The Russians made their first cosmonaut a hero. Did they really know him?
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, January 1999
(Page 2 of 6)
On the return trip to Moscow, Leonov reflects on the landscape outside the window of his chauffeured Chevy Tahoe. “There used to be farms and villages everywhere around here,” he says. “All these berioza [birch] trees are growing where peasants used to cultivate flax. These trees all grew up here since World War II, when the Germans came through the Smolensk region and destroyed 600 villages.” He pauses. “Those were the formative years in Yuri’s life.”
Leonov was born in 1934, the same year as Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin. Both men were among the original 20 pilots chosen in 1960 for the Soviet cosmonaut corps, out of 2,200 candidates. Gagarin was the first to orbit Earth; Leonov, the first to walk in space.
Gagarin’s life wasn’t exactly a “little Ivan becomes Czar” story, Leonov says, but it came pretty close. He was a peasant’s son, born in the village of Klushino. “He was very proud of his family,” Leonov says. The day after his orbit the New York Daily News reported that he was kin to Russian royalty, a nephew to Nicholas II. Gagarin, in an uncharacteristically acerbic response to the Russian press, said that this was stupid: He was a simple peasant.
Yuri was seven years old when World War II spilled into Russia. Years later, members of his family would recount to biographers the indignity and terror of lodging a German soldier in their log house. One day “the Devil,” as the Gagarins called him, tried to hang Yuri’s older brother Boris by his scarf from a tree until the boy’s mother scuffled with the soldier and cut down her almost dead son. A few weeks later, in retaliation, Yuri disabled the German’s motorcycle by stuffing garbage into the exhaust pipe.
In 1945 Gagarin’s family moved to the village of Gzhatsk (now called Gagarin City), where Yuri completed his primary education. At 16 he took a job in a foundry so that he could send money home. He quickly became an accomplished welder and was sent to an industrial training school at Saratov. It was there that he joined a flying club and flew his first solo. Eventually he was accepted to the Air Force training school at Orenburg in southern Russia and graduated as a fighter pilot in 1957, the year the Soviets launched the first Sputnik. After honing his flying skills in Yaks and MiGs, Gagarin was sent in 1959 to Bordenko Military Hospital in Moscow to determine, he was told, if he was a suitable candidate to test a new “super vehicle.”
It is said that his selection to be the first man in space had much to do with his smile. In photos the smile is always present, but it wasn’t practiced or disingenuous. Among those smitten by Gagarin’s natural charm was Chief Designer Sergei Korolev, the rocket engineer who masterminded the early Soviet space program and played a key role in choosing the cosmonaut crews. Leonov remembers that when the first group of 20 cosmonauts were introduced to Korolev in June 1960, the designer spent more time talking to Yuri than to any of the rest.
“Korolev was aware that the first man to orbit would be a great propaganda tool, and that he needed a certain presence. But Yuri was the obvious selection for more reasons than his looks—many more,” says Boris Volynov, another of the original cosmonauts.
“The original [cosmonauts] were all interviewed occasionally, one by one, and asked to assess who should be first. We all had our strengths, but if you honestly appraised the one with a composite of strengths, everyone agreed that Yuri was the best choice,” according to Volynov. “In every aspect of training he excelled. He was a master parachutist, he thrived in survival training, he could take more Gs in the centrifuge than anyone, he’d emerge from days of isolation in the baric chamber smiling. Even in the study of celestial navigation, Yuri was ahead of us. He was a leader, but he did everything graciously and with that relaxed smile, and no one resented him.”