50 years ago today, on June 16, 1963, Soviet Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the very first woman to fly a space mission. During 70+ hours in orbit on Vostok VI, she completed 48 orbits of planet Earth, which was more than all the American astronauts of Project Mercury combined!
Later that same year, the hardy young Tereshkova married cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev, and their daughter, Elena, was the first child born to parents who both went into space.
Born in 1937, Valentina was only 26 years old at the time of her mission, making her the youngest space traveler up to that date. Training included isolation tests, centrifuge spins, rocket theory, spacecraft engineering, weightless flights, 120 parachute jumps and pilot training in MiG-15UTI jet fighters.
During her 3-day trip on Vostok 6, Tereshkova collected the first data on the female body's reaction to spaceflight; she also conducted experiments, manually maneuvered the capsule, and took photographs of the horizon from space, which were later used to identify aerosol layers within the atmosphere.
Tereshkova went on to graduate from the Zhuykosky Air Force Engineering Academy in 1969, and earned a PhD in Technical Science in 1976. She was awarded the title "Hero of the Soviet Union," received two Orders of Lenin, the Joliot-Curie Medal, and was honored with the UN Gold Medal of Peace. Of course, these are just a few of the dozens of awards from many nations.
Woman of the Century
She even has a crater on the moon named after her! There is also a main belt asteroid, "1671 Chaika", which commemorates the callsign of her space capsule. In the year 2000, Russia's "Cinderella of the Stars" was named the "Female Achiever of the 20th Century."
To this day, Valentina is still the only woman who ever flew a SOLO space mission.
Although there were already "plans on paper" for further space flights by Russian women, it was 19 years until the second, Svetlana Savitskaya, flew in 1982.
Major General Valentina Tereshkova
And yeah, let's pretend the Russians weren't the only Good Ol’ Boys club, considering it took the American space program a further year to put Sally Ride in space on Shuttle Challenger in 1983. Seems hard to believe now, but apparently those guys in the 1960s thought they were going somewhere without us.
Good luck with that :)
But hey, let's appreciate progress and end this on a happy note! Cartoonist/musician and all-around awesome gal Lucy Knisley wrote a beautiful song about Tereshkova, called simply "Valentina"... and included it on her album, "Handsewn" in 2011. You can listen to the tune and download a free MP3 from her PureVolume collection.