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Today in history... Soviets put first woman in space

12:00am | & Lifestyle

Remember the 'space race'? Back in the 1960s the capitalist United States of America and communist Soviet Union were locked in a fierce battle to see which political ideology could notch up notable firsts in the race to explore space.

The Soviets scored the first man in space, when Yuri Gagarin completed an orbit of the Earth in April 1961, but the Americans trumped that when Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon in July 1969. In between were several other 'firsts', including the first woman in space.

That place in history was claimed by Lieutenant Valentina Tereshkov (pictured) 53 years ago today, on June 16th, 1963. At the age of 26, the former textile factory worker and amateur skydiver was only the fifth Russian cosmonaut to venture into orbit when her spaceship, Vostok VI, was launched at 12-30pm Moscow time.

Critics in the USA claimed she was little more than a passenger, with nothing to do but sit and take in the views and make the odd radio broadcast. They cuttingly claimed it was a publicity stunt akin to sending chimpanzees and dogs up in rockets during the very early days of space travel.

In truth Tereshkova was far more than that. She was selected from more than 400 applicants who all had to be under 5ft 7ins and 154lbs, and under 30 years old. What set Tereshkova apart was that she was already an experienced skydiver, demonstrated high intelligence and an aptitude for learning, and was secretary of her local Young Communist League. The fact that she came from 'good proletarian stock' and her father had been a Second World War hero, killed in action, no doubt helped her cause too.

Five candidates, including Tereshkova, were selected in February 1962 and embarked on an intensive 16-month training programme. It included weightless flights, isolation tests, centrifuge tests, spacecraft engineering, rocket theory, pilot training in MiG jet fighters and 120 parachute jumps, concluding with a series of tough examinations. One candidate dropped out, but the remaining four were commissioned Junior Lieutenants in the Soviet Air Force.

When it came to making the final choice to pilot Vostok VI, Tereshkova was chosen as the outstanding candidate ahead of her comrades, though one of them remained her standby right up to the final countdown.

After a faultless launch, she went on to complete 49 orbits of the Earth in slightly under three days, her capsule parachuting safely back to Earth in Kazakhstan. In that single mission she logged more flight time than the combined times of all the American astronauts who had gone into space up to that point.

However, she never held the record for the longest space flight, which went instead to her fellow cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky. He had launched in Vostok V two days before Tereshkova and landed safely one day after her, completing 82 orbits of the Earth in a fraction under five days in space, beating the previous longest space flight record by more than 25-and-a-half hours.

Both cosmonauts returned as heroes of the Communist State, with thousands of jubilant women gathering in Red Square to cheer Tereshkova. While the USSR certainly made the most of upstaging the Americans in the space race, Tereshkova's personal achievement remains a remarkable one.

Although she never went into space again she graduated with distinction as a cosmonaut engineer, became active in the Communist Party and, at the age of 79, remains a national hero in post-Soviet Russia. In 2014 she carried the Olympic flag at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Despite plans to put more women in space, it would be another 19 years before a second Russian woman went into orbit in 1982, with America sending its first woman into space the following year.

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