The first female cosmonaut: Valentina Tereshkova - The woman who fell to earth

Valentina Tereshkova, the first female cosmonaut, is now an MP for Putin’s party. But he wouldn’t like what she says about communism

Fifty years ago, Valentina Tereshkova was about to become the most famous woman in the Soviet Union.

Having won the race to put the first man into space, when Yuri Gagarin blasted into orbit in 1961, Moscow also succeeded in sending a woman into space for the first time on 16 June 1963.

Tereshkova, selected from a field of over 400 candidates, was launched from the obscurity of a textile factory worker in her home city of Yaroslavl, into space for nearly three days. She returned, having orbited the earth 48 times, to be fêted as a true Soviet superstar.

Half a century later, Tereshkova is still seen as a heroine in Russia. She is still promoted by the government as a symbol of Soviet and – by extension – Russian achievements. She does not enjoy interviews, unsurprisingly perhaps for someone who has spent half a century being honoured for the same achievement, and very rarely speaks to the media.

Nevertheless, her popularity and status is still a powerful tool. Now 76, she is an MP for President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, and was yesterday awarded a prestigious award for public service by Putin personally.

The Russian government’s PR service helped to arrange a rare interview for The Independent, but when she appears she does not seem too happy about the fact.

“What do you want from me?” she growls in a weary voice, as she emerges from the conference hall where Putin’s new Popular Front movement is taking place, and a gathering of priests, army generals, politicians and flag-waving youths has been singing the national anthem and giving repeated chants of “People! Russia! Putin!”

She cancels the planned lengthy interview, and instead offers a 10-minute chat on the street next to a busy pedestrian underpass near Red Square, as Muscovites and tourists bustle past. An aide crouches down to hold on to her skirt to ensure it does not blow up in the wind, and she occasionally interrupts the interview to take calls on a gold-plated mobile phone.

Nevertheless, when asked about preparations for her flight, she immediately brightens up. “We were all young, we were just burning with desire to go to space,” she says. The provisional group of 400 women was narrowed down to just five, all of whom began an intensive training programme.

“We were all amateur parachutists, but we weren’t pilots, so the main thing was to train us as pilots. Nowadays, space crews have different people to do different tasks, but back then you had to be the pilot, the engineer, the doctor and the navigator.”

At the time, a lot of things were unclear about how a human body might react to prolonged space travel. There was little of the psychological preparation given to those who go to space today, though she was kept in a silent chamber for hours on end to prepare her for the solitude of space travel.

The nearly three days she spent in orbit amounted to more than the combined flying time of every American astronaut that had flown up to that point.

“You don’t think about the danger,” she says of her flight. “The spaceship becomes your home.” She has previously denied reports that she became unconscious in space and repeatedly vomited.

She remains friends with the other four women who were not selected, and says they meet up regularly. “Probably they were jealous of me,” she concedes. “But they never said anything.”

On landing, she was taken to hospital, and, after a number of tests and medication, was driven triumphantly through Moscow in an open-top limousine garlanded with flowers, to Red Square, where she waved to the assembled masses from atop Lenin’s mausoleum, alongside the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who would later preside at her wedding to another cosmonaut, Andriyan Nikolayev.

“I dreamt of flying again, but sadly it never happened,” she says. Instead, she became an advertisement for the success of the Soviet space programme, featured on postage stamps and immortalised in monuments. She also became a political figure, appointed to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and was the first female general in the Soviet armed forces.

She has denied that her marriage was arranged by the Soviet authorities, who wanted to see a perfect “space couple”, but she and Nikolayev divorced in 1982, and it is clear the hero worship has caused her distress over the years. “I never aimed to be on television or in the press,” she says. “We all have a personal life and being a public figure disrupts that.”

Yesterday, Russian news reports featured footage of Tereshkova being driven through Moscow in an open-top limousine again, this time to the monument to Yuri Gagarin, where she laid a wreath in memory of the first cosmonaut, before travelling to Putin’s dacha to receive her award.

She spent her 70th birthday in the company of Putin several years ago, and mentions that in 2010, when there were no funds available to finish the construction of a planetarium in her home city of Yaroslavl, she personally appealed to the Russian leader. “He helped us out and we built it, and now it’s one of the most popular places in Yaroslavl,” she says.

Despite her strong patriotism, she believes that international co-operation is very much the future of space travel. “Back then, it was all about competition of course.

“We didn’t have rest days or weekends, because we had to get ready as fast as possible, so we could beat the Americans, who were also racing to send a woman into space. But now, the only way forward in space travel is for everyone to work together.”

Even back in the Soviet period, she says there was a certain bond between cosmonauts and astronauts. “The Westerners came to our training facility in later years, and they felt that special brotherhood we have,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what country or what political system you are from. Space brings you together.”

She has great nostalgia for the Communist superpower that she helped win such a key victory in the space race. “Just as for everyone who remembers the Soviet Union, it is a deep personal tragedy for me that it collapsed,” she says.

“It was a great tragedy for all the people. But now we are living in new times, and we need to do everything to make Russia a great country again.”

This, she says, is why she supports Putin so wholeheartedly.

“I support him in absolutely everything he does. He wants to make our country one of the most important in the world again, and to improve the lives of everyone in it.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Developer - HTML, CSS, Javascript

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Application Developer - ...

Ashdown Group: B2B Marketing Manager - Events, Digital, Offline

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: B2B Marketing Manager (Events, Digit...

Guru Careers: Senior Account Manager / SAM

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: A Senior Account Manager / SAM is needed to join the ...

Day In a Page

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

The end of an era across the continent

It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

'Focus on killing American people'

Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

Same-sex marriage

As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

The Mafia is going freelance

Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable