In America, we often hail Sally Ride as the first female astronaut. But the first woman in space was actually a Soviet cosmonaut who beat out 400 applicants to pilot the Vostok 6 spacecraft in 1963—two decades before Ride took her historic spaceflight.
There was nothing in Valentina Tereshkova’s early life that indicated she would become a space pioneer. Born to a farmer and his wife in 1937 in the Yaroslavl region about 200 miles northeast of Moscow, Tereshkova finished school at age 16 and went to work to help support her family.
She seemed destined to follow her mother’s footsteps as a textile factory worker, save for one interest: skydiving. Tereshkova was an avid parachutist who worked her way up to skydiving; by the time she was 22, she was jumping out of the sky pretty regularly.
And then came the space race.
By 1962, the competition to get into orbit had been brewing between the Soviet Union and the United States for about half a decade. The two countries, in an effort to outdo one another in exploring the next frontier of space, had each launched men into space—for the Russians, it was Yuri Gagarin in April 1961; a month later, the Americans successfully launched Alan Shepard into orbit.
During the space race, Russia and the U.S. constantly sought to outdo one another. After putting a man in space, the obvious next step was to launch a woman into space. The USSR’s lead spacecraft designer, Sergey Korolev, is said to have been instrumental in the decision. There are rumors that the USSR knew that the U.S. was planning to send a woman to space and wanted to edge the Americans out.
Inspired by Gagarin's flight, Tereshkova wrote to the Soviet authorities volunteering for any future training program for female cosmonauts. The authorities responded, and in early 1962 she became one of just five women accepted for cosmonaut training. Tereshkova emerged as a prime candidate to make the first spaceflight, although the reasons offered for her selection differ—by some accounts, she was chosen because her family represented workers or because her father was a war hero, although her skydiving skills no doubt played a role. (So did the fact that she wasn't menstruating—women were forbidden from flying while they had their periods.)
On June 16, 1963, Tereshkova took off, eventually circling the globe 48 times over the course of almost three days and cementing her place in history as the first woman to leave Earth’s atmosphere. She performed a series of biological experiments on plants and animals on board; took photos, film, and notes; and monitored various devices tracking both her body and the spacecraft. She also successfully steered the spaceship to orbit the Earth instead of travel away from it, which the capsule was initially doing until Tereshkova figured her way around the glitch.
Accounts differ regarding Tereshkova’s voyage, with much of the coverage steeped in a mixture of sexism and patriotic vitriol. American media didn’t think Tereshkova had earned her stripes: One LIFE story scoffed that the U.S.’s female astronauts were “much better qualified than Valentina” (Tereshkova had only been training for a bit more than a year). The same issue gushed about the “blue-eyed blonde” in a piece provocatively titled: “She Orbits Over the Sex Barrier.”
The USSR wasn’t immune to sexism either: A Soviet scientist told a reporter later that Tereshkova was “hysterical” and vomited in panic. But Tereshkova likely got sick thanks to nausea, a common side effect for space travelers.
For all the gender-busting awesomeness Tereshkova engaged in as the first woman in space, it seems she dealt with more obstacles than initially perceived. She kept secret for 30 years the fact that her ship was erroneously designed to ascend but not descend back to Earth, which she was able to fix with a little ingenuity.
There were also rumblings of sexism in the cosmonaut program, which didn’t sit well with Tereshkova: “On Earth, men and women are taking the same risks,” she later said. “Why shouldn’t we be taking the same risks in space?” She and her fellow female cosmonauts wrote to the Soviet space program head protesting the decision.
Valentina Tereshkova at a press conference in 2013. Image via Getty Images.
Life after Tereshkova’s cosmonaut days was busy. Soon after her flight, she entered the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy, eventually earning her honorary doctorate in engineering. She later dove into the political sphere, becoming an influential, powerful member of the Communist regime in the following decade. She also became a decorated stateswoman, and even after the fall of the Soviet Union remained a respected figure.
More recently, Tereshkova has said she still itches for space travel. On her 70th birthday, in 2007, she was invited to celebrate with Vladimir Putin, at which point she volunteered to go on a one-way trip to Mars.
“If I had money, I would enjoy flying to Mars,” she said. “This was the dream of the first cosmonauts. I wish I could realize it! I am ready to fly without coming back.”