Valentina Tereshkova fell in love with space exploration when she first saw the picture of Yuri Gagarin. The man who made the first spaceflight in the history of human civilization seemed to be looking her right in the eye. That look said it all: “You can do it too!” Valentina, an instructor with an amateur parachute school, thought to herself: “I surely can!” or so the story goes. Soon she filed an application to the government agency responsible for the selection of candidates for a team of cosmonauts.
The team of Soviet cosmonauts was enwrapped in total secrecy. No one was supposed to know about five girls who came from different cities of the Soviet Union to start a training program at the Space Center in 1962. The original group included Valentina Tereshkova, Zhanna Yerkina, Irina Solovyeva, Valentina Ponomaryeva and Tatyana Kuzhentsova. Tereshkova was soon appointed group leader. “Valya would handle lots of things when it came to getting all sorts of go-aheads from our superiors,” said Zhanna Yerkina. “Once we needed to go to Moscow pretty badly. But our group was under wraps, no trips allowed. So Valya approached Comrade Maslennikov who was in charge of security at the base. That guy asked her lots of questions like ‘What’s your destination in Moscow?’ and ‘Whom are you going to visit in Moscow?’ and ‘What are you going to do in Moscow?’ Valya got sick and tired of those questions. Finally, she just looked up and told Maslennikov the ‘we’re going shopping for bras and panties, it is okay with you?’ Her answer baffled him completely, his face flushed, and we got our permission on the spot,” added Yerkina.
As a rule, the “secret girls” had very few leisure hours. They went through the extensive training day in and day out. The centrifuge was one of the most horrifying tests all the girls were to go through. The girls had to put up with the enormous pressure of 600 kilograms while being spun at a very high speed by the machine. Tereshkova would pass out during the test; the staff would take her out the machine for a breather. She would fight her tears and continue training. She would also spend some time in a thermal chamber. “We put on our coveralls, fur hats and climb into the chamber. The temperatures were rising higher and higher,” said Yerkina. Tereshkova spent seven days in complete isolation. She was put in a sealed compartment under the supervision of doctors who watched her every move. Tereshkova was reported to be smiling and singing during her time in solitary.
Having passed all the tests at the training center, Tereshkova felt completely prepared for her space flight. As it turned out, her preparedness proved to be incomplete. The Soyuz-6, a spaceship in which Tereshkova was put into orbit, had an extremely small cockpit. One had to assume a reclining position in order to fit to the limited space of the cockpit. Tereshkova spent three days reclining in that “can” during her flight. She could not touch any food while onboard the ship. She was throwing up all the time. However, she tried to wear a smile as she reported to the ground control that “the mission is going according to plan, I feel fine.”
Tereshkova could not recall much of her landing. She came around only after being taken to hospital. One day later she was brought back to a landing site so that TV crews might shoot some “positive footage” featuring the first Soviet woman cosmonaut. In other words, her landing was staged for propaganda purposes. As a result, viewers around the globe could see a smiling Tereshkova in her spacesuit, waving for the benefit of the cameras.
“Can you imagine a cosmonaut feeling fine after a three-day flight in zero gravity, in the confines of a spacesuit, having to be strapped to the seat? It is only natural she was feeling pretty bad.
One person’s vestibular nerve works like clockwork, another person may have some difficulties. Needless to say, Valentina was not authorized to discuss things like that,” said Yerkina.
Many Soviet women eyed Valentina Tereshkova with admiration. They would imitate her hairdos and her dress style, which looked somewhat mannish to some people. The government showered her with praise and decorations. She became a frequent guest at numerous official functions and parties attended by well-known actors, singers and artists. Rumor has it that her marriage to the cosmonaut Andriyan Nikolayev was a product of the official matchmaking initiated by the CPSU General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev who reportedly arranged their wedding just three months after Tereshkova was launched into space. Khrushchev apparently wanted to put together a model Soviet family. There is solid evidence that Khrushchev was the one who ordered to throw a party at a grand scale to celebrate the wedding of the two cosmonauts. The party was a noisy and showy occasion, with hundreds of high-ranking Party officials and other perfect strangers proposing toasts and singing songs. Valentina and Andriyan looked very confused throughout the wedding. They wanted to have a quiet private ceremony, which was apparently against the Party line.
“They tied the knot because they fell in love with each other. I witnessed their relationship taking shape, I remember Andriyan courting Valya. They began dating well before Khrushchev came into the picture,” said Yerkina.
Their daughter was born one year after they got married. Valentina worried about the outcome of her pregnancy. She feared that the space flight pressures might have caused damage to her offspring. The best doctors helped her deliver her baby. The parents named their daughter Elena. There were some rumors that Tereshkova’s daughter had been born with a hearing impairment. Tereshkova always denied any allegations regarding her daughter’s health.
The “model family” split up eight years after. Nikolayev was rumored to have cheated on his wife. Tereshkova found more luck in her second marriage. Yuly Shaposhnikov, her new husband, was a surgeon. Unfortunately, her husband succumbed to cancer several years ago. Tereshkova is still actively involved in social projects; she often travels abroad as a member of various delegations. But her grandson Alyesha is her top priority. She normally spends most of her time at her large dacha outside Moscow, taking care of her grandson, her biggest pride and joy.
Translated by Guerman Grachev