Born in 1937 in Maslennikovo, Russia, U.S.S.R., Valentina Tereshkova became interested in parachuting as a young woman while working at a textile mill. She trained in skydiving at the local Aeroclub and made her first jump at age 22. She soon began training as a competitive parachutist. Valentina’s parachuting experience made her an ideal candidate for the Soviet female cosmonaut corps, as their Vostok capsule required cosmonauts to eject at about 20,000 feet during reentry. The Soviet Union began seeking female candidates shortly after the 1961 flight of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, with the goal of sending a woman to space before the United States. Valentina volunteered and was selected as one of five candidates to begin training in 1962.
The cosmonaut training included pilot training in MiG-15UTI jet fighters, isolation tests, centrifuge tests, thermo-chamber tests, and decompression chamber tests. They also participated in water recovery training. After completing training in December 1962, the five candidates were commissioned as junior lieutenants in the Air Force. Valentina was selected to launch solo aboard Vostok 6 in 1963. Male cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky would launch in Vostok 5 and the two spacecraft would take part in the second dual flight in the Vostok program.
On June 16, 1963, Valentina launched and became the first woman to fly in space at age 26. She remains the youngest woman to fly in space and the only woman to fly in space solo. Valentina’s call sign was Chaika, or “Seagull.” After launch, she radioed, “It is I, Seagull! Everything is fine. I see the horizon; it’s a sky blue with a dark strip. How beautiful the Earth is … everything is going well.” During her flight, Valentina maintained a flight log, took photos of the horizon, and radioed Vostok 5 when the two spacecraft passed each other in orbit. She orbited the earth 48 times and spent 2 days, 22 hours, and 50 minutes in space. Upon reentry, Valentina ejected from Vostok 6 and parachuted down northeast of Karaganda, Kazakhstan on June 19.
Valentina’s historic flight earned her the Order of Lenin and Hero of the Soviet Union awards. She began touring on behalf of the Soviet Union, speaking at events around the world. Although she wanted to further pursue a career as a cosmonaut and engineer, her superiors discouraged her after the death of famed cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in a flight training accident. She instead became involved in politics. Valentina also remained in the Air Force and graduated from the Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy in 1969 and earned a doctorate in aeronautical engineering in 1977. She did not return to space but taught for a time as an instructor at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. Valentina remained a member of the Russian Air Force until her retirement in 1997. She remains active in Russian politics today.