On a small farm nearly 200 miles from Moscow, a woman was born who would inspire billions.
It was 1937, and the Soviet Union along with the rest of the world was embroiled in World War II. Her father, a tractor driver before the war died a hero, one of the 20 million Soviet casualties. From the age of two, Valentina Tereshkova was raised by her widowed single mother.
She learned early the virtues of sacrifice, tenacity, gratitude, and community. Their love was deep, and their secrets were few. At 16, a young Valentina abandoned formal schooling to work at a textile factory just to help lessen her mother’s financial burdens.
Of course, not having some manner of education was out of the question. The sacrifices a single parent makes for their children aren’t for nothing, after all. Valentina enrolled in correspondence learning (pencils, paper, and the post office required in 1953). Her mother helped her with her school work as much as she could, as did their friends and neighbors in their small village.
Beating the Best
In 1962, Valentina was now 25. Aside from her work and her continued assistance to her mother, she was also an accomplished amateur skydiver. She had 126 jumps to her name already, more than twice the boys’ average.
She had heard the news of Gagarin’s first space flight and the space race that had captivated the world. Being a cosmonaut looked hard, demanded sacrifice, and the training required was rumored to be near impossible. Just the type of challenge she was raised for.
Despite having no degree in technical sciences, engineering, or mathematics and no military service, her consistently flawless performance in skydiving caught the attention of Soviet officials.
At the time, space capsules did not hit the ocean gently or land smoothly on some palm-tree lined runway. The early capsules fell straight to the ground from space.
To escape the all-metal human-made meteor, pilots had to blow the escape hatch, eject in their seat wearing their stiff space suits, orient themselves correctly, and open their parachutes – all in a matter of seconds to avoid crashing into the Earth in what was basically a huge tin can.
By the end of her rigorous, nearly impossible training, Valentina had bested over 400 applicants and 5 other female trainees. She would be the first woman (and first civilian) in space.
She was not allowed to tell anyone however, not even her mother. For now, she told her that she was “being recruited to be a parachutist on the Russian national team”, the kind of sort of mostly a lie we’ve all told our parents.
On June 16, 1963, 26-year-old Valentina Tereshkova made history blasting off in Vostok-6 and completed 48 orbits over 70 hours – longer than all U.S. solo male astronauts had spent in space combined.
Her callsign was “Chaika”, or Seagull, and on her way up she could be heard on the radio chanting triumphantly “Ya Chaika! Ya Chaika!” (I am Seagull!)
Valentina’s head throbbed to the point of tears from the enormous pressure changes. Her pencils broke, so she couldn’t focus on her log to distract herself from the nausea, pain, stale bread, food paste, or dizziness. She never asked to abort early.
While in space, the Soviet government broadcasted the news and a live dialogue with Valentina on public radio, celebrating the mission’s success and touting the bravery of Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first ever woman in space.
In her small village some 200 miles north of Moscow, her mother happened to hear the broadcast. It was only then that she realized her little Valentina was not quite “just going skydiving”. She listened in disbelief as her daughter was introduced to the world as an international hero, live from off this planet. Thinking back to all the sacrifices and joys in their life together, tears of pride streamed down her face.
Finally time to return home, Valentina noticed something terrifying. Her capsule was not descending back to Earth, but ascending into outer space.
She radioed in her observation and began working with the science teams on the ground. Being without pencils, she quickly helped calculate the necessary data in her head, wiped the old data from the computer, and manually input the new data along with the algorithm dictated to her from the ground.
There was only one catch. In the time it took to adjust her path of re-entry, the Earth had still been spinning at over 600 mph. It would be impossible to land in Kazakhstan as originally planned, and her new trajectory had her landing somewhere in remote Siberia far from any rescue teams or recovery equipment.
She would have to land alone.
At 4.3 miles from the ground, with the capsule still nearly 3,000 degrees fahrenheit (1650 Celsius), Valentina blew the hatch.
She catapulted out the capsule, doing all she could to orient herself upright in her thick, stiff suit after being cramped and atrophied from 70 hours in zero gravity. Quickly gauging the distance to the lake and fields below, she held her breath and pulled the cord, “begging God not to land on water.”
The parachute exploded out of it’s casing, but had come slightly in front of her before expanding. Only a few miles from Earth, she was knocked nearly unconscious from the blow. With an unbreakable focus and struggling to maintain her vision, she righted herself, slowed her descent, and landed safely on the lake’s shore.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
Upon landing, Valentina took a deep breath and looked around. Beyond the fields and the billowing parachute (and much to her surprise), she saw people running towards her. She had landed near a small Siberian village, not unlike the one she grew up in. They had seen her landing and had dropped everything to come help.
As they helped her break free and brought her to the village, they insisted that she stay for dinner. Nevermind the possibility of broken bones, internal injuries, or the then unknown effects of spending so much time in zero gravity – no no, first and foremost she needed to eat.
Remembering her mother and everyone else in her own farming village and thinking back to their hospitality, community, and generosity, she accepted the villagers’ “request” that she join them for dinner despite heavy bruising from her parachute and the immense physical toll of having just landing in their backyard after 70 hours in space. It was their backyard, after all.
It was an simple, ordinary village meal of eggs, milk, bread, honey, and leftover space food Valentina contributed, and it was a supper they would all remember for the rest of their lives.
Reprimands & Accolades
Valentina was first reprimanded for having dinner in the village instead of going immediately to a hospital or government facility and for eating regular food before testing according to military protocol, then showered with just about every Soviet and international award there was.
She was given the Hero of the Soviet Union (the Soviet Union’s highest honor) as well as the United Nations Gold Medal of Peace, Simba International Women’s Movement Award, Order of Lenin, Order of Honour, and countless, countless others. She carried the Olympic torch, had a moon crater named after her, and is still a member of the Russian legislature today.
She went on to receive her Doctorate in Technical Sciences, married fellow cosmonaut Andriyan Nikolayev (the first “space wedding”), and had an intelligent, beautiful daughter (the first “space baby”), and is still the only woman ever to have flown a solo space mission.
Her story and continued advocacy for space exploration and the advancement of humankind has inspired countless billions of people across the globe. On her 70th birthday, she even volunteered to lead a solo, one-way trip to Mars if it would help.
Before any of that however, Valentina reunited with her mother where she got the opposite reaction of the Soviet government. With her, it was after the joyous tears and celebration that she received an additional reprimand for not telling her own mother about the top secret, highly classified mission beforehand.
At first, the dangers of Valentina’s mission and the challenges she overcame were greatly downplayed to her mother – even by top Soviet officials. After all, being first in space is one thing, but being first to tell Mom is quite another.