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In the Spotlight: Valentina Tereshkova b. 1937

I had the pleasure of attending the opening of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age at the Science Museum in London about 3 weeks ago. The event saw a floating microphone during a live video call from the international space station, a performance of soviet composer Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and a speech by Valentina Tereshkova, the very first woman in space. 

On the 16th June 1963, at 26 years of age, Tereshkova was launched into space.  She spent 2 days, 23 hours and 12 minutes alone in a capsule with little room to even move; the Vostok 6 mission almost ended in tragedy as the capsule drifted from its desired location, yet Tereshkova returned to earth safely, landing near China with nothing but a bruise on her face. She remains the only woman to ever have completed a solo mission.

At 78 years old Tereshkova looks sprightly yet serious. She spoke in Russian, and despite the language barrier I could tell she was unfazed by a larger audience as she took time to convey her experience at low earth orbit, around 231 km from sea-level. She joined the space programme due to her interest in skydiving; at the time, cosmonauts had to parachute from their capsules seconds from landing. Along with four other women, Tereshkova received 18 months of training, including long periods of isolation as well as exposure to zero gravity. Of the five women, only Tereshkova went into space and, upon her return, was ejected from the Volstok 6 five miles above Kazakhstan.

Tereshkova made 48 orbits around earth in the capsule, now shabby and scratched, on display at the Science museum. Nearby is the blue ventilation garment she wore under a space suit, embroidered with the letters ‘CCCP’, a potent reminder of the heated political climate Tereshkova and her peers endured. The head of the Soviet Women’s Committee for 19 years, Tereshkova has become a feminist icon for many.

The exhibition itself is fascinating; never seen before, the vast collection of drawings, models, equipment and artefacts created by Russian scientists in their determination to explore space presents a massive feat in engineering and design. We were also in the presence of Helen Sharman, the first Briton in space, and Dame Mary Archer, a British scientist and the Chairman of the Science Museum. One of my favourite artefacts on show at Cosmonauts is the first ever picture drawn in space. Alexei Leonov, the original space walker, drew his view of a sunrise from his Voskhod 2 spacecraft. Given his circumstances, I found it pretty remarkable.

Though I was with my mother, it felt apt toasting to Tereshkova’s health with a shot of vodka. Encounters with women of such strong character, I thought, warranted more than a measly sip of sparkling wine.

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