June 16, 2022

The First Woman In Space

The First Woman In Space

June 16, 1963. After months of rigorous training, Soviet Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space, orbiting the Earth for just under three days.


Cold Open - The first man in space

It’s the morning of April 12th, 1961; several years into the “Space Race” between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin sits silently on a slow-moving bus that makes its way toward the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Yuri tries to stay calm as his mind races. Just hours earlier, Yuri learned he’s about to be the first person to ever travel to space.

As the bus stops on the Cosmodrome’s launchpad, Yuri gazes out the window at the massive Vostok rocket that will propel him into orbit.

Then… the bus door opens, and Yuri steps outside, where he’s greeted by the Vostok’s lead designer. The two men shake hands and then walk toward an elevator on the side of the rocket.

Together, Yuri and the designer ride 15 stories into the sky toward the capsule sitting atop the rocket.

When the elevator stops, the designer leads Yuri to the capsule door and helps him climb inside. There, Yuri attaches himself to his life support system and puts on his helmet. He and the designer exchange a farewell, and the capsule door closes.

Yuri waits, alone, in silence; the stakes of the mission are high. If Yuri succeeds, he will be the first person to ever travel to space. If the mission fails, Yuri will not live to tell the tale.

But Yuri doesn't have long to contemplate the risks. Soon, he hears a voice on the radio announcing that the launch is a go.

A loud, low rumbling rises from the ground below as the capsule starts to vibrate. Yuri holds his breath. And then, he hears the word he’s been waiting for: “ignition.”

The rocket fires and Yuri feels every muscle in his body tense up. He sits rigid in his seat… until the rocket begins to lift off. Yuri yells, “Let’s go!” as the rocket and capsule break away from the launch pad, and leave the Earth behind.

In 1961, the Space Race between the Soviets and the Americans is in full swing, and the Soviets are winning. On the day after Yuri’s launch, a reporter asks President John F. Kennedy if the Americans can ever catch up. Kennedy responds, “We are, I hope, going into other areas where we can be first, and which will bring… more long-range benefits to mankind. But we are behind.”

Following Yuri Gagarin’s historic manned spaceflight, the Soviets will do everything they can to stay ahead of the Americans. This will push the Soviets to change their cosmonaut training program, and make history again when Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space on June 16th, 1963.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is June 16th, 1963: The First Woman in Space.

Act One: Valentina applies to be a cosmonaut

It’s summer 1961, at the Soviet Center for Cosmonaut Training, also known as “Star City.”

Nikolai Kamanin, head of the training program, reads over a message from a staff member, his face red with anger.

The letter is informing Nikolai that the Americans have been testing women to potentially become astronauts. Nikolai hates the idea of ceding any ground to the Americans in the Space Race.

He grabs a pen and his journal, and writes, “We cannot allow that the first woman in space will be American. This would be an insult to the patriotic feelings of Soviet women.”

But Nikaloi is already behind and realizes he needs to start a cosmonaut training program for women as soon as possible. So, he moves fast to pitch his idea for putting a woman in space to leading Soviet scientists and politicians. Within a matter of months, he has enough support to present his plan to the one man who can give him the green light: Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

When talking to Khrushchev, Nikolai reiterates what he wrote in his journal. He says putting the first woman in space is a matter of national pride. Khrushchev agrees and signs off on the proposal, but it’s not only love of country that wins the Premier over. Khrushchev has a mind for propaganda. And he believes having a “female Yuri Gagarin” will play brilliantly at home and across Western media. Krushchev tells Nikolai to get to work and get it done.

Unlike the Americans, the Soviets haven’t been screening women as potential space travelers, so Nikolai has to start from scratch. So for potential recruits, he looks for experienced female fighter pilots.

During World War II, some of the most daring Soviet pilots were women. One bomber regiment in particular, known as the Night Witches, were famous for terrorizing the Nazis. But after the war, the Soviets eliminated women from their air force pilot training program. The World War II-era pilots are all that Nikolai has. But after meeting them, he decides the women are too old for his new cosmonaut training program.

So Nikolai searches elsewhere for women who love being airborne, and he finds the perfect recruiting ground in parachute clubs. Since the late 1950s, Nikolai has seen the parachuting trend grow in the Soviet Union. He has watched as young women all across the country joined these clubs where they regularly, and voluntarily, jumped out of airplanes. These are exactly the type of women Nikolai is searching for. So he makes parachuting experience the number one prerequisite.

Then in the fall of 1961, the Cosmonaut Training Program puts out a formal call for female parachuters under the age of 30, who are shorter than 5’7”, and weigh less than 154 pounds. Feeling optimistic, Nikolai waits for the applications to come in, knowing the perfect candidate will soon emerge.


On a cold, crisp night in the fall of 1961, 24-year-old Valentina Tereshkova walks through her village on the way home from her factory job. Valentina is distracted, but excited. She can’t stop thinking about the possibility of going on an adventure.

For the past several days, all she and her friends from the parachuting club can talk about is the prospect of going to space. Since the day Yuri Gagarin made his first flight, Valentina has been obsessed with touching the stars. Now, she might have that chance. Valentina has just applied to be part of the Cosmonaut Training Program, and she could become the first woman ever to go to space.

But on her walk back home, Valentina wonders if she’s foolish to get her hopes up. Her mother is a textile worker, and her father was a farmer and a soldier who was killed in battle. Valentina knows that daughters of farmers and textile workers don’t typically grow up to be cosmonauts. And by the time Valentina gets home, she’s convinced herself that there’s little chance she’ll get to follow in Yuri Gagarin’s footsteps.

But as much as Valentina tries to put the application out of her mind, she can’t stop thinking about it. She rushes home from work every day to see if a response has come. And when Valentina is with her mother or with friends, she gets butterflies anytime someone mentions her application.

Finally, in early 1962, Valentina receives a response. She’s elated to learn that out of hundreds who applied for the program, she is one of only five women who have been selected. Soon, Valentina will move to the training center at Star City. And there, she will endure a series of grueling physical and psychological tests as she fights to be the first woman in space.

Act Two: Cosmonaut training

It’s February 1962 at the Soviet Center for Cosmonaut Training or Star City.

Valentina Tereshkova steps into a meeting room with four other women. Their cosmonaut training is about to begin.

As Valentina takes her seat, she can’t remember ever being more exhilarated. But her excitement turns to anxiety when she’s approached by the most famous cosmonaut in the world: Yuri Gagarin.

Valentina is speechless. She idolizes Yuri, and cannot believe he’s standing in front of her. Yuri smiles and tells Valentina that he’s here to help in any way he can. And then, it hits her: Valentina’s not just meeting Yuri, she’s going to get to work with him.

Over the first few weeks of training, Valentina relies on Yuri’s support, because it’s clear to her that not all of her instructors want women around. Valentina hears the phrase “the weaker sex” on a regular basis. And some of the men in charge question if women have what it takes to become cosmonauts.

Valentina decides that all she can do is prove she belongs by being the best. She has worked hard from a young age in grueling factory jobs to help her mother and jumping out of airplanes to challenge herself mentally and physically. So Valentina approaches cosmonaut training with the same determination she’s always shown; she throws herself into the process: a combination of intense physical exercise, rigorous hands-on training, and dense classwork where she learns the science and mathematics behind space flight.

But there are times when Valentina feels overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information she’s taking in. In those moments, she remembers something Yuri told her; that space flight begins on the ground; the work she’s doing now will serve her when the time comes for launch.

In the spring of 1962, Valentina takes Yuri’s words to heart. She spends extra time on her studies, learning the complex theories behind spaceflight; and she logs as many hours of hands-on training as possible. Her commitment pays off. Soon, Valentina becomes a standout among the new recruits. She shows good instincts when tackling new tasks like piloting an aircraft for the first time, and demonstrates a willingness to learn and get better.

Valentina understands that she will never convince everyone that women belong in the training program, but she is determined to lead by example. And eventually, she wins over the majority of her instructors. They repay her hard work by pushing her even harder.

In the summer of 1962, Valentina’s training focuses on the physical and mental toll that spaceflight takes on a cosmonaut. She spends time in conditions simulating the G-force of lift-off and the weightlessness of space. Valentina also spends extended periods in isolation in a specially designed chamber that the cosmonauts call the “Cabin of Silence.”

Valentina’s sessions in that chamber are meant to test her psychologically; to see if she can endure her time alone in a space capsule. But Valentina appreciates the solitude. She often uses the time to go over what she’s been taught during training.

And then in November 1962, the women learn that they will be given a series of exams to test their readiness. They’re also informed that following the exams, one of them will be chosen to go to space. The pressure of the situation hits Valentina hard. She is exhausted from the constant training, but she forces herself to keep studying, working, and improving. 

Valentina’s talent and work ethic don’t go unnoticed. Several of the women pass their exams, but the instructors inform Valentina that she and she alone will be traveling to space. The moment is almost too big for her to comprehend. Even as Valentina watches the other women leave Star City to go back to their homes, she can’t quite believe that it's she, who has made it to the end. It’s not until Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gives Valentina his blessing that everything starts to finally feel real.

Krushchev likes what he sees in Valentina. She is a strong woman from a working-class village whose father was a farmer who gave his life in battle for his country. In Krushchev’s mind, Valentina is the perfect poster child for Soviet greatness. And in the spring of 1963, Soviet propagandists dub Valentina “Gagarin in a Skirt,” and they start pushing her image to the public.

But as Valentina’s launch date approaches, all of the nerves from her early days in Star City come flooding back. Understanding her anxiety, Yuri Gagarin pulls her aside telling her, “It’s hard to be the first.” Then, he assures her that she’s worked hard for this moment; that she’s ready.

On June 16th, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova will push all of her nerves aside, rely on her training, and set out to make history.

Act Three: The launch

It’s the morning of June 16th, 1963 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Valentina Tereshkova steps off a bus onto the launchpad just as Yuri Gagarin did two years earlier.

Valentina takes the long ride up the elevator to her capsule and climbs aboard her craft, the Vostok 6. As she waits for the launch, she’s overjoyed when she hears Yuri on the radio. He says he’ll keep her company till it’s time. Yuri wonders if she’s nervous. Valentina tells him “not at all”. She says the only emotion she feels is excitement, something unknown and wonderful lies ahead.

Later, just before 12:30 PM, Valentina gets the “one minute to launch” signal. She feels the low rumbling of the rocket below. And then, Valentina hears “ignition” from the ground crew.

Valentina feels like her chest is caving in as every muscle tenses. But she’s trained for this moment, and she doesn’t panic. After several minutes, the capsule and rocket detach from the support structure, and Valentina is hurled into the sky. Her eyes close, and she loses all sense of where she is.

Until yet again, she hears Yuri’s voice saying, “Everything is excellent. The machine is working well.” Valentina opens her eyes and snaps back into the moment. As she takes in her surroundings, she calls back to Yuri, and everyone listening on the ground, saying: “I see the horizon. There is a blue stripe. This is the Earth. How beautiful it is.”

Valentina orbits the planet for 2 days, 22 hours, and 50 minutes. At the time, it's longer than all of the American astronauts who’ve ever been to space combined.

And after her mission, Valentina returns home a hero. She travels the country telling her story, and advocating that women belong in space. But after her flight, the Soviets seem satisfied that they’ve checked off another “first” in the Space Race. They use Valentina as a spokesperson to demonstrate that they’re still ahead of the Americans, but the Soviets determine that moving forward, it is more cost-effective and efficient to only train experienced male fighter pilots as cosmonauts. Soon after Valentina’s flight, the women’s training program disappears.

It will be nineteen years before the next Soviet woman travels to space. And the Americans, who were testing women as potential astronauts in the early 1960s, follow a similar path. They limit their flights to male astronauts until they finally make Dr. Sally Ride the first American woman in space in 1983.

30 years later, in 2013, Valentina Tereshkova appears at a UN celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of her flight. She addresses the press saying, “A bird cannot fly with one wing only. Human space flight cannot develop any further without the active participation of women.”

Valentina’s message speaks to her belief that women possess the intelligence, strength, skill, and determination to shape the future of space travel; a fact she proved decades earlier when she fought her way through cosmonaut training to become the first woman in space on June 16th, 1963.


Next on History Daily. June 17th, 1972. A break-in at the Democratic National Committee's headquarters at the Watergate Office Building in Washington D.C. leads to an investigation that eventually ensnares President Richard Nixon.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.