58 years ago, Yuri Gagarin, Soviet pilot and cosmonaut, became the first human being to go beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Just two years later, Valentina Tereshkova made the headlines as the first woman to travel to space. As the Cold War escalated, so did the race to engineer better space technology and win ideological influence globally. At the time, the commitment to acquire gender equality may have been outdated for the Western countries, but this was not the case for the Soviet Union.
For General Nikolai Kamanin, head of cosmonaut training and an advocate of women’s equal opportunity to fly, the idea that women were already fighter pilots in World War II and parachuting, prompted the very natural idea to train them to fly in space. If women were eventually going to fly in space, why not a Soviet woman be the first one? This decision was very much about Soviet Patriotism, as well as gender equality.
At the age of 26, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. She was born in 1937 to peasant family in the Yaroslavl region. Her father died in World War II. She left school at 16 and started working in a textile factory to earn money and continued her studies part-time. She joined the Young Communist League (Komsomol) and soon developed an interest in parachuting and became a member of a local aviation club. At 22, she made her first jump. Even though did not have experience as a pilot, she was accepted to a Soviet space program due to her successful parachute jumps. She received 18 months of training and underwent multiple tests to guarantee her safety. In June 16, 1963, Valentina launched and pilot Vostok 6. She stayed more than 70 hours in space and orbit the earth 48 times.
During the flight, Valentina came close to experiencing a tragedy. The spacecraft was designed to ascend but not descend and an error in the navigation software cause it to move away from Earth. Valentina quickly realized this, and scientists were able to develop a new software that allowed the spacecraft to land. She landed safely in what is now the border between Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China and received the title Hero of the Soviet Union and was honored with an Order of Lenin. The information about the near accident was made public 40 years later as well as so much more after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
She never flew again and married a fellow cosmonaut. Their first child was subject to multiple tests because it was the first child born from parents who had been both exposed to space.
Because of her background, Valentina became a model of a Soviet citizen. She was the living embodiment of the key developments under the Soviet Union: a successful combination of rural and urban life, experiencing the tragedies of World War II, and the opportunities for equality in the post-war period. Valentina Tereshkova became a symbol of Soviet peaceful achievement and she embody a narrative of ‘a simply Russian girl’ who pleaded for peace in the international arena with her unofficial role of goodwill ambassador.
Her achievements proved to be highly effective in altering the strict female role in the Soviet Union and during a speech in the Red Square, Khrushchev gloated that Valentina “had demonstrated once again that women raised under socialism walk alongside men, both in self-sacrificing labour and in heroic feats which amaze the world”. These actions seemed very radical in comparison to the situation in Western countries, and in some way the Soviet Union proved to be way more progressive and 21st century-minded by 1963. The first American woman in space was Sally Ride, who launched in the space shuttle, Challenger, in 1983. Even though, during the Cold War, ideological influence and innovative technology were paramount, the Soviet Union became increasingly concerned with gender equality as another way of demonstrating Soviet patriotism to the world.
By Teresa Quijano