A Down-to-Earth Highflier

By Nora Boustany
Friday, March 24, 2006

When Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to shoot into space in 1963, clumsy, sexist accounts of her feat ushered in the new Soviet era.

Tereshkova, whose nom de space was Seagull, wore "spiked heels" as well as "powder and lipstick," reporters reassured themselves and their readers. She became "the blonde who flashed the first female smile through the cosmos," another cooed. Yet another described her as "a slightly plumper edition of Ingrid Bergman."

During her training, Soviet sources had divulged only that she was "attractive and personable" and "tougher than her masculine colleagues in her ability to endure the effects of weightlessness."

Translated, that meant she was better at keeping her breakfast down.

But if Tereshkova's maiden voyage served the purposes of propaganda, captivating audiences around the world, the Russian country girl moved beyond it to make other substantive contributions. She obtained a doctorate in aerospace engineering and became a politician. She also took on the cause of abused women in the Soviet Union, bringing their plight to the attention of the Kremlin.

Through it all, she remained a down-to-earth and caring individual, her friends say.

Yet 43 years after her record-smashing ascent, Tereshkova, 69, still dreams about the magic of it: The shape of continents at a vast distance remains a wondrous vision that keeps coming back, she said. "Australia looked like this precious blue stone, surrounded by an ocean of a different shade. I saw it all through a storm, and I am still dreaming about it," she said through an interpreter.

"When you are out in space, you realize how small and fragile the planet is. The farther away you are, the dearer it is. Once you are at this faraway distance, you realize the significance of what it is that unites us. Let us work together to overcome our differences."

Tereshkova made her comments Monday night at a dinner in her honor at the home of her longtime friend Esther Coopersmith . The event was a star-studded homecoming for the space set.

Former astronaut and U.S. senator John Glenn was greeted by Tereshkova at the door and he threw his arms around her. They met many years ago, at Star City, the Russian cosmonaut training center. Glenn reminisced: "We stopped and talked. It was the middle of winter and the wind was blowing." In Russian, Tereshkova chimed in: "We had such a good time, kissing each other and hugging each other."

Astronaut Mary Ellen Weber , who went up twice on the space shuttle, was also in attendance at the dinner, as was Lori Garver , whose plans to go into space were shelved in 2003 after the Columbia tragedy.

Susan Eisenhower , president of the Eisenhower Group, a trade consulting firm that specializes in the former Soviet bloc, noted that Tereshkova was her counterpart in the first open policy debate between Russia and the United States on missile defense.

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