Parachuting was her first love. The moment she could, Valentina Tereshkova joined the renowned paramilitary flying club in her native Yaroslavl (without telling her mother) and trained almost every weekend. She has more than 90 jumps under her belt. “I did night jumps, too, on to land and water – the Volga river.” Day and night, she tells me, “it’s a very different experience, but both are wonderful”, and she spreads her arms wide as though balancing herself in flight, radiating delight. “I learned to wait as long as possible before pulling the cord, just to feel the air; 40 seconds, 50 seconds ... It’s not really falling; you experience enormous pleasure from the sensation of your whole body. It’s marvellous.”
It is hard to believe that the woman sitting across the table from me enthusing about her early hobby is 80. All right, she turned 80 only a few days ago, but even immaculate hair and makeup can only flatter so much. She looks to me not a day over 70. My gaze keeps alighting on her elegant hands with their flawless dark nail varnish. My own (rather younger) hands look wrinkled and gnarled by comparison.
We are somewhere deep and indeterminate within the cavernous Science Museum in London, and Tereshkova had arrived, as dignitaries tend to do, suddenly, and with a flurry of suited escorts. I had seen her so often, in photographs, in film, and from a distance in person – that she seemed entirely familiar, from her tailored suit to the medal she wears, red banner with gold star, denoting her status as a Hero of the Soviet Union, then the highest state award.
The reason for her celebrity is almost as hard to believe now as the parachuting. Over 50 years ago, in 1963, Tereshkova became the first woman to go into space, and it was her parachuting experience that qualified her for selection. She was only 26 when she made her one and only space flight, but that feat has defined the rest of her life. It propelled her into the upper reaches of the Soviet elite, and gave her security for life. That elevation though came at a life-long cost: a treadmill of obligations that has lasted more than half a century.
Public speaking, accepting honours, roving the world as a citizen-diplomat, being a very visible part of Soviet, and now Russian, public life, are roles that she continues to fulfil to this day. Hence her visit to London for the opening of a display of artefacts linked to her cosmonaut’s life. It is one of a series of UK-Russia collaborations, following the hugely successful Russian space exhibition at the museum last year.
Has she honestly enjoyed this life lived so much in the public eye? “I think it’s tremendously important to meet people, to establish a connection and tell people about space,” she says gravely. “It can increase trust, and that is something that is so badly needed, today.”
Aware of the current chill in the international climate, Tereshkova sees herself, (not for the first time) with a responsibility to help improve things through public diplomacy. In the UK, she might be surprised to discover how relatively few now know her name. The global impact of her flight, with the near-universal recognition that followed, has faded over the years, though not in Russia, and not for me, as a child of that era.
Unsmiling and austere, sometimes in military uniform, Tereshkova is a fixture in my memory as she remains for many Russians. She was always conspicuous, not least because women were so few in the top line-ups for official Soviet occasions. As a Moscow-based correspondent in the late 1980s, I saw her at the various political gatherings convened by Mikhail Gorbachev in his twin causes of glasnost and perestroika. She made the transfer, effortlessly, or so it seemed, into the elite of post-Soviet Russia.
But it is the grainy footage of Tereshkova the cosmonaut that is most memorable. I am just old enough to remember the early “space race”, with the Americans and the Soviets vying for supremacy in the heavens. These were years when a distinction was observed between astronauts (American) and cosmonauts (Russian), and the terms “space” and “cosmos” existed side by side.
We knew about Laika, the dog who won the animal space race for the Soviet Union in 1957, but who died sooner than we knew. Four years later, Yuri Gagarin just pipped the American, Alan Shepard, to be the first man into space. A year later, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.
Then, in 1963, the pendulum swung back, with Tereshkova registering a win for the Soviets, when she became the first woman to fly in space. Perhaps the most coveted prize, though, went to the Americans when they made the first moon landing in 1969. You can sense, even 40 years on, that this victory still rankles just a little with Russians to this day.
Revisiting the rivalry of the space race helps cast light on mysteries that long surrounded Tereshkova’s flight. One is the suggestion that it was, in many respects, a failure: The charges were that the first female cosmonaut had been too ill and lethargic to conduct the planned tests on board; and/or that she had unreasonably challenged orders.
Tereshkova only gave her definitive account 30 years later, and she repeats it for my benefit. She denies being ill – or more ill than might be expected – or failing to complete the on-board tests; the voyage was, actually extended from one to three days at her request, and the tests had been planned only for one.
As for insubordination, there was a hitch, and a serious one, that emerged soon after lift-off. As she tells it, she discovered that the settings for re-entry were incorrect, to the point where she would have sped into outer space, rather than back to Earth. She was eventually sent new settings, but her space centre bosses made her swear to secrecy about the mistake, to save their own reputation and that of the programme. “We insisted that all was OK; we didn’t talk about it. We kept it secret for 30 years, until the person who made the mistake was in his grave.”
The view of the Earth from space remains with her, as it does with so many astronauts, as “a planet at once so beautiful and so fragile”. Everyone, she says, “Americans, Asians, everyone who has seen it says the same thing, how unbelievably beautiful the Earth is and how very important it is to look after it. Our planet suffers from human activity, from fires, from war; we have to preserve it.”
Had the experience changed her? “When you are up there, you are homesick for Earth as your cradle. When you get back, you just want to get down and hug it.”
She is particularly concerned about the risk from asteroids, and ferrets around in her bag to find a fragment of a meteorite that hit Russia. “It’s tiny,” she says, “but very heavy.” She wants more work to be done to avert the threat of a devastating collision. “People shouldn’t waste money on wars, but come together to discuss how to defend the world from threats like asteroids coming from outer space.”
Tereshkova shares with astronauts and cosmonauts around the world a profound nostalgia for the experience of space. Having hoped against hope to make another flight, she is on record as saying that she would volunteer for a one-way trip to Mars.
I flick back to the day she was selected for the space mission, after hard months of training and continual monitoring, from among five women who were competing for the single slot on Vostok 6. Was she surprised, and weren’t the others envious? Not at all, she says almost scornfully. “We believed each of us was worthy of being chosen.” Had she kept up with the others since? I ask, (there have been reports that she is less solicitous of friends and family than she could have been). Surprised by the question, Tereshkova allows herself a rare smile and her eyes light up. Yes, she says, the group meets up from time to time, obligations and illness permitting. “There is a bond, a comradeship, that never goes away.”
There may indeed be a special bond among the early cosmonauts, but as she grew used to fame, Tereshkova’s personal life became rocky. Her first marriage to a fellow cosmonaut, Andriyan Nikolayev, had been encouraged, if not actually arranged, by the space authorities as a fairytale message to the country. The then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev officiated at the nuptials. But this state-sanctioned element made it hard when the relationship turned sour. The split was finally formalised in 1982, when Tereshkova married Yuli Shaposhnikov, a surgeon, with whom she lived happily until his death in 1999.
Tereshkova’s life is unique as the first woman in space, but she is also inevitably a child of her times. Her 80 years span an extraordinary kaleidoscope of Russian history. I run through it, for her response. She was born in 1937, a year that casts, I suggest, a certain shadow (when Stalin’s purges were at their height). She catches the reference, but does not elaborate.
After the political thaw, under Khrushchev, came the long “stagnation”, under Leonid Brezhnev, followed by the tumultuous reforms introduced by Gorbachev. Tereshkova stops me mid-flow. “The Soviet Union was important for more than one generation. I am not ignoring the mistakes, the highs and the lows, but as a whole … It is wrong to paint it only in dark colours. There was a lot of good as well.”
This is a familiar defence of the Soviet Union. For many Russians who lived through those years, the end of the Soviet Union is regarded as a betrayal. How does Tereshkova see it? In an echo of Putin’s much-quoted remark, she says “We all experienced the end of the Soviet Union as a personal tragedy and can’t forgive those who allowed it to happen.” How does she rate Gorbachev? She almost spits out her answer. “I don’t respect him; I don’t even want to hear his name.” How about Boris Yeltsin, who wrested power, to be the first president after the Soviet collapse? “I didn’t know him. The one I know is Vladimir Putin.”
Tereshkova is a big fan of Putin and he, it would appear, of her. He congratulated her personally on her 70th and 80th birthdays and added to her tally of awards. “An awful lot depends on leaders,” she says. “Putin took over a country that was on the brink of disintegration; he rebuilt it, and gave us hope again.” People trust him, she says. “You only have to see how he is received, how people respond to him. He’s a splendid person.”
It appears that the habits of a Soviet lifetime die hard. In so saying, Tereshkova reflects the views of many ordinary Russians, of a generation that has lived through almost continual, and often alarming, change. They grew up, consciously or not, if not in fear, then knowing the price of not conforming. They embrace the stability they associate with Putin – and that is at least part of his success.
Could Tereshkova have done more – to advance the cause of women, say, to promote individual rights – given her privileged position and the status she enjoyed? Perhaps. But, she showed that women could do what was then regarded as the most state of the art, most demanding feat – going into space, solo.
Seen from today’s Russia, her one pioneering feat, followed by a lifetime of civic duty, have served to keep both the capability of women and the fragility of the planet in the public eye, and that must be accounted a contribution, too.
Valentina Tereshkova: First Woman in Space is at the Science Museum until 17 September 2017.
This interview is the second in a series.
Guardian women seminar: How women can change the world is being held at the Guardian offices in London on Thursday 4 May. Register to attend here.
Join our community of development professionals and humanitarians. Follow @GuardianGDP on Twitter.