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Valentina Tereshkova

'A Soviet woman has stormed outer space!'
Valentina Tereshkova, 1963

Following training undertaken in great secrecy, Tereshkova went from obscurity to world fame in a matter of days when images of her aboard the spacecraft Vostok 6 were transmitted to Earth. The story preceding this historic moment is however less well known; why was Tereshkova chosen to become the first woman in space and who were the other contenders?

The search for a female cosmonaut began in 1962, with the Soviet Air Force scouting out suitable candidates from aviation clubs across the Soviet Union. The motivation behind this was clear. While there was a genuine interest in studying the impact of space flight on the female body, the main aim was to achieve another space spectacular ahead of the Americans and to create a heroine who would represent the virtues of the communist system to the world.

The right woman for the job

Having parachuting experience was considered essential for candidates, but there were also restrictions on age, weight and height owing to the size and capabilities of the Vostok spacecraft.

Out of the initial 400 candidates, 23 women were eventually short-listed and sent to Moscow to undergo a series of tests and interviews. The women were required to pass each test; a fail immediately resulted in the candidate being sent home.

In March 1962, Tereshkova was short-listed for the final stage and began training. Alongside her were four other women whose names would be kept secret until 1987: Tatyana Kuznetsova, Irina Solovyova, Valentina Ponomareva and Zhanna Yorkina.

Kuznetsova was a qualified parachutist and at 22 years of age the youngest person ever selected for space-flight training. Solovyova was a member of the Soviet national parachuting team, while Ponomareva, a graduate of the Moscow Aviation Institute, was the only pilot in the group. Yorkina and Tereshkova, an English teacher and textile worker respectively, were both amateur parachutists.

Following gruelling training and scepticism from many of their male peers, the women took their final exams late in 1962. Despite Ponomareva being the most technically experienced candidate and scoring the best results, Tereshkova was chosen ahead of her to fly Vostok 6, with Ponomareva and Solovyova in reserve.

People's choice

Although Tereshkova was hard-working and determined, her selection shows the importance placed on her perceived propaganda value. Being a model worker from a proletarian background with good looks and an attractive personality made her stand out.

Sergei Korolev, Chief Designer of the Soviet space programme, was later to write:

‘[The reserves] were better prepared ... but neither of them can compete with Tereshkova in the ability to influence crowds, arouse sympathy among people and to appear before an audience.’

The years immediately following Tereshkova’s space flight saw her embark on a series of world tours as a cultural ambassador. Meanwhile, Kuznetsova, Solovyova, Ponomareva and Yorkina continued general training with another mission allegedly under way, but subsequently stopped following the death of Korolev in 1966.

The female cosmonaut detachment was finally disbanded in 1969 and it became clear that, while celebrating Tereshkova’s achievement, decision-makers were not committed to continued female participation in the Soviet space programme.

Role model

While the ‘Tereshkova moment’ turned out to be an isolated event, it greatly improved the status of Soviet women in the fields of science and technology, and had a positive effect on the generation of young girls who watched Tereshkova venture into space.

Press coverage extolling Tereshkova’s virtues openly encouraged girls to excel at these subjects and to compete with their male peers. Soviet girls were receptive to these messages of empowerment and, aided by the Soviet educational system and job opportunities created in the Cold War climate, dared more than ever before to dream and pursue careers in these fields.

While this positive trend of female interest and accomplishment in the sciences sadly began to decline in the 1970s, it was still a significant development at the time and the impact of Tereshkova as a role model and inspiration should not be overlooked.

Back down to earth

Any dreams that girls of the Tereshkova generation held of actually following their heroine into space however were dashed because of subsequent disagreement on the suitability of female cosmonauts. There were also other factors, such as Leonid Brezhnev replacing Nikita Khrushchev as Soviet premier.

Under Brezhnev, the space programme was no longer top priority and his time in office was marked by a growing gender traditionalism. Interestingly, despite the selection criteria having evolved by the time the second group of female cosmonauts was formed in 1979, one key aim remained the same – to beat the Americans in space.

Svetlana Savitskaya became the second woman in space in 1982 just ahead of American Sally Ride, thereby upstaging NASA. Another space spectacular for Russia had been achieved.

Written by Ulrika Danielsson, Content Coordinator for the Cosmonauts exhibition
Image credits

1. Left to right: Tatiana Kuznetsova, Irina Solovyova, Valentina Tereshkova and Valentina Ponomareva © RIA Novosti
2. Valentina Tereshkova on the airfield of her local aviation club © RIA Novosti
3. Valentina Tereshkova © NASA 

Film credits

BFI National Archive

Music by Lee Rosevere