This Week in Rocket History: Vostok 6

Jun 17, 2021 | Crewed Space, Daily Space, Space History, Space Policy, Spacecraft

This Week in Rocket History: Vostok 6
IMAGE: Valentina Tereshkova, pilot-cosmonaut, first female cosmonaut, Hero of the USSR. Pictured as a Major of the Soviet Air Forces. CREDIT: RIA Novosti archive, image #612748

This was a slow week for rockets but a great week for history, and we are pleased to dedicate extra time to one of my favorite figures in space flight. For this week in rocket history, we look back at the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, and her flight aboard Vostok 6.

But first, some more history to put everything in context.

In the early 1960s, an American physician named William Lovelace set out to demonstrate something that we now take for granted: that women were also capable of being astronauts and might even be better suited for long missions due to their small physical size and associated lower intake of resources. In the summer of 1961, a record-holding pilot named Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb took and passed the same tests as the Mercury 7 male astronauts, which included eye exams, a special weighted stationary bike, and a moving table that tested their circulation. A private organization was unofficially testing a group of women that are now retroactively called the “Mercury 13” by a Hollywood producer.

These women were not associated with NASA in any way and were being tested to determine suitability, not being trained to go to space. A year later, nineteen more women took the same tests. Although thirteen of them qualified by the same standards set for the male Mercury 7 astronauts, they never became astronauts — even after they went in front of Congress to make their case.

Nikolai Kamanin, head of the Soviet cosmonaut training program, read news reports about Cobb and the other women that could potentially be astronauts. He decided that the USSR had to beat the Americans. The United States absolutely could not be the first country to put a woman in space. In early 1962, twenty-three final candidates for five female cosmonaut slots were brought to the training center for evaluation. After several months of tests, the five were chosen to undergo basic astronaut training which took the rest of 1962. The final decision on who would fly was in May 1963.

Keep in mind that all of this was taking place in the backdrop of the Space Race and Cold War. The USSR and the United States were competing to show the rest of the world whose economic system was better while also building and pointing nuclear weapons at each other and waiting for the other side to blink.

IMAGE: The first female cosmonaut corps. From left to right: Valentina Ponomareva, Tatiana Kuznetsova, Irina Solovyova, Valentina Tereshkova, Zhanna Yorkina. From the back – Marina Popovich (not part of the group). CREDIT: NASA

The criteria for a female cosmonaut was “young, brave, physically strong, with aviation experience, and able to be trained for spaceflight in less than six months”. They also had to be under the age of 30, shorter than 170 centimeters (just over 5 and a half feet), and know how to parachute. Both male and female cosmonauts didn’t need too much in the way of specialized training for the Vostok spacecraft as the flight was largely controlled from the ground. This simplified the rushed process for selecting a female cosmonaut from 400 potential candidates.

From that list of 400, five candidates were chosen:

  • Tatyana Kuznetsova, world record holding parachutist
  • Valentina Ponomaryova, pilot and graduate of the Moscow Institute of Aviation 
  • Irina Solovyeva, veteran of over 2000 parachute jumps
  • Zhanna Yorkina, amateur parachutist
  • Valentina Tereshkova, amateur parachutist and textile worker.

Valentina Tereshkova had been interested in aviation for a long time, training to be a competitive skydiver while at her job in a textile factory. Her widowed mother didn’t approve of this so she had to go to the training facility in secret. She made her first jump at the age of 22 in 1959.

Yuri Gagarin, who at this point had already flown into space, decided to be a mentor and guide to the new female cosmonaut candidates. The other male cosmonauts weren’t too happy about them, seeing their presence as taking seats that were rightfully theirs.

The first step in the training of the female candidates was basic flight school in both fighters and cargo planes. With this done they were now Junior Lieutenants in the Soviet Air Force, a requirement to become a cosmonaut.

IMAGE: Tereshkova just before boarding her Vostok 6 capsule for her historic spaceflight. CREDIT: NASA

Kuznetsova and Yorkina withdrew from training later, due to illness and “poor performance”. Valentina excelled at everything from the centrifuge to the isolation chamber to parabolic flights, in addition to theoretical tests on spaceflight topics. She was selected in May 1963 by Kamanin to fly Vostok 6, a joint mission with Vostok 5. Vostok 5 was to be commanded by Valery Bykovsky. Irina was to be Tereshkova’s backup. Tereshkova was selected not just because of her physical and academic qualifications but also because she had the right background that the Soviets wanted to present to the world. She grew up working on a farm, currently worked in a textile factory, and was single with a good work ethic.

The primary goal of Vostok 6 was to investigate the effects of zero-g on the female body as well as operations between two spacecraft in orbit. Vostok 6 launched on June 16, 1963, at 09:29 UTC with Tereshkova, now the first woman to go into space. The launch was nominal, unlike the slight third stage underperformance that left Vostok 5 in a lower than intended orbit. According to telemetry, Tereshkova’s blood pressure and heart rate were lower than her comrade’s during his launch.

On her first orbit, she came within five kilometers of Vostok 5 and Bykovsky (who launched two days prior) for a planned rendezvous. A proper rendezvous would have had the two spacecraft come much closer to each other — within tens of meters — but the Vostok spacecraft weren’t able to do the maneuvers needed to make that happen. Direct communication between Vostok 5 and 6 was impossible after the first day as the spacecraft drifted apart.

IMAGE: Vostok 6 capsule (flown 1964). Photographed at the Science Museum, London, March 2016. CREDIT: Andrew Gray

Unlike Bykovsky, Tereshkova had more success observing the Earth and stars through the Vzor periscope and porthole. She took several video recordings of forests and streams passing below from inside the spacecraft. Tereshkova threw up once after eating particularly dry bread, and unfortunately, that wasn’t the only problem encountered on the flight. On her first day in orbit, she noticed a problem with the deorbit motor. If it had fired as intended, instead of coming back to Earth she would have been sent to a higher orbit, where her life support would have been depleted before the spacecraft’s orbit decayed due to atmospheric drag. This, quite frankly, would have killed her. Luckily the programming was fixed and the deorbit on the third day of the mission was nominal.

She could have stayed in space longer but returned because Vostok 5 had problems that caused the mission to end earlier than planned as it was simpler to bring both capsules back at the same time. Unlike Vostok 5, her service module even separated cleanly from the orbital module. The Vostok didn’t carry a big enough chute to allow a soft landing with the cosmonaut on board, so they had to eject and parachute down themselves, which was why being a parachutist was a requirement. She landed on her back but was quickly helped by locals. Because she landed in a remote location, it took her three hours to inform ground control that she had landed safely. Vostok 6 was the last Vostok mission.

Tereshkova never flew again — to space or otherwise — because of her importance to the state, especially after Gagarin was killed in a training accident in 1969. She traveled the world in carefully scheduled tours, with the Soviets displaying their “ordinary” hero to the world.

More Information

Vostok 5 info page (Astronautix)

Vostok 6 info page (Astronautix)

Lovelace’s Woman in Space Program (NASA)

World First Woman Cosmonaut Speaks About Error of Vostok Designers (Kommersant via Internet Archive)

BOOK: The first Soviet cosmonaut team: their lives, legacy, and historical impact (

BOOK: Women in Space – Following Valentina (Google Books)

BOOK: Valentina Tereshkova, The First Lady of Space: In Her Own Words (Amazon)


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