1. Valentina Tereshkova
Of course, you can’t start this list without mentioning the first woman in space. Valentina Tereshkova was truly a pioneer of female spaceflight.
However, you may not have guessed that the young Tereshkova was bound for orbit. She was born in 1937, to a fairly unremarkable peasant family. She eventually took on a job at a local textile factory. Perhaps it was there where she began to develop an interest in parachuting, via her local aviation group. However it happened, Valentina was quickly fascinated by parachuting and skydiving.
Her aviation interests garnered the attention of Soviet space officials. Having already launched the first space probe (Sputnik), the first living creature (a dog named Laika), and the first man (Yuri Gagarin) into space, they wanted another first. After all, this was the height of the “Space Race”, a frantic competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. Though the U.S. would go on to earn their own “firsts” (such as making it to the Moon), they were clearly lagging in the early 1960s.
Tereshkova first went to space on Vostok 6, a Soviet spacecraft that launched on June 16, 1963. She completed 48 orbits in the Vostok vehicle, over a total of 71 hours. At that point, she had spent more time in space than all American astronauts combined. However, her work wasn’t quite done. One of the most intense aspects of Vostok spaceflight was its reentry. Cosmonauts (the Soviet term for astronauts) were obliged to eject from the Vostok capsule when they were 20,000 feet from the ground.
Tereshkova’s parachuting skills were vital in helping her complete this tricky maneuver. She later went on to earn both her doctorate in engineering and engage in a busy political career.