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Russia fetes 50th anniversary of Valentina Tereshkova as first woman in space
A handout file photo released by Ria Novosti shows Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova during a training session aboard a Vostok spacecraft simulator on January 17, 1964. On June 16 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly into space in a scientific feat that was a major propaganda coup for the Soviet Union. Two years after Yuri Gagarin's historic first manned flight, Tereshkova blasted off in a Vostok-6 spaceship and at the age of 26 became a national heroine. She remains the only woman ever to have made a solo space flight. AFP PHOTO / RIA NOVOSTI.

By: Dmitry Zaks

MOSCOW (AFP).- Russia celebrated Sunday the 50th anniversary of the maiden flight of the first woman in space -- a Soviet national hero who went by the call name "Seagull" and captured the imaginations of girls around the world.

Valentina Tereshkova, now a lawmaker for Russia's ruling party, blasted off in a Vostok-6 spaceship two years after Yuri Gagarin's historic first manned flight in 1961.

The 76-year-old remains the only women to have ever made a solo flight in space.

"The importance of this event is impossible to overestimate in the history of Russian and world space travel," Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in a congratulatory message to Tereshkova.

State television celebrated by running documentaries about Tereshkova's life while the former cosmonaut herself spent the day commemorating a new space museum in her native region of Yaroslavl.

"You have to love your country -- love it so hard that your heart is ready to stop," Tereshkova said in a documentary aired on Russia's state rolling news channel.

Soviet authorities in April 1962 had initially whittled down their list to five prospective candidates as they competed against the United States for space supremacy during the Cold War.

Their choice eventually settled on textile factory worker Tereshkova -- the child of a peasant family and a Communist Youth (Komsomol) leader who had already performed 90 parachute jumps.

Tereshkova was not allowed to confide even in family members. They only learned of her exploits when Moscow announced it to the entire world.

She circled Earth 48 times during her three-day mission.

In the past few years, press speculation has said that she was space sick for much of this time and unable to perform some basic functions or respond to commands from ground control.

But Tereshkova blamed everything on mistakes with how the computer software had been programmed and denied feeling ill during the flight.

"A problem appeared on the first day of the flight," Tereshkova told a press conference last week.

"Due to a technical error, the spaceship was programmed not for a landing but for taking the ship into a higher orbit," she said.

Tereshkova's adventures did not end in space.

She also was nearly killed when a failed assassin opened fire in January 1969 on a limousine that he thought was carrying the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

The car was actually taking Tereshkova and three of her fellow cosmonauts to a Kremlin event.

"A few of the bullets whizzed by under my feet," Tereshkova told the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily.

More than 40 women from the United States have gone into space since Tereshkova but only one other Russian has made it -- Yelena Kondakova in 1994 and 1997.

© 1994-2013 Agence France-Presse

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