Happy Anniversary

A great man, too often ignored outside of his Mother Country.
A great man, too often ignored outside of his Mother Country.
Before we begin today I’d like to take a moment to put everything into a little historical perspective. In 1961 mankind knew as much about space as I do about how to be a supermodel. Yes, the Russians had successfully launched a satellite, Sputnik, but other than the fact that there was a viable way to send radio signals to Earth from orbit, not much else was known. People seriously believed that if man traveled beyond the Van Allen radiation belt, they would become mutated or die. It was the basis of the famous comic book, The Fantastic Four. Others believed that we would literally bump into God. The theoretical ramifications of that hypothesized meeting were as varied as people themselves. Some saw good things, others saw Armageddon. Some aimed for a diffuse middle ground, a bizarre fusion of the polar opposites, but I’m not sure how anyone can have a pleasant Armageddon.

Still others believed that we would pierce some needed veil, akin to Aristotle’s crystal spheres, that supposedly housed the universe. Whether such a piercing would let something out or allow something in was the subject of actual debate. Science fiction movies ran the gamut. From the fear laden horrors of The Thing from Another World to the dollop of hope provided by The Day the Earth Stood Still you could find populist support for just about any position you wished to take. And since there was no real science to support or refute any claim, people’s minds tended to follow where their fears or beliefs led them.

And where they were led was no place useful.

Then, on April 12th, 1961, a small man named Yuri Gagarin climbed into a little spaceship called Vostok 1 and shot into orbit around the Earth. No one knew what to expect, many expected him to die in one of a hundred painful ways and, despite the fact that the rocket was built by the second most powerful country in the world at that time, the whole thing had a slapped together look and feel.

Yet, despite the odds against him, Yuri Gagarin safely returned to Earth. If you don’t mind my liberal interpretation of the word “safely.” This much we know. However, as Ned Potter from ABC News tells us, there are things we don’t know.

Yuri Gagarin. First man in space. For the rest of history his name will rank — perhaps with Columbus, Magellan, Marco Polo and Neil Armstrong — among the world’s greatest explorers. He was, after all, the first ever to leave the world behind.

On the morning of April 12, 1961, Gagarin, then 27, flew Vostok 1 on a single orbit of the Earth. It took him 108 minutes. He launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Soviet Union, reached a maximum speed of about 17,500 mph and an altitude of 203 miles, and was a hero by the time the sun rose over the eastern United States.

But flying as he did in the most chilling years of the Cold War, his trip was kept secret by the Soviet government until it was almost over. So myths and mystery abound about his flight, even today. Below, some surprising facts about Yuri Gagarin’s flight, and a few falsehoods we hope to help debunk. Ten, nine, eight….

7. Gagarin Was Not the First

Even now, 50 years later, conspiracy theories abound: that the Soviets launched men as early as 1958 but could not get them back down, that a cosmonaut was killed in a launch attempt only five days before Gagarin’s flight.

For lack of records from early Soviet space program, we may never know for sure, but Western students of space flight seem to agree that Gagarin was genuinely the first to fly in space.

So why did theories take root? Perhaps because everyone loves a good spy story, but also because the Soviets were so famously secretive (the name of Vostok’s designer, Sergei Korolyev, was unknown in the United States until after his death.)

“During the Cold War, everything that we knew about Gagarin was filtered through the official Soviet media or through rumor and hearsay in the West,” wrote Asif A. Siddiqi, a Fordham University historian of the early space age, in an email from Moscow to ABC News. “Many people in the West didn’t trust the former while there was never any reason to trust the latter.”

6. Gagarin Was Almost Killed in Space

This is true, though it took the Russians 30 years to release the records showing what happened. Vostok 1 was a two-part spacecraft, with a spherical crew compartment for Gagarin, and an equipment module in back for rocket engines, fuel and support equipment.

As Gagarin neared the end of the flight, engines in the equipment module fired as scheduled to slow him out of orbit — but the section failed to disconnect from the crew compartment for re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. There was nothing anyone could do. With the two sections still mated, the ship might tumble out of control on the way down and crash in pieces.

Fortunately for Gagarin, the cables holding the two sections together gave way as the ship was buffeted violently by the upper layers of the air. Vostok landed safely in central Russia. Gagarin ejected from his capsule a moment before and parachuted to the ground on his own.

5. The Soviets Were Afraid Gagarin Would Go Crazy in Space

Before Gagarin buckled in for his famous journey, even those closest to the mission worried about what would happen to a man in space. Would he lose consciousness? Would he go mad?

“There were all kinds of wild fears that a man could lose his mind in zero gravity, lose his ability to make rational decisions,” Oleg Ivanovsky, who oversaw the construction and launch of Gagarin’s spacecraft, told The Associated Press. Even though Vostok’s operation was automatic, controllers wondered if weightlessness could cause Gagarin to go crazy and try to take over command of the capsule. As added protection, the engineers added a three-digit security code that Gagarin would have to enter to command the spacecraft.

Ultimately, the point was moot. Gagarin’s spacecraft launched — and landed — safely.

4. Gagarin Really Was Crazy

Well, no, he wasn’t crazy, but he was preternaturally calm about risking his life. Russian accounts show that Korolyev, the chief designer, was so anxious about Gagarin’s flight that he had chest pains, and didn’t sleep the night before.

Gagarin, on the other hand, declined a sleeping pill and is reported to have slept well. Shortly before launch, his pulse was measured at 64 beats per minute. Not a sign of a worried man.

3. First Atheist in Space?

After the flight, Gagarin was widely quoted in the West as having said from space, “I don’t see any God up here.”

Not quite. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said something similar after he welcomed the returning hero to Moscow. Gagarin, for his part, said he hummed a patriotic song in orbit:

“The Motherland hears, the Motherland knows/Where her son flies in the sky.”

2. All the Soviets Really Wanted Was to Beat the U.S.

Partly true. Siddiqi writes that the Soviet target date for launching Vostok was determined by publicity about NASA’s Project Mercury, which planned to launch its first man early in 1961. Gagarin beat Alan Shepard into space by all of 23 days.

But Vostok had been in the planning since at least 1959. And by sheer luck for the Soviets, the Americans had a rocket failure in 1960 that caused them to order one extra test flight — in March 1961 — before launching Shepard in May. If not for that, the Americans would have been first.

There is some irony here. True, Apollo 11 ultimately beat the Soviets to the moon in 1969. But the U.S. astronaut program has searched for direction since then, and the Obama administration has ordered a pause after the space shuttles finish assembly of the International Space Station this year. For several years after, the only way for Americans to launch into space may be on board Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

1. Yuri Gagarin, National Icon

By the mid-1960s, two space heroes stood above all others in the world’s imagination: the American John Glenn and the Soviet Gagarin. Both were so popular that their governments worried about losing them by letting them fly again.

Glenn got the message. He left NASA after his Friendship 7 flight in 1962, running for the Senate and, later, the presidency. Only when his political career was winding down did he persuade NASA to let him ride the space shuttle Discovery in 1998. By then he was 77.

Gagarin was different, and he let his bosses know it.

“They basically thought he was too politically valuable to risk on a second flight,” said Robert Pearlman, editor of the website CollectSpace.com. “He kept pushing it back into their faces that he wanted to fly.”

Gagarin was killed in a jet accident in 1968, reportedly while training for a space mission. He was only 34 years old.

Nikkita Khrushchev, no longer preoccupied by banging his shoe on desks (look it up), issued this congratulatory message to Gagarin on his return to Earth.

“Your glorious deed will be remembered through the ages as an example of courage, bravery, and heroism for the sake of mankind performed by you. The flight opens a new page in the history of mankind.”

He then ordered the issue of a commemorative stamp, pictured on the front page.

The one story that stands out in my mind about Gagarin has nothing to do with his public successes or his friendship with Arthur C. Clarke or much else that you can easily Google. It has to do with the 1967 launch of Soyuz 1. Robert Krulwich tells the terrifying tale.

So there’s a cosmonaut up in space, circling the globe, convinced he will never make it back to Earth; he’s on the phone with Alexei Kosygin — then a high official of the Soviet Union — who is crying because he, too, thinks the cosmonaut will die.

The space vehicle is shoddily constructed, running dangerously low on fuel; its parachutes — though no one knows this — won’t work and the cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov, is about to, literally, crash full speed into Earth, his body turning molten on impact. As he heads to his doom, U.S. listening posts in Turkey hear him crying in rage, “cursing the people who had put him inside a botched spaceship.”

This extraordinarily intimate account of the 1967 death of a Russian cosmonaut appears in a new book, Starman, by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony, to be published next month. The authors base their narrative principally on revelations from a KGB officer, Venymin Ivanovich Russayev, and previous reporting by Yaroslav Golovanov in Pravda. This version — if it’s true — is beyond shocking.

Starman tells the story of a friendship between two cosmonauts, Vladimir Kamarov and Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin, the first human to reach outer space. The two men were close; they socialized, hunted and drank together.

In 1967, both men were assigned to the same Earth-orbiting mission, and both knew the space capsule was not safe to fly. Komarov told friends he knew he would probably die. But he wouldn’t back out because he didn’t want Gagarin to die. Gagarin would have been his replacement.

The story begins around 1967, when Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union, decided to stage a spectacular midspace rendezvous between two Soviet spaceships.

The plan was to launch a capsule, the Soyuz 1, with Komarov inside. The next day, a second vehicle would take off, with two additional cosmonauts; the two vehicles would meet, dock, Komarov would crawl from one vehicle to the other, exchanging places with a colleague, and come home in the second ship. It would be, Brezhnev hoped, a Soviet triumph on the 50th anniversary of the Communist revolution. Brezhnev made it very clear he wanted this to happen.

The problem was Gagarin. Already a Soviet hero, the first man ever in space, he and some senior technicians had inspected the Soyuz 1 and had found 203 structural problems — serious problems that would make this machine dangerous to navigate in space. The mission, Gagarin suggested, should be postponed.

The question was: Who would tell Brezhnev? Gagarin wrote a 10-page memo and gave it to his best friend in the KGB, Venyamin Russayev, but nobody dared send it up the chain of command. Everyone who saw that memo, including Russayev, was demoted, fired or sent to diplomatic Siberia. With less than a month to go before the launch, Komarov realized postponement was not an option. He met with Russayev, the now-demoted KGB agent, and said, “I’m not going to make it back from this flight.”

Russayev asked, Why not refuse? According to the authors, Komarov answered: “If I don’t make this flight, they’ll send the backup pilot instead.” That was Yuri Gagarin. Vladimir Komarov couldn’t do that to his friend. “That’s Yura,” the book quotes him saying, “and he’ll die instead of me. We’ve got to take care of him.” Komarov then burst into tears.

The rickety spaceship never flew properly and crashed when the emergency chutes failed to open. Vladimir Kamarov was killed on impact. If you have a strong stomach click on Robert’s link above. He has pictures of the open casket wake, which was not very sensitive to the family, and a recording of the final death cries of Kamarov just before he crashed into the ground.

But, as you can see, Gagarin inspired fierce loyalty in those who worked with him. Above any other concerns, either political or personal, his friends and colleagues would literally die for him. All accounts I’ve ever read on the man suggest that all who met him felt likewise. He was a special human being.

His death on March 27, 1968, sent a nation into mourning and even thawed the Cold War for a bit. Any man who could inspire that level of respect is a legacy worth knowing about.

Andrew Osborne from the Telegraph (UK) reports that, in honor of the anniversary and due to outside pressures, the Russian government has finally released the documents pertaining to Gagarin’s death.

The great man came to an ignominious end. He and his co-pilot were killed by a faulty air filter in the test plane.

Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG AM 1280, every Thursday morning around 9:10!

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