Tereshkova left school early and followed her mother to work in a textile mill, but she had also developed an interest in parachuting and joined a jump school with auxiliary ties to the Soviet air force.
Valentina Tereshkova was 24 when, in April 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man into space. When it was agreed that the USSR should also be first getting a woman into orbit, Tereshkova, by now an accomplished parachutist, was among 58 candidates sent to Moscow for screening.
Four others were accepted for cosmonaut training alongside Tereshkova: Valentina Ponomareva, Zhanna Yerkina, Tatiana Kuznetsova and Irina Solovyova. Of the five, Tereshkova was the least technically qualified. All the others had completed the higher education she lacked, and all were professionals, including a test pilot and three engineers. Like Tereshkova, all were parachutists, too, an absolute requirement since cosmonauts were ejected from their craft following re-entry.
But lack of technical expertise was not a deal breaker at the time, because the Vostok craft, much like the U.S. Mercury capsule, was self-piloting. And Tereshkova brought a little something extra: a purely proletarian background. She was a textile worker and the daughter of a textile worker, and her father -- a tractor driver in civilian life -- was killed at the front during the 1939-40 Russo-Finnish war.
Not only was Tereshkova the archetype of the New Soviet Woman, but she also demonstrated the physical stamina that her instructors knew would be essential to a successful flight.
Their training completed, the five women were commissioned lieutenants in the Soviet air force. When the time came for a decision, Tereshkova and Ponomareva were named the finalists. The ambitious original plan called for both women to go into space simultaneously, but when circumstances changed, Tereshkova -- being the more ideologically reliable -- got the nod.
She was launched into space aboard Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963, using the call sign "Chaika," or "Seagull." Although nauseous from the motion and the weightlessness, Tereshkova performed like the good Communist that she was, completing 48 orbits in just over 70 hours, logging more flight time than all the American astronauts who preceded her, combined.
Though there were difficulties during the flight -- Tereshkova may have suffered from emotional stress while in orbit, although she denied this during her debriefing -- that news came to light only later. By then, her mission -- to trumpet the achievements of socialism in space -- had been accomplished.
Tereshkova was made a Hero of the Soviet Union and became a member of the Supreme Soviet in 1966.