June 16, 1963: Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space

Ms Tereshkova began her historic journey blasting off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in modern-day Kazakhstan. The launch took place just days after the take-off of Vostok V, piloted by Valery Bykovsky. The two craft would come within just over three miles of each other during their mission.

A camera in her cockpit transmitted pictures of Ms Tereshkova back to Russia, and she took part in a radio conversation with Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev (pictured with Tereshkova, below). She would spend nearly three days in space, orbiting the Earth 49 times.

Her journey was the result of an initiative from Sergey Korolyov, the Soviet Union's chief rocket engineer, who believed that garnering information on the effects of space flight on the female body would be useful, as well as being a great public relations coup.

Five female trainee cosmonauts were chosen from over four hundred applicants; all were trained parachutists. They would undergo a year of weightless flights, isolation tests, centrifugal tests, engineering and rocket flight theory, as well as parachute jumps and pilot training.

Ms Tereshkova was said to have been selected from the five to pilot Vostok VI as she was a perfect example of a proletarian Soviet citizen; her father, a tractor driver, had been a tank crew member that died in the war, while her mother had also been a textile worker.

She returned to Earth, parachuting out of her capsule, several hundred miles from her take-off site. She would return to Moscow amid great fanfare to be feted by the Communist Party, but would not return to space.

Remarkably it would take over 19 years before another female astronaut, Svetlana Savitskaya, would undertake space travel, on board the Soyuz T-7 craft.

Valentina Tereshkova - Did you know?

  • Tereshkova had joined a parachutists' club - popular in the USSR at the time - in 1959. All applicants to the female cosmonaut programme had to be parachutists under 30 years of age, under 5 feet 7 inches tall, and under 154lb in weight.
  • She became the fifth Russian cosmonaut and only the 12th person to undertake space travel.
  • Though technically was a civilian, she was given a commission as a Junior Lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force as part of her training programme.
  • During her mission she maintained a flight log and manually controlled her craft. She took photos of Earth's horizon from space which were later used to identify aerosol layers in the atmosphere.
  • While in flight, Tereshkova was asked how she was feeling by ground controllers and her answers were recorded as being 'evasive'. It later transpired that she had felt nauseous through much of the journey and may even have vomited.
  • On landing on a farm in a remote part of northern Kazakhstan, Tereshkova exchanged her space food packages for a meal from farmers - possibly to disguise the fact she had not eaten during her flight - which she wolfed down, against medical orders.
  • On November 3, 1963 she would marry fellow cosmonaut Andriyan Nikolayev. The couple's daughter, Elena, was the first person to be born of parents that had both travelled in space. The couple divorced in 1982.
  • Tereshkova became a feted political figure, serving as a member of the Supreme Soviet and the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In 2007, she was awarded the Order for Service to the Fatherland by president Vladimir Putin (above).
  • Still considered a hero, she was elected to the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian legislature, in 2011.