This month in history: shooting into space

Materials World magazine
1 Jun 2016

This month in history, in 1963, Dr Valentina Tereshkova became the first female astronaut in space. Rhiannon Garth Jones writes and Ashley Cooper illustrates.

Dr Tereshkova remains the only woman to have undergone a solo mission in space, spending nearly three days orbiting the Earth 48 times while studying layers in the atmosphere, the moon and the effects of space travel on the human body.

Tereshkova launched on 14 June 1963, inside a 2.3 metre-wide pressurised cabin called Vostok-6 that included optical devices for her observation mission. The booster rocket that carried her into orbit, R-7, was originally developed a decade before as the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile to carry nuclear bombs. A modified version had launched Sputnik-1 in 1957.

The spacecraft was a nearly spherical cabin covered with ablative material, with three small portholes and external radio antennas. Inside the cabin were radios, a life support system, instrumentation, and an ejection seat. It was attached to a service module that carried chemical batteries, orientation rockets, the main retro system, and added support equipment for the total system. This module was separated from the manned cabin on re-entry. 

For most of the mission, Vostok-6 flew with Vostok-5, manned by Valery Bykovsky, maintaining two-way radio communications as well as regularly reporting to ground control. TV pictures of the cosmonauts in their cabins were relayed to earth, and a series of biomedical and scientific experiments were conducted.

Tereshkova wore an orange space suit adapted from the one that Yuri Gagarin wore on the first human journey into space. It came with a portable ventilation unit and the ability to be pressurised in an emergency, as well as a rescue float support collar with a CO2 inflation system. Underneath, she wore a sky blue thermal garment. On the left breast of that garment, she wore the first ever patch designed for a crewed space mission, showing a seagull – her call signal. 

Tereshkova held Vostok-6 steady with manual controls while firing the rocket engine to drop out of orbit. After she re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, she ejected from the falling spacecraft and descended using a parachute. Initially, there was an error in the control programme that meant her spacecraft would continue to travel away from Earth, rather then descending. Not quite a ‘Houston, we have a problem’, moment – but probably quite scary. Fortunately, ground control were able to correct the error, which wasn’t reported until 2004. Tereshkova’s flight was the last for which a Vostok was used.