Russia has celebrated the 50th anniversary of the flight of the first woman in space – a Soviet national hero who went by the call name “Seagull” and captured the imaginations of girls around the world.
Valentina Tereshkova, now a lawmaker for Russia’s ruling party, blasted off in a Vostok-6 spaceship 50 years ago on Sunday, two years after Yuri Gagarin’s historic first manned flight in 1961.
The 76-year-old remains the only woman to have ever made a solo flight in space. “The importance of this event is impossible to overestimate in the history of Russian and world space travel,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in a congratulatory message to Tereshkova.
State television celebrated by running documentaries about Ms Tereshkova’s life while the former cosmonaut herself spent the day commemorating a new space museum in her native region of Yaroslavl.
“You have to love your country – love it so hard that your heart is ready to stop,” Ms Tereshkova said in a documentary aired on Russia’s state rolling news channel.
Soviet authorities in April 1962 had initially whittled down their list to five prospective candidates as they competed against the United States for space supremacy during the Cold War.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives flowers and welcomes cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, to the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow
Their choice eventually settled on textile factory worker Ms Tereshkova – the child of a peasant family and a Communist Youth leader who had already performed 90 parachute jumps.
Ms Tereshkova was not allowed to confide even in family members who only learned of her exploits when Moscow announced it to the world.
She circled Earth 48 times during her three-day mission. In recent years, press speculation has said she was space sick for much of this time and unable to perform basic functions or respond to commands from ground control.
But Ms Tereshkova blamed everything on how computer software had been programmed and she denied feeling ill during the flight. “A problem appeared on the first day of the flight,” Ms Tereshkova told a press conference last week.
Ms Tereshkova during a training session at Baikonur cosmodrome in June 1963. Two years after Yuri Gagarin’s historic first manned flight, Ms Tereshkova blasted off in a Vostok-6 spaceship and at the age of 26 became a national heroine.She remains the only woman ever to have made a solo space flight.
“Due to a technical error, the spaceship was programmed not for a landing but for taking the ship into a higher orbit,” she said.
Ms Tereshkova’s adventures did not end in space. She was nearly killed when a would-be assassin opened fire in January 1969 on a limousine that he thought was carrying the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
The car was taking Ms Tereshkova and three fellow cosmonauts to a Kremlin event. “A few of the bullets whizzed by under my feet,” Ms Tereshkova said.
More than 40 women from the United States have gone into space since Ms Tereshkova but only one other Russian has made it – Yelena Kondakova in 1994 and 1997.