein of discontent among American women. A new aggressive feminism gathered momentum with unpredicted speed and by 1969 Yale and Vassar colleges were co-educational. In 1975, Congress opened West Point and Annapolis to women.
When in 1978 NASA announced the first new class of astronauts in a decade, the notices identified the agency as an “Equal Opportunity Employer.” Two years later the selection committee reported they had selected two women; they were sent back to select four more. Women would not be tokens. The new Shuttle needed astronauts who were engineers, scientists and physicians, as well as pilots. (There would not be a female shuttle pilot until 1999).
The Soviets responded to NASA’s announcement by selecting a new class of female cosmonauts. The one they chose to fly was Svetlana Savitskaia, a test pilot with the Soviet Air Force and winner of the World Championship in aerobatics in Britain. In 1982 she arrived at their space station where fellow cosmonauts greeted her with an apron and asked her to make dinner. Their diaries, published in the 1990s, reveal how they disliked her; one noted that a woman on a space station was bad luck. She responded angrily on her return. Times had changed. Women I spoke to from her class assured me that they had been following events in America. The Iron Curtain, they said, was not a solid wall but like a chain-link fence. What they learned encouraged them to ask more for themselves.
By the end of the century Elena Kondakova, with an engineering degree, became the third Russian woman to fly. The Soviets/Russians also flew an English and French woman. NASA, partnered with Canada and Japan, carried their female astronauts during the Shuttle years. Today women frequently crew the International Space Station.
Tereshkova now divides her time between her homes in Yaroslavl and Moscow, where she is near her granddaughter and the Duma, where she’s a deputy.
Still interested in adventure, as Tereshkova was half a century ago, today’s female astronauts are at least as eager to explore. Many of them told me, as did Kalpana Chawla, who perished on the Columbia, that they are ready to go to Mars, “in a heartbeat.”
For more on Tereshkova's flight, follow BBC Radio 4's special program this Saturday at 10:30 am GMT, or online on the BBC iplayer.