Tereshkova, Valentina (1937—)

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Tereshkova, Valentina (1937—)

Soviet cosmonaut, the world's tenth astronaut and first woman in space, who served as chair of the Committee of Soviet Women and a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Name variations: Valya Nikolayeva-Tereshkova. Pronunciation: Teryesh-KOH-vah. Born Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova on March 6, 1937, in the village of Maslennikovo, near Yaroslavl, USSR; daughter of Vladimir Aksyonovich Tereshkov (a farmer) and Yelena (Fyodorovna) Tereshkova; finished secondary school, 1953; completed engineering course at textile technical institute, 1960; graduated from Zhukovsky Aviation Academy as military engineer, 1969; married Andrian Grigoryevich Nikolayev (a cosmonaut), in 1963 (divorced 1977); children: one daughter, Yelena (b. 1964).

Family moved to Yaroslavl (1945); started work at 16 in a tire factory; worked in textile factory (1955–60); joined airclub (1958); made first parachute jump (1960); selected as cosmonaut trainee (1962); joined Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1962); made spaceflight (1963); spoke at World Congress of Women in Moscow (1963); served as head of the Committee of Soviet Women (1968–87); elected member of the Central Committee (1971); became a member of Soviet Presidium (1974); elected chair of Union of Soviet Friendship Societies (1987). Awards: Hero of the Soviet Union; Order of Lenin; Hero of Socialist Labour (Czechoslovakia).

Valentina Tereshkova is a forthright person, even blunt. When an interviewer asked her to describe how she prepared for the "crucible day" of her spaceflight, Tereshkova replied, "Why do you call it a crucible? I do not see it like that. Cosmonauts in training did not think of death, danger or pain in the way you seem to think we did." When interviewers ask apologetically what her age is, Tereshkova responds with the precise date, commenting brusquely, "It is not correct to hide one's age." Until recently, however, Tereshkova's characteristic outspokenness has not extended to topics of political sensitivity, nor to comments on her own personal life and background, leading one writer to describe her as "a legend hidden in silence." Fortunately, since the advent of glasnost in 1987, and the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union, Tereshkova has finally felt free to speak more openly about a number of subjects on which she is able to shed interesting light.

The village of Maslennikovo, where Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova was born, lies about 200 miles northeast of Moscow, in the Yaroslavl region, a beautiful area of forests and meadows near the Volga River extolled in the verse of the 19th-century Russian poet Nikolai Nekrasov. At the time of her birth, in 1937, the village had not yet received electricity under the Five Year Plans of then Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin, and there was no running water. The effects of Stalin's brutal purges, however, which reached their peak that year, were felt in Tereshkova's village and home when a male cousin of hers who lived in the nearby city of Yaroslavl became one of many arrested without explanation. Released later in order to fight during the Second World War, he died in the conflict.

Tereshkova's father Vladimir Tereshkov was a tractor driver and mechanic on the local collective farm. Although he died when Valentina was less than three years old, she has often told interviewers that she felt a special closeness between them and often describes him as "young and handsome" and "popular and hard-working." Drafted in September 1939 to serve as a tank crewman in the Russo-Finnish War, he died in January 1940. Because the official notification did not state his place of burial, Valentina's mother Yelena Tereshkova hoped for many years that a mistake had been made and he would return. It was Valentina who eventually located in the military archives the burial record confirming his death.

Valentina grew up with an older sister, Lyudmila Tereshkova , and a younger brother, Vladimir Vladimirovich, born five months after their father's death. (Her mother also had earlier given birth to twins who died.) In their small village, food was relatively plentiful, but Yelena had no way of supporting her three children. In June 1941, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, and Valentina's memories of childhood are "completely involved in what happened during the war." Cryptically, she recalls herself as "one of the generation of war children without toys." Two of her father's brothers were killed in the war, and relatives of her mother in nearby Belorussia were executed during the Nazi occupation. At war's end, in 1945, Yelena took her children and moved in with her own mother in Yaroslavl, where she found work in a textile factory. The pay was poor, food was harder to obtain than it had been in the village, and Yelena never received the extra ration allotment due her as a soldier's widow.

Valentina finished her secondary education in 1953, at age 16. Her dream was to go to Leningrad and study to become a railroad engineer. Lyudmila was married and had started her own family, however, and when their mother became ill there was no one but Valentina to care for her. Partly due to misdiagnosis, Yelena's condition would deteriorate, and in 1956, at age 43, she suffered her first stroke, leaving her partially paralyzed for several months. Meanwhile in 1954, Valentina had taken her first job, at a Yaroslavl tire factory. From 1955 to 1960, she worked at the Yaroslavl textile factory, Krasny Perekop. Allergic to the omnipresent dust from the looms, she suffered reactions on her skin and face. She hated the work and continued to attend night school, graduating from the Textile Technical Institute as an engineer in 1960.

As well, in 1958 21-year-old Tereshkova had joined the local airclub. On May 21, 1959, she had made her first parachute jump. "I felt I wanted to do it every day," she said. She completed 160 parachute jumps and dreamed of becoming a pilot, knowing the dream was unattainable unless she left her family behind and moved to Moscow.

In April 1961, the Soviet Union's Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space. With members of her airclub, Valentina eagerly followed the flight, and when she talked with her mother about the achievement, Yelena responded, "Now a man has flown in space; it is a woman's turn next." Strongly affected by her mother's remark, Tereshkova began to wonder whether the Soviet government might actually allow women into the cosmonaut program. She wrote to the group which sponsored Soviet airclubs, the Voluntary Organization for Cooperation with the Army, Air Force and Navy (DOSAAF), and volunteered for any future training program for female cosmonauts, unaware that the Soviet government was indeed preparing to put a woman into space. In December 1961, she was called to Moscow as one of several hundred women volunteers selected for preliminary medical screening. Early in 1962, she became one of the five women accepted for cosmonaut training. The program was conducted with such extreme secrecy that the women were not even allowed to inform their families they were preparing for space flight. Tereshkova told relatives she had been chosen for a special parachute team.

Early Soviet space capsules, unlike the cone-shaped capsules of American design, were hollow spheres, which Soviet designers believed would best withstand the heat and stress of reentry. But the falling ball was virtually impossible to "fly," spinning uncontrollably at times as it neared the ground. Soviet landings required the cosmonaut to eject from the capsule during the final stage of reentry, thus making qualification as a parachute jumper nearly as important as experience as a pilot or engineer.

As I saw the planet from space I realized how small Earth is, and how fragile, and that it could be destroyed very quickly.

—Valentina Tereshkova

In March 1962, Tereshkova moved to Star City, the cosmonaut training center about 45 miles from Moscow. The five women embarked on an 18-month training course, following the same strict regime as the men. They made an intense study of navigation and became familiar with the spacecraft's instruments, radios and cameras. Rigorous physical training, particularly in gymnastics, prepared them for conditions in space. Special aircraft flights simulated the weightless conditions of space, and centrifuge training tested their abilities to endure the high gravitational forces they would withstand during landing. To accustom them to the solitary confinement they would experience inside the space capsule, the trainees spent random periods of time, lasting from a few hours to several days, in an isolation chamber. The women were closely monitored for differences from the men in their responses to the various stresses of training. According to Tereshkova, they were not scheduled for centrifuge training during their menstrual periods.

Illness led to the removal of one woman, Tatyana Kuznetsova , from the program in 1962. Tereshkova continued with the three other remaining trainees, Zhanna Yerkina, Valentina Ponomaryova and Irina Solovyova . The Soviets prepared for the launch of two capsules, Vostok 5 and 6, one with a male cosmonaut and the other with a female, in June 1963. It was the usual Soviet practice at the time not to decide on the cosmonaut for any given flight until the last minute, taking advantage of the individual trainee's overall performance in training and medical fitness right up to the eve of the launch. In the case of the women, they would not be allowed to fly if they were menstruating.

On May 31, 1963, all four women were flown to the Baikonur cosmodrome, where, Tereshkova has noted, "no one knew which two girls would be chosen as the pilot and backup." That early June, Tereshkova proved lucky in the timing of her menstrual cycles. When Valery Bikovsky was named to pilot the Vostok 5, Tereshkova became pilot of the Vostok 6, with Solovyova as her backup.

The launch date for Vostok 6 was set for June 16. That morning, Tereshkova did some exercises, ate breakfast, then had an electrocardiograph test, and was wired with medical monitoring devices before donning her spacesuit and boots. Yuri Gagarin and Irina Solovyova accompanied her to the launch pad, where she was sealed into the capsule. Two hours later, Vostok 6 was launched into earth orbit, with Tereshkova in linked communication with Gagarin, her call sign chaika ("seagull").

"From space," Tereshkova later recalled, "the beauty of Earth was overwhelming. The blackness of the sky scattered with stars was impressive." Vostok 6 circled the Earth 114–144 miles above the surface, completing an orbit every 89 minutes. On board, Tereshkova performed a series of biological tests on plants and insects and took photographs and films for atmospheric studies, while also monitoring devices that recorded her responses to weightlessness and the progress of the capsule. Scheduled to orbit for 24 hours, with a possible 48-hour extension, Vostok 6 performed without technical difficulties the first day and was permitted to continue. On June 19, it was brought down after nearly 71 hours in orbit.

Landing over the Altai region, Tereshkova ejected from the capsule at around 23,000 feet and floated toward a field in her parachute. A strong wind made the landing fairly rough, and she bruised her face on the rim of her helmet. A quarter-mile from her capsule on the ground, Tereshkova radioed her position, changed into a jogging suit, and carried her spacesuit and parachute to the capsule to wait to be picked up. Farm workers helped her to carry the ejection seat to the capsule, then drove her to a telephone, where she notified Soviet Premier Nikolai Khrushchev of her successful landing before she returned to the field to meet her rescue plane.

The news of a woman cosmonaut orbiting the Earth had not been released until after the launch. Tereshkova's family learned from Soviet television that rather than training to jump from planes, Valentina was flying in space. According to Tereshkova, her mother "was very upset that I had deceived her and it took a long time for her to forgive me." In her flight, she had made 48 orbits, traveling 1.2 million miles. Khrushchev reveled in pointing out to the press that the flight had been longer than all four flights by American astronauts combined.

But Tereshkova was never assigned another flight, and many in the West viewed the launching as a ploy of pure propaganda, intended solely to give the Soviet Union the claim to being the first to send a woman into space. Lending support to this view is the fact that the selection of Tereshkova and the other women appears to have been based on quite different criteria than those applied to the men. While nearly all the men were both pilots and military officers, Tereshkova was only a worker in a textile factory, and some Western journalists have held that her job in the space-flight therefore could not have been difficult.

Tereshkova rejects this assertion, pointing out that she completed the same training program, and was expected to perform the same functions while in orbit, as any of the men. Allowing that rivalry to be first in various aspects of space exploration clearly existed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union at the time, Tereshkova contends that if propaganda had been the only goal, a woman would have been included simply as a passenger, saving the Soviet government the time and effort in training five women for two years. She emphasizes that her flight was a solo one, and "needed the professional knowledge equal to that of a man." Westerners found the idea of a female cosmonaut so difficult to accept that rumors circulated declaring both that Tereshkova had never actually flown, and that she had become violently ill.

Tereshkova publicly claimed that there were no differences between the way the women and the men in training for space missions performed. Her colleague Kuznetsova, who left the mission, told an interviewer that Soviet doctors found that women performed better than men in some aspects of the training, including the centrifuge. Tereshkova denied any antagonism between the women and men, despite the women's lack of experience in certain areas (she admitted that "none of the women were qualified pilots, while the men were already professional, licensed pilots"). But, she pointed out, the women were all experienced as parachute jumpers, while many of the men were not.

One of the men Tereshkova met in training during 1962–63 was Andrian Nikolayev. In August 1962, Nikolayev became the third Soviet cosmonaut to complete a spaceflight, making 64 earth orbits. The following year, less than five months after Tereshkova's flight, she married Nikolayev, on November 3, 1963. The wedding was supposed to be secret, but word leaked out, and a huge crowd gathered around the Moscow marriage palace where the civil ceremony was held. Khrushchev was among the high-ranking guests. In her post-glasnost interviews with Antonella Lothian , Tereshkova related several instances when her mother had not approved of her actions, and added, "at my marriage she said, 'You must get your own life experience.' But she was not happy."

Tereshkova, meanwhile, had become a Soviet international star, sent all over the world to make speeches and meet heads of state and world leaders, including the pope; she later claimed that Indian leader Indira Gandhi had become a dear friend. Just a few days after her wedding, accompanied by Nikolayev, Tereshkova resumed her world tour of speaking engagements, ostensibly combining their honeymoon with her publicity duties. Within a few weeks, there were widespread rumors that Tereshkova was pregnant; seven months after the wedding, on June 10, 1964, their daughter was born by Caesarean section. Tereshkova has emphasized that premature births were common in her family, and that hers may have been induced partly by her fatiguing schedule of international travel combined with a heavy work load.

Since Tereshkova's marriage ended in 1977, she has been reluctant to discuss it. "I do not find it easy to speak about that period in my life," she said. "Husbands and wives should always be equal partners. Husbands who help their wives do exist and a few do not resent being outshone by their wives, but this is still too rare." She has also said that while love is the most important ingredient in marriage, respect, patience, and "a willingness to work together" are also critical.

In 1964, Tereshkova entered the Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy, from which she graduated in 1969 with the rank of lieutenant colonel; she completed postgraduate work in 1976. The doubts cast in the West about her merits may have motivated her to seek the credentials of a military engineer, but Tereshkova emphasizes that it was her many years of work at the Cosmonaut Training Center which paid her salary, while her volunteer work, with the Committee of Soviet Women and as a member of the Soviet Central Committee, received greater attention.

Less than a week after her space flight, Tereshkova spoke at the 1963 World Congress of Women in Moscow. It was there, she said, "that I made my first appeal for international understanding…. My message was that we must pro tect Earth for future generations … I hoped Vostok 6 would be a bridge to unite the hearts of women in the world to achieve this aim." Tereshkova would be associated with women's issues for more than 20 years. She was named head of the Soviet government's Committee of Soviet Women in 1968, and in that position received thousands of letters from ordinary Soviet women detailing their problems with childcare, housing, working conditions, and pay. "It was essential for the decision-makers firstly to admit that these problems existed, and then to provide solutions," she said, fully aware that when it came to women's rights, the Soviet government's policy was mostly talk and little action. In 1971, she was elected a member of the Central Committee. "I did my best to bring women's problems to the notice of the Politburo," she said, citing among her concrete results the addition to the Soviet constitution of Articles 35 and 53, providing for gender equality and family assistance. She was often disappointed, however, that recommendations she made were not implemented. Since glasnost, she has criticized the Soviet government for not practicing what it preached regarding equality of the sexes.

In the late 1970s, political scientist Barbara Wolfe Jancar described the limitations of Soviet committees, pointing out that Soviet citizens were not free to organize independently and that official committees were not truly representative. Moreover, according to Jancar, "I was told in Moscow … the Party leadership decides what should be done and then the committee undertakes the requisite research or performs the requested task. Representative of the nature of the women's committees is Soviet astronaut Valentina Tereshkova. Although chair of the Soviet National Women's Committee, she has never been identified as a specialist on women's problems. She is largely there as a figurehead." The committees primarily gave the Soviet Union the status of representation at international meetings, Jancar emphasized, while their effectiveness at home remained limited in scope. Undoubtedly, Tereshkova toed the official line. Her 1975 Women's Day speech shows her typical praise of the Soviet system: "The new way of life of women in the USSR and their new role in society are one of the most convincing arguments in favor of socialism." While she never admitted to any obstacles to women's equality in Soviet culture, even during the heavily pronatalist Stalin years, she seems also to have been genuinely dedicated to speaking out for world peace, and to doing what she could (however minor, given the situation) to improve women's lives.

In 1986, Tereshkova gained permission to hold a National Congress of Women, dedicated to public discussion of women's issues in the Soviet Union. She considers that event one of her biggest achievements. Others were more cynical; that same year, feminist dissident Tatyana Mamonova wrote: "Valentina Tereshkova, the celebrated spacewoman, remains a facade, for her position as president of the Committee of Soviet Women is used by the patriarchy against women; no ordinary woman has access to the president, and the Politburo dictates to the Committee of Soviet Women who may become delegates to international conferences and what statistics can be quoted there." After the congress, probably due to changes in the political mood under perestroika, Tereshkova failed to be reelected as head of the Committee of Soviet Women. When Gorbachev took power, her association with the past Soviet regimes of Khrushchev and Brezhnev diminished her popularity, although Tereshkova claims she left the committee because she was elected chair of the Union of Soviet Friendship Societies in 1987. She continued to promote international cooperation, espousing such concepts as "global morality," demilitarization, and the creation of a global rescue service or police force. This, she believed, could be used to provide international assistance during natural disasters, or as an international defense force in the event of extraterrestrial threats to the planet's security. After her space flight, she has said, "I saw my future as giving me the opportunity to bring people closer together, and to help different cultures and civilizations to see one world, as I had seen it."

Since the end of Soviet rule, Tereshkova has grown less reticent about commenting on the old Soviet system. In the Lothian interviews her bitterness surfaced, regarding the impact of the Stalinist purges on her own family. As children, she said, they had been told that her father's cousin was in prison, but it was not until the revelations of Khrushchev in 1956 that she began to understand the real scope of the past leader's repressions and executions. She called the Russo-Finnish War in which her father died "Stalin's whim," an unnecessary adventure in which the soldiers were not equipped for a winter war. "I resent very much what Stalin did to my father and other young Russian soldiers like him. I believe that Stalin took my father from me." At peace with herself today, Tereshkova loves opera and Russian poetry, and is able to recite long selections of her favorite poet, Anna Akhmatova , by heart.

A biography of Tereshkova has yet to be written in the West. (Mitchell Sharpe wrote a brief work for juveniles in 1975, but the only information then available was secondhand, and some of the material in the book is erroneous.) The best source in English to date is Antonella Lothian's 1993 collection of transcribed post-glasnost interviews, but the interviews, while interesting, avoid the difficult questions. A British journalist and activist for international women's issues, Lothian plans to write a full biography of Tereshkova, which will perhaps address some of the thornier issues of her life and time.


Clements, Barbara Evans. Daughters of Revolution: A History of Women in the USSR. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1994.

Jancar, Barbara Wolfe. Women under Communism. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Lothian, Antonella. Valentina, First Woman in Space: Conversations with A. Lothian. Edinburgh: Pentland, 1993.

O'Neill, Bill. "Whatever became of Valentina Tereshkova?," in New Scientist. Vol. 14. August 1993, pp. 21–23.

Paulis, Pierre-Emmanual. "Valentina Ponomaryova's Story," in Spaceflight. Vol. 25, 1993, p. 41.

Reina Pennington , Ph.D. candidate in military and women's history, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina

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Tereshkova, Valentina (1937—)

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