Valentina Tereshkova was born to a peasant family in the Yaroslavl' region of the former USSR on March 6, 1937. Yaroslavl is now a part of Russia.
Soon after starting work in a textile mill at the age of 18, Valentina joined an amateur parachuting club. She was a hard worker. Later, at the age of 24, she applied to become a cosmonaut. Just earlier that year, 1961, the Soviet space program began to consider sending women into space. The Soviets were looking for another "first" at which to beat the United States.
Overseen by the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin, the selection process began mid-1961. Since there weren't many female pilots, women parachutists made an excellent field to choose from. Valentina Tereshkova, three other women parachutists, and a female pilot were selected to train as cosmonauts in 1962.
As per the paranoia of the time, the entire program was shrouded in secrecy. When she left for training, Tereshkova reportedly told her mother she was going to a training camp for an elite skydiving team. It wasn't until the flight was announced on the radio that her mother learned the truth. The identities of the other women in the cosmonaut program were not revealed until
the late 1980s. Valentina Tereshkova was the only one of the group to go into space.
The historic first flight of a female cosmonaut was slated to concur with the second dual flight (a mission on which two craft would be in orbit at the same time, and ground control would maneuver them to within 5 km (3 mi) of each other). Scheduled for June of the following year, the flight left only about 15 months for training. Basic training for the women was very similar to that of the male cosmonauts. It included classroom study, parachute jumps, and time in an aerobatic jet.
They were all commissioned as second lieutenants in the . At that time, the air force had control over the cosmonaut program.
Valentina Tereshkova was chosen to fly aboard Vostok 6, scheduled for a June 16, 1963 launch date. It is believed that her backup was Irina Solovyova. Tereshkova's training included at least two long simulations on the ground, of 6 days and 12 days duration. On June 14, 1963 cosmonaut Valeriy Bykovsky launched on Vostok 5. Tereshkova and Vostok 6 launched two days later, flying with the call sign Chaika (Seagull). Flying two different orbits, Vostok 5 and 6 came briefly within roughly 5 km (3 mi) of each other, and the cosmonauts exchanged brief communications. Tereshkova followed the Vostok procedure of ejecting from the capsule some 6000 m (20,000 ft) above the ground and descending under a parachute. She landed near Karaganda, Kazakhstan, on June 19, 1963. Her flight lasted 48 orbits totaling 70 hours 50 minutes in space. She spent more time in orbit than all the U.S. Mercury astronauts combined.
Rumors that Valentina Tereshkova's marriage to fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev in November 1963 was just for propaganda purposes have never been proven. They had a daughter, Yelena, who was born the following year, the first child of parents that had both been in space. The couple later divorced.
It's possible that Valentina may have trained for a Voskhod mission that was to include a spacewalk, but the flight never happened, and the female cosmonaut program was disbanded in 1969. It wasn't until 1982 that the next woman flew in space.That was Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya, who went into space aboard a Soyuz flight. The US did not send a woman into space until 1983. Sally Ride, an astronaut and physicist flew aboard the space shuttle Challenger.
Valentina Tereshkova received the Order of Lenin and Hero of the Soviet Union awards for her historic flight. Later she served as the president of the Soviet Women's Committee and became a member of the Supreme Soviet, the USSR's national parliament, and the Presidium, a special panel within the Soviet government. In recent years, she has led a quiet life in Moscow.