Once upon a time, Valentina Tereshkova was a textile factor worker who made a hobby of jumping off of stuff with parachutes. On June 16, 1963, she was the first woman to make it into space, piloting Vostok 6 through 48 orbits in 70.8 hours. Today is her birthday.
Valentina Tereshkova looking suitably unamused in this January 1, 1963 portrait from the RIA Novosti archive.
Tereshkova was one of a handful women selected as cosmonauts in the Russian space program, and the only one of her group to complete a space flight. It was 19 years before another female cosmonaut, Svetlana Savitskaya, made it into orbit in 1982, and a full 20 before the first female American astronaut, Sally Ride, crossed the one-hundred mile altitude barrier* in 1983.
That 1963 solo flight on Vostok 6 was Tereshkova's only time into space. Once in orbit, she noticed a computer error that was making her craft ascend instead of descend. With data from the surface, she reprogrammed a solution, safely returning to Earth on June 19th. At the request of the spaceship designer, she kept quiet about the bug until another cosmonaut spoke about it in public in 2004.
During training, she was given the nickname "Little Seagull" (callsign Chaika). Once she landed, she collected the far more honourable moniker "Hero of the Soviet Union," and was made a national spokesperson. She did her job well, easing tensions (an ongoing tradition for astronauts) and earning the United Nations Gold Medal of Peace.
Less than a year after her flight, Tereshkova married fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev. Their daughter was born the next year, the first child where both parents had been exposed to space. All the poking and prodding by doctors curious about the first child born to a pair of space-faring astronauts must have made a lasting impressing, as Elena grew up to be a medical doctor herself.
On the 50th anniversary of her flight, Tereshkova used the platform to advocate for a global asteroid-tracking and preparedness system. She's got a point — at the moment we're totally hosed if one of those asteroids we keep talking about (or one we haven't even found yet) comes crashing into our one and only planet.
Not to be limited by the simple ideals of tracking and defending Earth, last year Tereshkova declared that the real trick is to spread out over more than one planet. In fact, even at the dignified age of 77, she's down with hopping on a one-way flight to explore our dusty neighbour. Over 200,000 people share her desire to explore at any cost.
Tereshkova was one kick-ass lady, busting through the glass ceiling and right into orbit. Happy birthday, Valentina! I hope you've got rowdy friends who can keep up with you to help you celebrate.
* As pointed out in the comments, the Kármán Line is defined as 100 km altitude (62 miles), and is the generally accepted boundary between atmosphere and space. However, Tereshkova's Vostok 6 mission perigee & apogee ranged from 180 to 231 km (110 to 144 miles), Savitskaya's Salyut 7 was 219 to 278 km (136 to 172 miles), and Ride's STS-7 was 299 to 307 km (186 to 191 miles). Yes, they passed the Kármán Line into space at a mere 100 kilometres altitude, but all three broke that boundary substantially, soaring triumphantly on past 100 miles.