The other day I learned about Valentina Tereshkova.
Wow. What a woman.
Her story is (literally) out of this world and I’m pretty sure it’s only a matter of time before someone makes a movie out of it.
In the meantime, you get to hear it (with a lot of added editorial licence) from me….
Life was not kind to Valentina Tereshkova. At least, not at the start.
She was born into a family of survivors, a family of fighters.
She was the middle child of three in another destitute household thrashing and lashing and struggling to survive the harsh and broken post-war Soviet.
Valentina’s parents laboured to the point of collapse day after merciless day.
Her father drove tractors. Her mother worked in a textile factory.
But it was never enough.
It was never enough to stop the cold or the hunger or to fix that goddamn leaking roof.
Life was tough. Cruel. Unforgiving.
But the Tereshkova’s were tougher.
They banded together and fought to survive.
They armed themselves with sheer fortitude and doused themselves in an ocean of pure soul.
But Valentina’s father also gave them a secret weapon, a priceless tool.
He taught them to dream.
And dream Valentina certainly did –
Out of the ugliness of the war, sprouted a beautiful, implausible dream.
As a toddler she watched airplanes and jets and parachutists and objects falling from the blue.
And she imagined.
She saw beyond the sky and escaped into the unknown.
And as she looked up and up and up, a seed in her soul bed down and down and down.
At the age of 8 Valentina started school.
It suited her well. She was bright and well-liked.
She excelled in science. She was a natural at maths.
But at 16 years she left.
She didn’t want to. She had to.
Neighbours had frozen to death that winter. She didn’t want the same to happen to her.
And out of obligation, necessity, desperation, she joined her mother and worked at the textile factory.
Side-by-side on the assembly line, they worked and worked, long, arduous hours.
It very nearly broke Valentina. Broke her very soul.
But by night, she studied. And by night she hoped. And by night she squirrelled away a tiny fraction of her pay.
Hid it under a loose slate under the bed she shared with her older sister.
And she kept on keeping on, in the hope that one day she would have enough.
Enough the reach the sky.
Enough to free fall through it.
Enough to do a parachute jump.
Weeks and months passed and sooner than she had expected, she had enough.
She feigned sickness and went to the airfield and she asked to jump.
She went to the sky, she touched it, she jumped right into it and tumbled down through it.
And, from then on, she was hooked.
She saved and jumped. Saved and jumped. Saved and jumped.
90 times in 9 years.
She lived for it.
Her mother accused her of waste.
But not her father. He simply beamed. And beamed. And even though he became withered and old , his beam grew brighter than Valentina ever knew before.
And Valentina did not apologise.
She simply could not apologise for something that gave her such fulfillment and something she would never stop doing.
She craved it. She craved that little taste of the heavens.
And whenever Valentina was not jumping, she was dreaming about it.
She returned to the sky in her mind’s eye and journeyed deep into the mysteries beyond.
Then, one day, things change. Radically.
She wrote to the Soviet’s space program and volunteered herself and her services.
Just on a whim.
She was not sure exactly what she was offering herself up for.
And she didn’t even write much; a few lines about her parachute jumping and about her passion to find out more.
A year earlier the Soviet had sent astronaut Yuri Gagarin on the first ever manned space flight.
So she wrote about that.
Months passed and she forced her self to forget the letter. Forced herself to let go of false hope.
But then a letter arrived in the mail.
It is marked as confidential and Valentina waits until it is late into the night before she opens it.
Her sister in the bed beside her is woken by trembling and muffled cries.
Valentina hands her sister the top secret letter and beams as she reads it.
She has been invited to a new space program. A women’s only space program.
It is the start of an adventure that will take her out of this world.
Watch this space for PART II.