The Russians made their first cosmonaut a hero. Did they really know him?
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, January 1999
(Page 3 of 6)
No one, that is, except Gherman Titov, who as backup for the inaugural flight would forever remain in Gagarin’s shadow. “Perhaps the only one who still maintains that he should have been first is Gherman Titov,” Volynov says with a smile.
Yuri Surinov, who supervises physical fitness training at Star City, the cosmonauts’ village outside Moscow, remembers Gagarin the athlete. “When you see people at play in games such as hockey and basketball and volleyball, a lot is revealed about their personality,” he says. “Yuri was the peacemaker in hockey. He was small, but the best basketball player the cosmonaut corps had, with quick reflexes. Even after he became famous he didn’t want to be a star. He wasn’t aggressive, but when he made a mistake he took himself to task quietly. He brought other people up to his level of intense playfulness.”
The apparent simplicity of Gagarin’s Vostok 1 mission—a single orbit, with no piloting required—belies the real risks it posed. In 1961 spaceflight was at best an evolving science. Very little was known about the consequences of subjecting humans to weightlessness for more than a brief period. The cosmonauts had experienced microgravity for only two or three seconds at a time in a freefall elevator ride at the 28-story Moscow University. “We didn’t even know if we could swallow while orbiting,” Leonov recalls.
Moreover, the spotty performance of Soviet space hardware was cause for grave misgivings. Korolev’s “Cannonball,” the spherical Vostok capsule in which Gagarin was to orbit, had been tested—with dogs and dummies—for less than a year. On its first outing, in May 1960, a faulty sensor led to a botched reentry. Of the next four launches, only one was a success. Gagarin and Titov, on an orientation tour of the Baikonur launch complex in July, watched an R-7 rocket, which was to be their launch vehicle, blow up shortly after liftoff, killing the two dogs on board.
Despite the mishaps, Korolev believed his engineers were learning from failure, and he pressed ahead with trials of a man-rated version of the Vostok capsule. After a flawless March 9, 1961 test returned a life-size mannequin to Earth along with a dog and some other animals, Korolev, still troubled by the failures of the previous year, called for one last test, using another dummy. The March 25 flight made a single orbit in 115 minutes and returned safely to a site near the city of Izhevsk.
The human passenger for the Vostok 1 flight wasn’t selected until the week before launch. Gagarin, Titov, Grigory Nelyubov, Andrian Nikolaev, and Pavel Popovich all arrived at the launch site in Baikonur on April 5, 1961, uncertain as to who would be the first man to venture into orbit. A committee that included Korolev made its decision known on April 8: Gagarin, with Titov as backup. To the other cosmonauts it was no surprise. Early on the chief designer had shown a special interest in Yuri. But the choice was affirmed by other committee members, including Nikolai Kamanin, the stern director of cosmonaut training, who had reached his conclusion independently.
Gagarin’s wife, Valentina Gagarina, recalls in her memoirs that on April 11, the day before his launch, in a ploy to keep her from worrying, Yuri phoned her from Baikonur and told her that on April 14 he would be involved in something big. It wasn’t until midday on the 12th, when a neighbor told her to turn on the radio, that Gagarina learned that her husband had orbited Earth. By then the news of Yuri’s feat was circling the globe faster than his Vostok sphere.
If Gagarin felt any apprehension about his flight, it didn’t show. Transcripts of his radio communications with the ground, published for the first time by a Russian newspaper in 1991, were full of breezy banter. Asked if he was bored during the final minutes of the countdown, he joked, “If there were some music, I could stand it a little better.” When a nervous Korolev asked: “How do you feel?” a minute and a half into the flight, the first man ever to ride a rocket into space answered back, “I feel fine. How about you?”