“Anyone who has spent any time in space will love it for the rest of their lives” – Valentina Tereshkova

The soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who was the first woman in space, turned 80 this week and it’s likely that you’ll know very little about her. On June 16 1963, Tereshkova piloted the Vostok 6 which completed 48 orbits around the Earth in 3 days. At the time, she was only 26 and she still remains the youngest recorded female astronaut, honored by every Russian and Soviet leader from then until the present and her career still continues to be active, promoting the presence of woman in spaceflight.

Tereshkova, born in a village in central Russia in 1937, was the daughter of a factory worker and a tractor driver. Her interest in space came well before such human exploration seemed realistic and she wrote to the Soviet authorities volunteering to take part in any training program for female cosmonauts that was available. It was her high-flying talent at skydiving that led her to be selected for the mission, chosen out of 400 pilots. Four other pilots were in fact chosen but it was Tereshkova who was deemed the most suitable for the mission, her training mentor describing her as “Gagarin in a skirt.”

The entire mission was classified up until the launch date. The 26 year old Tereshkova explained to her parents that she was leaving to take part in a parachuting contest and it wasn’t until their daughter was orbiting the Earth that they learnt the truth. Tereshkova spent 70 hours and 50 minutes on the spacecraft, her mission lasting longer than the combined time of all US astronauts up until that time. She still remains the only female to ever complete a solo space mission.

Tereshkova rebuked all sexist claims that she faced both before and after her mission and continued to inspire women around the world. “On Earth, men and women are taking the same risks. Why shouldn’t we be taking the same risks in space?”, she said.  20 years after Tereshkova’s mission, Sally Ride became the first female American astronaut in space, flying up into orbit around the Space Shuttle Challenger.

By the time of her retirement in 1997, Tereshkova was honorarily inducted into the Air Force, obtaining the rank of Major General and receiving the Joliot-Curie Gold Medal of Peace. Now, she serves in the State Duma with the Russian legislature but her dreams of returning to space still stand. She has mentioned her desire to lead a one-way trip to Mars and her dream might even come true sooner rather than later thanks to Elon Musk’s Space X plans due to take place in the next few years.