Valentina Tereshkova & Food For The First Woman In Space
Image Credit: Valentina Tereshkova eating a meal on board Vostok 6. Courtesy NASA

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ON 16 June 1963, the Soviet spacecraft Vostok 6 launched into orbit, making the cosmonaut it carried — Valentina Tereshkova — the first woman in space. Three days later, when she made her landing by parachute, a little distance away from where her ejection seat and space capsule had crashed, she was given a hero’s welcome by the locals who greeted her. 

They brought her food from the farm collectives they were part of: one account lists potatoes and onions; another lists black bread and salt, cheese and lepeshki (griddle cakes). They unanimously agree on another component: mare’s milk. Tereshkova was happy to take the food and trade it for the supplies she still had on board. 

The exchange may have seemed simple, even heartwarming, but it would prove to be a contentious one. Tereshkova had been instructed not to eat any uncertified food that would interfere with her post-flight assessments. The purpose of her mission, after all, had been to observe the effects of space on female physiology. Moreover, there was a lingering doubt in some quarters that Tereshkova had perhaps given away her food supplies to conceal the fact that she had barely eaten anything during her three days in space. 

It is difficult to call this more than speculation as Tereshkova’s accounts of her state during the flight and that of other sources varies. There is some suggestion that she was evasive in her communications with the ground crew, and there were periods when they couldn’t contact her. Tereshkova, on the other hand, has admitted to experiencing some pain and discomfort, but said she was telegraphing her updates as instructed — but no one seemed to be on stationed to receive them! 

She also observed in her debriefing report that the food on Vostok 6 made her sick at least on one occasion. Space food has improved by leaps and bounds over the years, but in the days of Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space, who went out on Vostok 5 in 1961) and Tereshkova, it mainly consisted of paste-filled tubes. So, while the menu for Tereshkova’s flight may have comprised the very appetising-sounding herring and egg patties, white bread, fresh apple, black currant juice, roast beef, roast tongue, chicken filet, red caviar, rice and eggs, curds, orange and lemon slices, cherry juice, coffee and tea, you can bet it wasn’t quarter as delicious when she had to squeeze it out of a tube directly into her mouth. She was to maintain a 2,529 calorie count, and consume one quart of water, per day. 

Tereshkova wrote that “the bread was awful, too dry, I didn't eat it. I mainly ate the black bread and tubed onions. The water was cold and refreshing. I threw up once, but it was due to the food and not due to vestibular problems.” There was the issue too of hygiene: her supplies on Vostok 6 included toothpaste but — due to an oversight — no toothbrush, and the napkins she’d been given had, according to Tereshkova, an unpleasant odour.

No matter what the truth of her post-landing snack may have been, this much is known: her re-entry into Earth’s orbit might almost not have occurred. A few hours after her launch, Tereshkova realised that the programme for descent had critical errors; fortunately, the rectified commands could be uploaded to her craft and Vostok 6 brought its sole occupant safely back home. A monument to Tereshkova’s feat marks the spot where she landed: a statue of the first woman in space, arms outstretched, placed atop a column.