First woman launches to space | This Day in Space (16 June 1963)

The first woman to ever fly in space was cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. She launched to space on June 16, 1963, and orbited the Earth for 2 days, 22 hours, and 50 minutes.

The mission was Vostok 6, part of the Soviet Vostok program. This early spaceflight program, similar to NASA‘s Project Mercury, had the goal to begin Soviet human spaceflight. This program succeeded, as Yuri Gagarin performed a single orbit around the Earth on Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961. The success of Gagarin’s flight was hard-earned. The program had seven uncrewed launches including three failures and another partial failure prior to the successful mission.

A missile explosion, known now as the Nedelin catastrophe, occurred causing a major setback to the program in late 1960. The government never shared the exact casualty count, but news reports years after the disaster estimated between 100 and 300 died from the explosion. It would be 19 years until the Soviet Union even acknowledged that an accident occurred. While this specific missile was not associated with the Vostok program, it caused work to temporarily halt.

Valentina and fellow cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky a few weeks before their missions. Credit: RIA Novosti archive, image #67418 / Alexander Mokletsov / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The first woman to fly in space

The Vostok program was a program of firsts. The first person in space, Yuri Gagarin, flew on Vostok 1. Vostok 2 marked the first crewed mission lasting a full day. Each mission had its first, and Vostok 6 brought the first woman into space.

Valentina Tereshkova was born in 1937. She became interested in skydiving at a young age and trained as a competitive skydiver. This is what led to her selection as a cosmonaut. The Soviet Union did not want the United States to have the first female in space, so when they learned about the Mercury 13 (thirteen women who underwent the tests to become astronauts, whom the Government did not allow to join the actual NASA Mercury program), they quickly selected five female cosmonauts.

Valentina Tereshkova underwent plenty of training in preparation for the flight. This included centrifuge tests, fighter jet training, and decompression chamber testing, among others. Vostok 5 launched into orbit on June 14, 1963 – just a few days before Tereshkova’s flight. On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova donned her spacesuit and arrived at the launchpad in preparation for the launch that would forever mark her name in the history books as the first woman in space.

State portrait of Valentina Tereshkova. Credit CC BY 4.0

She was successfully launched into orbit. In addition to being the first woman in space, at 26 years old, she remains the youngest woman to fly in space to this day. This solo mission in Vostok would be the last launch of the Vostok program. It was followed by the short-lived Voskhod program, which was quickly superseded by the Soyuz program that still has rockets and capsules flying to this day.

Valentina went on to have a political career. She was promoted to the honorary rank of Major General in the Russian Air Force. In 2008, she was elected to her regional parliament. She was later elected to the National State Duma where she still holds office.

Valentina Tereshkova remains the only woman to have flown a solo space mission, and the youngest woman to have flown in space, in addition to being the first woman.

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