While the faces of Nasa’s Mercury Seven were splashed across the world’s media, Russia’s cosmonauts trained in secret, hidden from public view.
n 13 April 1961, Soviet newspaper Izvestia’s special correspondent Georgi Ostroumov meets the first man in space. A day after returning to Earth “space pilot” Yuri Gagarin is, reports Ostroumov, “in high spirits, hale and hearty…a wonderful smile illumines his face.”
“Every now and then dimples appear on his cheeks,” Ostroumov writes. “He appreciates the curiosity with which he is pressed for the details of what he saw and experienced during the one and a half hours he spent outside the Earth.”
In a booklet published to commemorate the flight, Soviet Man in Space, the interview with Gagarin continues for several pages. The cosmonaut describes the experience: “The horizon presents a very unique and unusually beautiful sight.” And praises the Soviet Union: “I dedicate my flight to… all our people who are marching in the forefront of humanity and building a new society.”
In a political system where journalism tends towards propaganda, rather than a realistic portrayal of events, it is easy to argue that Gagarin’s quotes are made-up. But, although they might have been refined by censors, there is a good chance they are the cosmonaut’s actual words.
A fighter pilot who had grown up in a small Russian village, Gagarin was a well-liked family man. He was indeed good looking, personable and, crucially, a loyal card-carrying member of the communist party.
Although the drama of Nasa’s early human space programme played out in public, only recently has the full story of how Soviet Union selected and trained its cosmonauts emerged. The communist empire was keen to encourage the view that selection was open to all and that these first men in space – and the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova – were volunteers. But that is not strictly true.
The Soviet Union poured vast resources into the space programme, but officially it did not exist (Credit: Gamma Keystone/Getty Images)
After qualifying as a fighter pilot, Gagarin is stationed at a remote airfield on the Russian border with Norway flying MiG-15 jet fighters on the western frontier of the Cold War. In late summer 1959, two doctors arrive at the base to interview a pre-selected group of aviators. After starting with a list of about 3,500 potential candidates, the doctors have already narrowed their search to some 300 pilots across the west of Russia.
“The guys being interviewed, have no clue really why they’re being interviewed,” says Stephen Walker the author of Beyond, who has spent years scouring Russian archives to piece together the full story of Gagarin’s mission.
The interview consists of a seemingly casual chat about career, aspirations and family. Some of the men are invited back for a second conversation. Although the doctors hint that they are looking for candidates for a new type of flying machine, at no point do they reveal their true motivation.
What they’re looking for is basically a human version of a dog – somebody who can sit there and endure the mission – Stephen Walker
“They’re looking for military pilots, people who have already signed up for the possibility of killing themselves for their country, which is really what we’re dealing with here, because the chances of coming back alive are not necessarily that great,” says Walker.
Whereas Nasa recruits military test pilots as its first astronauts to fly its complex Mercury spacecraft, the Soviet capsule, Vostok is designed to be controlled remotely from the ground. Except in an emergency, the pilots will not get to do much flying.
“They’re not looking for people that have much experience,” says Walker. “What they’re looking for is basically a human version of a dog – somebody who can sit there and endure the mission, deal with the acceleration forces and get back alive.”
The first intake of potential cosmonauts as whittled down to 20, including Yuri Gagarin, second from the left (Credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
And much like the space dogs the Soviet rocket scientists have been launching into space for more than a decade, cosmonauts will have to be fit, obedient and small enough to fit into the cramped capsule.
In the end, 134 selected individuals – all young pilots, all under 5ft 7in (168cm) tall – are given the opportunity to “volunteer” for this new, top-secret assignment. Some are told that it will involve training to fly a spacecraft, others believe it’s a new model of helicopter. None of the pilots are allowed to discuss the offer with their colleagues or consult their families.
In April 1959, meanwhile, the United States announces the names of its first seven Mercury astronauts. The candidates have been put through a series of gruelling physical, medical and psychological tests – detailed in Tom Wolfe’s book (and its subsequent movie and recent TV series) The Right Stuff.
In almost every case, the Soviet tests are longer, tougher and more rigorous than the ones endured by the US astronauts
When asked at a press conference which of the tests they liked least, astronaut candidate John Glenn replies: “It’s difficult to pick one because if you figure out how many openings there are on the human body, and how far you can go into any one of them… you answer which one would be the toughest for you.”
But with many questions remaining over how humans will cope with the rigours of spaceflight – the accelerations, weightlessness and isolation – there is every reason to pick the most physically and psychologically capable.
The man put in charge of testing the Soviet space candidates is Vladimir Yazdovsky, a professor at Moscow’s Institute of Aviation and Space Medicine. He has previously overseen the space dog programme and is described by colleagues (in private) as a harsh and arrogant man.
“He’s a kind of terrifying James Bond horror figure,” says Walker,” and he’s brutal with these guys.”
The gruelling training had less emphasis than Nasa’s on piloting skills (Credit: TASS/AFP/Getty Images)
In almost every case, the Soviet tests are longer, tougher and more rigorous than the ones endured by the US astronauts. Over a month, the candidates are injected, probed and prodded. They are put in rooms, with the temperatures raised to 70C (158F), chambers where they are progressively starved of oxygen and vibrating seats to simulate launch. Some of the candidates collapse, others just walk out.
All through the process, the men are forbidden from telling their families or friends what they were doing. Even in that month of testing, there were still some people who do not know what they were being tested for.
Eventually 20 of these young men make it through to training at a new cosmonaut centre. It will be renamed Star City but it is initially just a few military huts in a forest near Moscow. There is no press conference or announcement. Officially, the Soviet’s human spaceflight programme does not exist.
“If they leave the base, they are told not to tell anybody what they’re doing, why they’re there, if anybody asks, they’re to say they’re part of a sports team,” says Walker. “Everything is controlled, everything is secret. Everything is behind closed doors.”
One significant difference with the American programme is the amount of parachute training the Russians receive
The training programme itself is similar to the Americans’ but with less emphasis on controlling the spacecraft. Just like the space dogs that proceed them, the men are spun at dizzying accelerations on centrifuges, sealed in sound-proofed isolation chambers for days on end and subjected to almost constant physical and psychological evaluation.
One significant difference with the American programme is the amount of parachute training the Russians receive. This is because they will need to eject from their spacecraft as they plummet towards the ground to avoid being seriously injured by the impact. The fact that the capsule and its pilot land separately is another secret that isn’t revealed until years later.
With several more men failing to the make the grade, an initial group of six cosmonauts is selected for the first flights. With Nasa publicly declaring that it hopes to launch its first man in the spring of 1961, the head of the Soviet programme, Sergei Korolev, knows he has a narrow window of opportunity.
The cosmonauts had to undergo many of the same trails Nasa’s astronauts did, such as weightlessness training (Credit: Keystone Gamma/Getty Images)
On 5 April 1961, the cosmonauts arrive at what is now known as the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Kazakh desert where Korolev’s giant R7 rocket is being prepared. Still, none of them knows who will be first in space. Finally, only a few days before launch, Gagarin is given the nod.
It isn’t until an official broadcast when Gagarin is in orbit above the Earth that anyone but those closest to the space programme knows his name.
According to Izvestia’s special correspondent, Ostroumov, on the morning of the 12 April, Gagarin gave “a last wave to the friends and comrades down below [the rocket] then he stepped inside the spaceship, a few seconds later the command was given…the gigantic ship rose up out of a fiery cloud towards the stars.”
He would return to Earth the poster child for the Soviet Union – the space pilot with the Russian Right Stuff.