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You Thought Sally Ride Was the First Woman in Space? Meet Valentina Tereshkova

594px-RIAN_archive_612748_Valentina_Tereshkova

When you hear the word “astronaut,” you probably think of guys like Neil Armstrong. When you think of women astronauts—an even smaller number—you probably think of the late Sally Ride who, among her many accomplishments, went to space twice, was a physics professor at U of C and, perhaps most importantly, was immortalized in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” But Ride, contrary to popular belief, wasn’t the first woman in space. No, that honor, as Cracked photoshop wizard AuntieMeme pointed out recently, goes to Valentina Tereshkova.

As you might’ve guessed, Tereshkova was a Russian cosmonaut (which explains why you’ve probably never heard of her.) Since the Space Race was mainly spurred on by nationalism and a desire to get to the moon before those dirty Communists did (it’s why the Fantastic Four went up into space), the only cosmonaut you may have heard of is Yuri Gagarin, who was the first man in space. It’s a shame because Tereshkova—still alive today—is a trailblazer with a pretty fascinating life.

Born in the small town of Maslennikovo, Tereshkova didn’t start school until age eight, due to WWII, and had to leave at seventeen to support her family by working in the same textile plant as her mother. But Tereshkova wanted more out of life: she learned how to skydive through the DOSAAF (or Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation, and Fleet); founded and led the Textile Mill Workers Parachute Club; and became secretary of the local Komsomol (Communist Youth Party). She was twenty-four when Gagarin went up aboard Vostok 1 in April 1961.

Immediately after that, Nikolai Kamanin, head of the cosmonaut program and legendary Soviet pilot, proposed the idea of female cosmonauts to Soviet Air Force and space program designer Sergei Korolev. Kamanin, according to the Encyclopedia Astronautica, believed “it was [the space program’s] patriotic duty to beat the Americans in putting a woman in space. He wanted to find a female cosmonaut who would be a dedicated Communist agitator in the same class as Gagarin.” Korolev agreed, and the search for lady cosmonauts was on.

The Vostok was automatic, so while piloting skills weren’t necessary, parachuting skills definitely were. Since Kamanin had actually co-founded the DOSAAF, he looked there for candidates, and Tereshkova was among the many called up to Moscow. After several trials, she wound up in the top five; notably, she was the only one of the finalists who had no higher education. The final choice for who would fly came down to Nikita Khrushchev himself. He chose Tereshkova because she “embodied the qualities expected of the New Soviet Woman. She was a reliable communist, a factory worker from a humble background, and a ‘good’ girl.’”

So on June 16, 1963, Tereshkova became the first woman to travel to space, and stayed in orbit for three days aboard Vostok 6, more flight time than all prior American astronauts put together.

But not everything went as planned.

There are several conflicting accounts of what happened, but for her part, Tereshkova wrote in 2007 that upon reaching orbit, she realized her automatic orientation system was improperly angled. This means that when initiating landing, she’d die up in orbit rather than head down through the atmosphere. She relayed the info to USSR ground control, who fortunately were able to correct the problem.

Tereshkova wasn’t quite out of the woods. She endured poor food and agonizing injuries brought on by having to stay strapped in her seat for three days straight. Later, when parachuting down, Tereshkova saw that she was heading for a large lake. By this point, she was exhausted and dehydrated, and she doubted she could swim to shore. Luckily, a high wind blew her over to the shoreline and she landed safely, if roughly. Her nose banged pretty hard on her helmet and she had to wear makeup in public to cover up the subsequent bruises.

After her flight, Tereshkova dealt with Air Force officials who sought to discredit her by claiming she was insubordinate and drunk on the launch pad (they were eventually dismissed), and pressured her into marrying Andrian Nikolayev, the only bachelor cosmonaut at the time, in a lavish ceremony presided over by Khrushchev himself.  Sadly, the marriage wasn’t happy; even sadder, the couple was forced to remain together as a divorce would’ve meant the end of their careers.

Tereshkova and her fellow female cosmonauts were never fully integrated into the regular cosmonaut rotation; an all-female mission was planned, but later scrapped. By the time Tereshkova graduated from the Zhukovskiy Military Air Academy in 1969 with an engineering degree, the female cosmonaut unit was completely disbanded. Tereshkova wound up a politician and sat on the Central Committee of the Communist Party for over twenty-five years. She served as the Soviet UN representative at the 1975 International Women’s Day, and was elected to the presidium of the Supreme Soviet, among numerous other honors.

In 1978, the female cosmonaut program was relaunched, and Tereshkova signed right back up. While undergoing medical review, Tereshkova met and fell in love with physician Yuliy Shaposhnikov. Although she failed medical review and never went back into space, Tereshkova separated from and successfully divorced her first husband (the divorce had to be approved by then-Premier Leonid Brezhnev; he granted it in 1982) and married Yuliy. After the USSR’s collapse in 1991, Tereshkova formally lost political office. After Yuliy’s death in 1999, she retired to a small house on the outskirts of Star City, topped with a seagull weathervane (a reference to her call sign being ‘Chaika,’ Russian for seagull). In 2011, she was elected to the Russian legislature’s lower house, the State Duma, a position she still holds. Tereshkova’s also received a ton of medals from Russia and numerous other countries and even had a lunar crater and minor planet named after her.

She’s still active, serving as a torchbearer in the ‘08 Summer Olympics and was flag-carrier at the opening ceremony of last year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi. At a state celebration for her seventieth birthday in 2013, she even said she’d like to fly to Mars, even if (as is likely) it’s a one-way trip.

Western whitewashing of Soviet accomplishment has left us thinking the only Russian space pioneers were Yuri Gagarin and Laika the dog. And that sucks, because Tereshkova’s a pretty awesome woman, and her story deserves to be more widely known. After all, despite the chilly U.S.-Russia relations these days, the desire to reach the stars should unite us all.

(via Encyclopedia Astronautica; image via Wikimedia Commons)

Tom Speelman is a staff writer and reviewer–primarily of comics–for Another Castle, and is an accomplished academic, having presented at the Comics Arts Conference at Comic-Con as well as being published in The Baker Street Journal. Currently finishing up degrees in Literature and Writing at Calvin College, he rants about comics, anime, Star Trek, television and Transformers @tomtificate on Twitter and blogs about all those and more at his personal blog, tomtificate.

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