STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: Valentina Tereshkova, First Woman in Space

Valentina Tereshkova, First Woman in Space. Photo from

A pet peeve of mine is when someone calls Alan Shepard the first man in space, or Sally Ride the first woman in space.  While they were the first American man and woman in space, respectively, and we are very, very proud of them, those are firsts we didn’t actually have the distinction of winning in the space race.  We had many amazing firsts, but not those two.  And when it came to putting a woman in space, we weren’t first by a long shot.  While Yuri Gagarin’s historic first flight was only a little bit ahead of Alan Shepard’s, Sally Ride didn’t fly in space until a full 20 years after the first Soviet woman did.  So much for our superior equality and women’s rights here, right?

Last summer was the 50th anniversary of Valentina Tereshkova’s spaceflight.  She became the first woman in space on June 13, 1963.  Sally Ride became the first American woman in space on June 18, 1983.  Thats two entire decades plus a few days apart.  We like to think we are the most equal and progressive country in the world, but a lot of times we fall short of that distinction – women in space, women in the top government position, paid maternity leave… these are all areas where we are nowhere near being the world leaders, but with just a little concerted effort we definitely could be.

The Soviets (now Russians) have been far from perfect in the track record of cosmonaut equality, though.  After Valentina Tereshkova’s flight, they didn’t launch another female cosmonaut until Svetslana Savitskaya in 1982.  And they have had only a total of three women in space to our forty-odd.  But at least they gave one woman a chance early on, unlike in the U.S. space program (the women who very nearly made it to space in the U.S. in the early days, the Mercury 13, will be another post).

To date, just slightly over 10% of all astronauts and cosmonauts in the world have been women, but the numbers are creeping up.  The U.S. is doing particularly well in this arena lately – we went from having zero women in the first astronaut candidate class, to 50% of the most recent astronaut candidate class (4 of 8 selected).

But back to today’s role model.  The daughter of a textile worker mother and tractor driver father, Valentina Tereshkova had limited formal education, attending school only from the age of eight until leaving school to join the work force and take correspondence courses at age seventeen.  Her father went missing in the Sino-Russian war, so she and her two siblings were raised by a single mother.  Valentina was working at a textile mill when she was picked up for the cosmonaut program – not for her prowess in academics or her field, but because of her hobby as an amateur parachutist.  She learned to parachute with a local aviation club that was an auxiliary of the Soviet Air Force.

One of four women selected for Nikita Khrushchev’s “Women in Space” program, she was the only one chosen to actually launch.  Unfortunately, the program mainly existed for the purpose of putting a woman in space before the Americans – little did they know that, sadly, the Americans weren’t even trying to put a woman in space at that point, as the early women’s astronaut program in the U.S. was  actually quietly being canceled.

Since the Vostok’s systems were largely automated and it was chiefly a political stunt, the key criteria for female cosmonauts were parachute experience, ‘likeability’, and having nothing embarrassing or offensive in their records.  Since Valentina was already a leader in her communist youth organization and free of any scandals, she beat out candidates with more education and broader, more applicable experience, such as engineering or test pilot backgrounds.

Valentina Tereshkova’s flight on Voshtok 6 was just shy of 71 hours in duration, long enough to orbit the Earth 48 times.  Accounts of what happened on the flight vary – the public, propaganda version is that the flight was a resounding success and Valentina Tereshkova was a true Soviet hero.  Several prominent party officials later wrote in various memoirs and accounts that she had an emotional breakdown or otherwise failed to complete her mission.  Valentina did not get to give her own side of the story until 2007.  Her account said that the automatic systems were set up incorrectly and she had to override them, the orientation system being 90 degrees off.  That would have sent her off into death in space rather than inserting into the proper re-entry orbit.  Instead, she managed to bring herself and her spacecraft safely back with nothing more than a bruised nose from a hard landing.

Whatever actually happened – and I’m much more inclined to go with her own account than those of propagandists and Soviet-era party leaders – she was able to successfully launch, spend three days in space, and return to Earth in one piece, so I call that a tremendous success.

After her return, there were several party members who tried to start rumors and discredit her.  There were grumblings that any woman who flew was taking a place away from a man.  The female cosmonaut program quietly went away.  Valentina married a fellow cosmonaut – was pressured to marry the one bachelor cosmonaut, in fact – and they had a daughter.  The three were frequently paraded around as the “space family” but it fell apart after a few years and she eventually married Yuliy Shaposhnikov, her partner until his death in 1999.

She went on to complete a graduate degree in engineering and became a pilot and instructor, but never flew in space again, despite her best efforts.  She tried to get back into space when the female cosmonaut program was revived to once again rival the Americans, when word got out that women were beginning training as NASA astronauts in the late 1970s.

Valentina’s career after her flight was spent mainly as a prominent communist party politician and as an activist, making public appearances and working for various organizations to support women’s rights, science, spaceflight, and orphanages, and she even served on the World Peace Council.  She is still active in the Russian government, and has expressed an interest in joining the Mars One program and returning to space as a one-way Mars colonist.  Most recently, she was a flag-bearer in the Sochi Olympics.  Her awards are too many to list here.  Please see the sources below for more information.

Today’s STEM female role model is unique in that she didn’t start out as someone in a STEM field at all.  The fact that a young textile worker with little schooling and a passion for parachuting could become the first woman in space, a pilot, a prominent global politician, activist for women’s rights, pilot, wife, mother, grandmother, and engineer is inspiring.  But the most impressive thing, in my mind, is that even at age 76 she is still dreaming of going to space, and still busy following her many passions.



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