After the flight of Yuri Gagarin in 1961, Sergey Korolyov, the head Soviet rocket engineer, came up with the idea of putting a woman in space. On 16 February 1962, Valentina Tereshkova was selected to join the female cosmonaut corps. Out of more than four hundred applicants, five were selected: Tatyana Kuznetsova, Irina Solovyova, Zhanna Yerkina, Valentina Ponomareva, and Tereshkova. Qualifications included that they be parachutists under 30 years of age, under 170 cm tall, and under 70 kg in weight.
Tereshkova was considered a particularly worthy candidate, partly due to her "proletarian" background, and because her father, tank leader, sergeant Vladimir Tereshkov had died as a war hero in the Finnish Winter War during World War II in the Lemetti area in Finnish Karelia. Tereshkova was two years old at the time of her father's death. After her mission she was asked about how the Soviet Union should thank her for her service to the country. Tereshkova asked the state to search and publish the location where her father was killed in action. This was done and a monument is now standing at the site in Lemetti—now on the Russian side of the border. Tereshkova has since visited Finland several times.
Training included weightless flights, isolation tests, centrifuge tests, rocket theory, spacecraft engineering, 120 parachute jumps and pilot training in MiG-15UTI jet fighters. The group spent several months in intensive training, concluding with examinations in November 1962, after which four remaining candidates were commissioned Junior Lieutenants in the Soviet Air Force. Tereshkova, Solovyeva and Ponomaryova were the leading candidates, and a joint mission profile was developed that would see two women launched into space, on solo Vostok flights on consecutive days in March or April 1963.
Originally it was intended that Tereshkova would launch first in Vostok 5 while Ponomaryova would follow her into orbit in Vostok 6. However, this flight plan was altered in March 1963. Vostok 5 would now carry a male cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky flying the joint mission with a woman aboard Vostok 6 in June 1963. The State Space Commission nominated Tereshkova to pilot Vostok 6 at their meeting on 21 May and this was confirmed by Nikita Khrushchev himself. At the time of her selection, Tereshkova was ten years younger than the youngest Mercury Seven astronaut, Gordon Cooper.
After watching the successful launch of Vostok 5 on 14 June Tereshkova began final preparations for her own flight. On the morning of 16 June 1963, Tereshkova and her back-up Solovyeva were both dressed in spacesuits and taken to the launch pad by bus. After completing her communication and life support checks, she was sealed inside the Vostok. After a flawless countdown, two hours later Vostok 6 launched faultlessly, and Tereshkova became the first woman to fly into space. Her call sign in this flight was Chaika (English: Seagull; Ча́йка), commemorated in the asteroid name 1671 Chaika.
Although Tereshkova was in the state of nausea and physical discomfort for much of the flight, she orbited the earth 48 times and spent almost three days in space. With a single flight, she logged more flight time than the combined times of all American astronauts to that date. Tereshkova also maintained a flight log and took photographs of the horizon, which were later used to identify aerosol layers within the atmosphere.
Vostok 6 was the final Vostok flight and was launched only two days after Vostok 5 which carried Valery Bykovsky into orbit for five days, landing only three hours after Tereshkova. The two vessels were at one point only 5 km apart and established a radio link.
Even though there were plans for further female flights it took 19 years until the second woman, Svetlana Savitskaya, flew into space, with the pressure of impending American Space Shuttle flights with female astronauts. None of the other four in Tereshkova's cosmonaut group ever flew. This was partly because space adaptation syndrome was less well understood, and since hers was the first flight to have orbited for so long, it was asserted that women were unsuitable rather than being a common individual reaction.
After her flight she studied at the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy and graduated with a distinction as cosmonaut engineer in 1969. The same year, the female cosmonaut group was dissolved. In 1977 she received a doctorate of engineering. Due to her prominence she was chosen for several political positions: From 1966 to 1974 she was a member of the Supreme Soviet, from 1974 to 1989 in the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, from 1969 to 1991 she was in the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In 1997 she was retired from the air force and the cosmonaut corps by presidential order.
After the Vostok 6 flight a rumor began circulating that she would marry Andrian Nikolayev (1929–2004), the only bachelor cosmonaut to have flown. Nikolayev and Tereshkova married on 3 November 1963 at the Moscow Wedding Palace. Khrushchev himself presided at the wedding party, together with top government and space program leaders.
She gave birth to their daughter Elena Andrianovna (who is now a doctor and was the first person to have both a mother and father who had travelled into space) in 1964. She and Nikolayev divorced in 1982. Her second husband, Yuli Shaposhnikov, died in 1999.
Valentina Tereshkova later became a prominent member of the Soviet government and a well known representative abroad. She was made a member of the World Peace Council in 1966, a member of the Yaroslavl Soviet in 1967, a member of the Soviet of the Union of the Supreme Soviet in 1966–1970 and 1970–1974, and was elected to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in 1974. She was also the Soviet representative to the UN Conference for the International Women's Year in Mexico City in 1975. She attained the rank of deputy to the Supreme Soviet, membership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Central Committee, Vice President of the International Woman’s Democratic Federation and President of the Soviet-Algerian Friendship Society.
She was decorated Hero of the Soviet Union, the USSR's highest award. She was also awarded the Order of Lenin, Order of the October Revolution, numerous medals, and foreign orders including the Karl Marx Order United Nations Gold Medal of Peace and the Simba International Women’s Movement Award. She was also bestowed a title of the Hero of Socialist Labor of Czechoslovakia, Hero of Labor of Vietnam, and Hero of Mongolia. In 1990 she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh. A crater on the far side of the Moon is named after Tereshkova.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tereshkova lost her political office but none of her prestige. To this day, she is still revered as a Russian hero, and to some her importance in Russian space history is only surpassed by Yuri Gagarin and Alexei Leonov. Since her retirement from politics, she appears infrequently at space-related events, and appears to be content with being out of the limelight.
Tereshkova was invited to President Vladimir Putin's residence in Novo-Ogaryovo for the celebration of her 70th birthday. While there she said that she would like to fly to Mars, even if it meant that it was a one way trip.