“It is I, Sea Gull!”

The words, full of meaning both personal for the speaker and cultural for the country listening below, were the first spoken by a woman in space.  On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova (b. 1937) broke the bonds of Earth while sitting in the spherical confines of her Vostok 6 capsule, and in her opening lines to the planet below she broke the designated protocol for one thin moment to breath in the exultation of what just happened.  For her, the call sign Sea Gull harkened back to her peasant youth when she jumped off bridges into flowing streams at the daring of her companions, her arms held out wide like a giant sea bird.  To her country, the voice represented a core cultural belief that women could and ought to work alongside men in all walks of life, from the university to the factory and now, outer space itself.

After returning to Earth following 48 revolutions of the planet over 70 hours and 1,222,014 miles traveled, she was caught in an impulsive bear hug by a beaming Premier Nikita Khrushchev who took the opportunity to gloat that, while in the bourgeois West women were still being kept from opportunities to excel, here in the Soviet Union stood living proof of communism’s egalitarian ideal.  It was an effective blow to the gut of NASA administrators who had completely failed to support the training of the Mercury 13 women’s astronaut program, but as an expression of the nation’s ongoing commitment to gender parity in space it was to prove lacking.  Valentina Tereshkova, hero of the nation and the world, would never go into space again, and the next Soviet woman would not set foot in the final frontier for another nineteen long years.  

Tereshkova’s is a tale of improbabilities adding up to one great certainty, and in that respect is not all so different from many stories of the middle Soviet era.  She was born in the small village of Maslennikovo in 1937, the middle child in a family like any other.  Her father was a tractor driver and mechanic on the village collective farm, where mechanized tools were a new thing indeed and electricity still an undreamed of luxury.  When Germany invaded Russia in 1941, her father joined the army and soon thereafter died on the frontlines, leaving his wife Yelena Fedorovna to raise three children and work the farm by herself as best she could.  

Yelena, however, was tough as they came and managed for four years before striking out for the nearest city, Yaroslavl, in 1945.  That city, even in its war-damaged state, was a revelation to young Valentina, so used to the leisurely pace of rural Russia.  The sounds and smells of cars and factories stimulated her young mind and her first ambition, held in the face of universal mockery from peers and elders, was to become a train engineer when she grew up.  She did some research and found out there was a railroad technology school in Leningrad and, upon graduating high school in 1953, asked her mother permission to put in an application there.

Yelena rejected the idea outright, stating that the idea of her tiny daughter operating a massive train was ridiculous, and offering instead a future of work and night study.  Deflated but determined to succeed in this next stage of her life, the sixteen year old hit the Soviet job market searching for work that could contribute to the family income while also allowing her time to further her studies at night.  She enrolled in the romantically titled Young Workers’ School No. 10 to take technical classes and found work as a stripper in the equally majestically named Yaroslavl Order of Lenin Tire Factory.  Her job was to take rubber-tread-coated lengths of fabric and cut them to a particular length before prepping them for vulcanization.  It was hot, hard, loud work in a stifling factory environment, and what was worse the distance between her home, her school, and her work was such that even her profound reserves of energy were running perilously low by then end of 1954.

Fortunately, her mother and sister had steady jobs at the Red Perekop Factory No. 2 and were able to bring Valentina into the fold.  The commute was drastically less, the machines less loud and hot, and best of all, the entire place didn’t smell of burning rubber.  She worked at an array of ribbon winding machines while taking classes from the secondary school that expanded her technical knowledge and would ultimately make her an attractive candidate for the women cosmonaut program.  She learned about electrical engineering and metallurgy, machine design and manufacturing principles at night while pursuing recreational activities with the Young Communists’ League in what spare time she had.  

The greatest of her off-time activities, however, in terms of its impact on her destiny, was her decision in 1958 to join the local skydiver’s association, which was part of the Air Sports Club.  After six months of training, she carried out the first of what would be 125 career jumps in May of 1959.  She worked as hard at her jumping technique as she did at her technical studies and had risen to a first class rating within a couple of years, mastering water landings, delayed parachute openings, and auxiliary parachute landings just in time for the announcement on April 12, 1961 that Yuri Gagarin had reached space aboard the ship Vostok 1.  Humanity had placed its first representative in space, and he was a Russian.

To understand why Tereshkova ended up where she did, we first have to talk a bit about the Vostok capsules and what they uniquely required of the cosmonauts inside.  Unlike the American Mercury capsules, with their precisely engineered conical shape that allowed for controlled re-entry into space, the Soviet capsules were essentially giant spheres completely lacking in control surfaces.  As such, unless a cosmonaut was feeling particularly courageous, standard procedure called for the capsule occupant to wait until their sphere was about four miles above the Earth, blow the hatch above them, and then parachute down to the Earth’s surface.  

Advanced skydiving skills, therefore, were a major consideration in the choosing of potential candidates, and became a key element in Tereshkova’s eventual selection.  After the successful launch of Vostok 2, she wrote a note to the Supreme Soviet volunteering herself for cosmonaut training.  It was a bold, independent move that happened to coincide with the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR’s decision to include women in the space program as both a matter of adherence to communism’s core ideal of equality and, as a delightful bonus, as a means of adding another Space First to the Soviet’s growing catalogue and thereby kick a bit more sand on the panicking US program.  

Soon thereafter a man arrived from the government purportedly to observe Valentina’s air sports club but really to talk to her and assess her qualifications to join the core of women cosmonaut candidates the Soviet Union was gathering.  Four hundred likely candidates had been selected, after which testing was carried out at the Scientific Research Institute of Aviation Medicine just outside of Moscow.  Valentina went through the same set of tests as Gagarin had, and passed them all, making the cut to the final twenty-three, of which four would be selected as possibilities for an upcoming Vostok double launch.  

On March 2, 1962, Valentina left Yaroslavl to begin her training, a rigorous program of physical and mental preparation that would, in the space of just over a year, turn her from a promising, technically minded factory worker and amateur parachutist into an internationally acclaimed cosmic pioneer.  The classes she took included astronomy, space biology, astronautical engineering, celestial mechanics, and geophysics, and the new challenges she had to face including learning to pilot an aircraft and summoning the will to withstand the various high-g and psychological torments inflicted on that first generation of cosmonauts, including days inside an isolation chamber and brain-bruising minutes being whipped around in a device known whimsically as “the devil’s merry-go-round.”  

Finally, on June 16, 1963, the moment she had been training so intensely for arrived.  Originally, the Vostok 5 and Vostok 6 launches were to feature two women cosmonauts launched within a day of each other, but in March the plans changed and a male cosmonaut was launched in Vostok 5 followed two days later by Tereshkova in Vostok 6.  Because nobody was entirely certain of how a woman would react to space, Vostok 6 had two planned timelines – a one day mission if it looked like Tereshkova’s health was in danger, and an extended three day mission if everything was looking good.  As it turned out, except for some early drowsiness, Tereshkova’s response to space was within the range experienced by the earlier male cosmonauts, and the three day mission was a go.

During her time in space, she became the first person to film the Earth’s aerosol layers for analysis back on Earth, and performed a series of mental tests to show how confinement and outer space affected the ability of an individual to function in orbit for extended periods of time.  In her 48 revolutions she logged more space time than all of the American astronauts so far put together, and set the women’s record for solo mission length that has yet to be surpassed.  At mission’s end, she reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, and at the standard four miles above the surface of the planet ejected from her capsule and parachuted down to the surface in Kazakhstan, to be greeted by a group of peasants who treated her to a traditional welcome meal which was, by her account, a welcome departure from the tubes of space food she had been consuming for the last three days.  At the site of her landing there currently stands a statue of Tereshkova to commemorate her feat.

Prior to Vostok 6, Tereshkova’s training as a cosmonaut was a tightly controlled state secret.  Valentina was not even permitted to let her own mother know what she was doing.  But upon her return, the ex-rubber factory employee was a figure of international renown, a hero to Soviets and space enthusiasts everywhere.  The next year of her life was consumed with a world tour, discussing the details of her mission and the future of women in space, and meeting ecstatic crowds wherever she went.  In between the punishing public relations appearances, however, Tereshkova found time to get married to fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev, a taciturn man whom she would ultimately divorce in 1982, and to have a child, Elena, in 1964.  

She had not, however, given up on space.  The Soviet rocket designers were dreaming big on the heels of their early successes and the moon was in their sights.  Tereshkova took it as a matter of course that she would some day soon be traveling there, and while she was waiting she began studying aeronautical engineering intensely, earning her engineering degree in 1968 and her doctorate in 1977.  Unfortunately, after the Vostok missions, the Soviet space program encountered a series of set-backs, each of which pushed Tereshkova further from her dreams of ascending into space again.  

The American space program was, after some initial false starts, finding its feet and devoting massive resources to catching up with the Soviets, while the death of the space mastermind Sergei Korolev in 1966 left behind a leadership vacuum that made it easier for the Soviet government to cut funds to its space program.  On top of all that, a series of high profile cosmonaut deaths throughout the 1960s made space officials keenly anxious about risking the celebrity cosmonauts they had left.  Gagarin, Seryogin, Dobrovolsky, Volkov, Pastayev – all cosmonauts killed in the line of duty within a decade, and the powers that be were determined that Tereshkova, one of the space department’s most popular and successful global ambassadors, would not be added to the list.

For the next decades, Tereshkova was effectively grounded, given work as a teacher of future cosmonauts, as an ambassador and hostess for visiting American astronauts, and as head of the Committee for Soviet Women.  In 1979, she passed the medical examinations for the new crop of cosmonauts, but was ultimately not selected for space flight.  The second woman in space would be test pilot Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982, who went on to become the first woman to go into space twice, and the first woman to perform a spacewalk.  

A victim of her own success as regards space, the second half of Tereshkova’s ongoing career was filled with politics and feminist advocacy, including election to the State Duma in 2011 and 2016.  At eighty-two years old the frantic pace she set as an unknown factory worker scrabbling for an education and enough money to pay the family’s bills continues and though a John Glenn like autumnal return to space is looking increasingly less likely, we as a species will always have that voice in our ears, looking down on the Earth turning below and declaring… It is I, Sea-Gull!  Everything is fine.  I see the horizon – it’s a sky blue with a dark strip.  How beautiful the Earth is.  

FURTHER READING:  One of the truly embarrassing things in the history of spaceflight is the neglect of English-writing historians of the Soviet space program generally, and of Valentina Tereshkova in particular.  The main source is still, nearly half a century later, It Is I, Sea Gull: Valentina Tereshkova, First Woman in Space (1975) by Mitchell R. Sharpe, who was also a biographer of Yuri Gagarin.  In 1993 Antonella Lothian published her remembrances of Tereshkova in a volume I have never been able to find, and that’s pretty much it outside a few children’s books.

Lead photo of Valentina Tereshkova, via Wikimedia Commons, credit to: RIA Novosti archive, image #612748 / Alexander Mokletsov / CC-BY-SA 3.0.


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