Yuri Gagarin had the Soviets' right stuff

Credit: NASA

Yuri Gagarin is recognized the world over as the first man to fly in space. On April 12 1961, 52 years ago today, Gagarin orbited the Earth in a tiny Vostok 1 capsule. But space travel wasn't a lifelong dream for the Soviet Air Force pilot. It wasn't until the unmanned Luna 3 probe launched to the Moon on October 4 1959 that Gagarin became entranced by the idea of flying in space, and wrote to his commanding officer expressing his desire to be included in the Soviet Union’s first class of cosmonauts. Gagarin got his wish, and when he joined the first cosmonaut training group in 1959, he was a 25-year-old third class military pilot. And it just so happened that he was the right man for history’s first orbital mission.

In both the United States and the Soviet Union, space visionaries discussed the possibility of manned spaceflight as early as 1956. Sergei Korolev, the designer behind all the Soviets’ early space program successes, had talked idly about launching a man into orbit, but what started out as futuristic fantasy became a reality just two years later. After successfully launching the first two Sputnik satellites, Korolev was given a green light by the Soviet Council of Chief Designers and Scientific Leaders to adapt the R-7 Semyorka intercontinental ballistic missile to carry a human. The nascent space program was quickly gaining momentum. All it needed now was pilots.

Picking the Cosmonauts

Soviet space officials, like their American counterparts, considered sending rocket engineers, submariners, and race car drivers into space before eventually settling on military test pilots. The rationale behind it was simple: physically, test pilots were the men most up to the demanding challenge of spaceflight. They knew how to spot oncoming hypoxia, could breathe through heavy g-loads, and had experience ejecting from an aircraft and landing by parachute. And in 1958, all Soviet test pilots were more or less the same: roughly the same age, passed the same physical exams, and had more or less the same flight experience. Gathering a candidate pool was easy. Picking one person from the pool was the hard part.

Gagarin and Korolev

Over 3,000 men met the Soviet basic technical and flight requirements, a staggering number compared to the mere 110 Americans who met NASA's basic astronaut requirements. Each of the 3,000 Soviet candidates was interviewed for a mysterious and highly confidential flight assignment. But there were other factors at play beyond technical skill and flying experience. Candidates were judged, however informally, on their political history and personal character. Simple things like who had flown the most advanced aircraft in adverse situations separated candidates. It was splitting hairs, but somehow the group had to be whittled down.

And it was. Groups of forty went through secondary interviews and medical testing. Those that passed were subjected to a final round of medical tests. It was here testing got serious. Gagarin had made it through, and at this stage was sent to the ophthalmologist not once but seven times to ensure he had perfect vision. It was more than the Air Force had ever needed. In the end, 20 men including Gagarin made the cut to become the first cosmonaut class.

The cosmonaut candidates (no one was actually called a cosmonaut until they flew) began training in earnest early in 1960. The training facility was under the direction of Yevgeny Karpov, who had two hundred and fifty personnel to tend to the trainees’ needs and prepare them for the unknown hazards of spaceflight. Without simulators, the cosmonauts learned the intricacies of spaceflight in classroom sessions, and they maintained their physical prowess with gymnastics. They jumped from a high diving board into a pool to break any fear of heights. They practiced landing by parachute. Their training was, by all accounts, rudimentary compared to what the Mercury astronauts were doing at the same time. But eventually the cosmonauts' training caught up to the astronauts' sophistication, as the training center got a plane big enough to give the trainees experience with weightlessness on parabolic flights.

One Out of Many

As the Vostok capsule neared completion and the first flight drew closer, Korolev handpicked six men to join an accelerated training group. They were simply the shortest and lightest of the group; they would have the easiest time fitting inside the already cramped Vostok. Again, Gagarin made the cut. The six accelerated cosmonauts were ranked in early 1961 based on overall performance, physical fitness, and test scores. The top three, Gagarin, Gherman Titov, and Grigori Nelyubov, all theoretically had an equal shot at the first flight. Their selection almost parallels NASA publicly presenting Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and John Glenn as candidates for the first flight around the same time.

Korolev, Karpov, and the other higher-ups in the Soviet Space Program didn’t see Gagarin as the standout candidate, but Nikita Khrushchev did. The Soviet leader liked Gagarin’s boyish good looks and simple background. Gagarin, a peasant who grew up on a communal farm, defied his family’s tradition of carpentry to pursue a career in the Soviet military as a pilot. If his mission was successful, he would be an excellent example of the power of the Soviet system, and that’s something Khrushchev wanted.

One of many Soviet-era monuments to Gagarin

Yuri Gagarin was an exceptional pilot, but he was in a group of similarly outstanding men. In the end, it was his less tangible qualities that secured his position as history's first spaceman. His personality, presentation skills, political and cultural ideals, and overall ability to represent the Soviet people made him the perfect poster child for the Soviet space program: he was proof that anyone, even from the humblest of backgrounds, could rise through the Soviet system to greatness.

After his Vostok 1 flight, Gagarin became one of the Soviet Union's most prized possessions. He was pulled from the flight rotation for his own protection, and spent years traveling on goodwill missions to foreign countries and appearing at publicity events. He was finally allowed back into the cosmonaut corps in 1963, forced to catch up to his fellow cosmonauts after a break from technical studies, but he never flew in space again. On March 27, 1968, Gagarin was killed when his MiG crashed near the town of Kirzhach during a routine training flight. His body was cremated, and his ashes buried in the Kremlin walls in Red Square.

For more about Yuri Gagarin's historic flight, check out NASA's site dedicated to the mission.

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