You probably never heard of Valentina Tereshkova.
But the Russian astronaut, now 80 years old, is an important part of space history. She was the first woman to orbit space at age 26.
Born on March 6, 1937 in Bolshoye Maslennikovo, a village in western Russia, Valentina didn’t enter school until she was eight. Her father was a tractor driver who died during World War II. And her mother worked in a textile factory, according to historical accounts.
She left school to begin working in a textile factory when she was 17 but continued pursuing her love for parachuting as a hobby. Her extraordinary passion for parachuting, now more popularly known as skydiving, led her way to the Soviet Union’s cosmonaut program.
Four women, including Valentina, were successfully trained for the program. She later emerged as the top choice to be sent to space.
On June 16, 1963, Valentina made history when she orbited earth 48 times aboard Vostok 6. She went back to earth after three days parachuting from 20,000 feet and given the title Hero of the Soviet Union when she landed.
“It was very difficult to control the descent. At a height of seven kilometres, I catapulted out of my capsule and parachuted down to Earth. I was very familiar with parachutes because I was a sky diver before,” she said in one of her interviews recalling the day she went back to earth.
Valentina later became an important member of the Communist Party, graduating with distinction from the Zhukovsky Military Air Academy in 1969.
Though Valentina never went back to space, she turned her sight to greater diplomatic and political roles for the Soviet Union. In 1975, she represented the USSR at the United Nations conference for the International Women’s Year.
She headed the Soviet Committee for Women from 1968-1987, was pictured on postage stamps and had a crater on the moon named after her.
Today, Valentina remains an active campaigner for women to get engaged in space exploration.
“More women should actively participate in space flight. There are many well educated women working in the space industry; they are very good candidates,” she said in one of her many famous quotes.