Today, March 6 is the 79th birthday of Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, the first woman in space!
Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated the legendary pilot/cosmonaut on her birthday, and, according to the traditional Russian formula, wished her success and happiness, good health, and everything good in life.
Putin went on to post the following congratulatory greeting on his website: “You are rightfully considered a bright and extraordinary personality – a true legend of our national and even international cosmonautics. Your strong character, deep wisdom, an actively vital and civic position, always helped you to achieve the goals which you set for yourself, and in full measure to realize your full professional and creative potential.”
One Tough Cookie
Although she is old now, Tereshkova still appears remarkably fit. I suppose her fitness is understandable, given that only the healthiest and most fit humans can even get selected to be cosmonauts or astronauts. The rest of us can only admire, and envy, from afar. Valentina’s photograph shows her to have still a full head of thick brown hair, just striped with a dashing grey streak. Her mouth is still set in that determined yet humorous half-smile which the world came to know. Her eyes still glint perceptively from arched brows.
Valentina was born in 1937 in the Yaroslavl Oblast, in central Russia. They were a typical Soviet family: her father was a tractor driver, and her mother worked in a textile factory. Father Vladimir went on to become a war hero, killed in battle during the Finnish Winter War, when Valentina was only two years old. Growing up, the little girl was not destined for an academic career, and eventually came to work in the same textile factory as her mom. This young woman’s distinguishing talent turned out to be parachuting and skydiving: She joined the local “Aeroclub”, and made her first jump at the age of 22.
In the Soviet Union of that era, there were many opportunities for working class youth, both boys and girls, to engage in sports and paramilitary activities. Valentina’s success in aerial sports led to everything else: Her election as Secretary of the local Komsomol, and her eventual selection as a cosmonaut.
In the Steps of Gagarin…
After the success of putting the first man in space, the Soviet leadership decided, as the next logical step, to put a woman in space as well. They organized a female cosmonaut corps. Quoting wiki:
Out of more than four hundred applicants, five were selected: Tatyana Kuznetsova, Irina Solovyova, Zhanna Yorkina, Valentina Ponomaryova, and Tereshkova. Qualifications included that they be parachutists under 30 years of age, under 170 cm (5 feet 7 inches) tall, and under 70 kg (154 lbs.) in weight.
The height and weight requirements are obvious, given the small capsules and tight quarters. As one American astronaut was later to say, it was like being shot into space in a tin can.
On the morning of 16 June 1963, Valentina was sealed up inside her Vostok 6 capsule and launched into space. She was up there for 3 days, orbiting the Earth 48 times.
After her pioneering space flight, the 26-year-old Tereshkova returned to her education, eventually obtaining her doctorate in engineering.
A Successful Life
Tereshkova was always a devoted family woman. After her great achievement, she was asked by Soviet leader Nikita Khruschchev what reward she would consider fitting for her service. She requested that the government find the location where her father was killed in action, during the Finnish war. This was done.
On 3 November 1963 Tereshkova started her own family: She married a fellow cosmonaut named Andriyan Nikolaev, and 7 months later gave birth to their daughter Elena, who later grew up to become a doctor.
Tereshkova and Nikolaev were divorced in 1982, but she remarried. Her second husband, an orthopedic surgeon, died in 1999.
In addition to everything else, Tereshkova has had a successful political career. Her steady rise in the Communist Party led her all the way to the Central Committee (1969-1991). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tereshkova continued to maintain a positive attitude, and eventually returned to politics when she was elected to the Duma, this time a member of Putin’s United Russia Party. And Tereshkova’s thirst for new adventures is undaunted: At one point she told Putin that she wished to be included in the Mars mission, if and when Russia decides to send a team to the Red Planet.