The Russians made their first cosmonaut a hero. Did they really know him?
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, January 1999
(Page 4 of 6)
Although he stayed busy monitoring onboard systems during his one-hour 48-minute flight, Gagarin had time to enjoy the view. “It is beautiful, it is beautiful,” he said, looking at Earth. He ate and drank, lost his floating pencil, and reported feeling good as he watched the sun rise over North America.
The end of the flight, though, came closer to disaster than the world knew at the time. The Vostok sphere was supposed to separate cleanly from its equipment module, but the two remained tethered by an umbilical line, which set Gagarin tumbling at 30 degrees per second. “I was an entire ‘corps de ballet’—head, then feet, head, then feet, rotating rapidly,” he reported later. He also experienced about 10 Gs, more than expected, until the umbilical cord finally burned through and freed his capsule. Ten minutes of unanticipated tumbling must surely have rattled the Vostok’s first passenger. But in a debriefing session with Korolev, Kamanin, and other space officials the day after the flight, Gagarin played down the episode, saying, “I reasoned that it was not an emergency situation.”
Gagarin was ejected from his capsule at 23,000 feet and landed under two parachute canopies in a plowed field—a fact that he always had to lie about since, according to the rules of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the pilot was supposed to land with his vehicle to be able to claim a “complete flight” for the record books. He shrugged off his parachute harness and walked awkwardly toward a peasant woman and her granddaughter, introduced himself and explained that he was a Soviet who had come from space.
Until that day, every aspect of the Vostok program had been carried out in the total secrecy that characterized military projects behind the Iron Curtain. But by the evening of April 12, Gagarin was one of the most famous names on the planet. In his home country, photos and articles about the world’s first space traveler were splashed across the pages of Pravda and Izvestia for five days, until news of the Bay of Pigs invasion bumped it.
Yuri’s legend, though, kept growing with help from the Communist propaganda machine, which began distributing millions of pictures of the photogenic hero: Gagarin planting a tree, lifting weights, riding a bicycle, looking at flowers, holding a dove, wearing a skydiving rig, watching television with his mother, surrounded by children in a classroom, mixing with workers in a factory lunchroom, playing ice hockey.
“He was a god on Earth who got a sackful of mail every day,” says academician Sergei Belotserkovsky. Gagarin eventually had to have his own Moscow postal code and staff for handling correspondence. Rather than dismissing the thousands of “begging letters” he received, he used his influence to resolve every case he could. Sergei Kiselov, one of Gagarin’s skydiving instructors, attributes the fact that he can still walk to the cosmonaut’s intervention. Kiselov broke his neck when he landed with a heavy camera strapped to his helmet after filming some skydivers in freefall. He was hospitalized with paralysis in his legs, and Gagarin, over the protests of the military doctors, arranged to have him moved to a private hospital in Moscow reserved for the Communist party elite.
Ironically, his influence didn’t extend to his own career. Gagarin was the smiling face behind the greatest technological coup of his time, and his value as a propaganda tool far surpassed his usefulness as a pilot of space vehicles or military jets. Nikolai Kamanin refused to let Gagarin add to the meager 250 or so hours he had accrued as a fighter pilot before joining the cosmonaut corps. Instead, Yuri began to refer to the Ilyushin passenger jet that ferried him around the world as “home.”
Meanwhile, his less celebrated colleagues got to fly in space. Gherman Titov orbited four months after Gagarin, and returned complaining of the first case of space sickness, leading Soviet scientists to suspend Vostok launches for a year while they studied the problem. On August 11, 1962, Vostok 3 was launched with Andrian Nikolaev aboard. Pavel Popovich followed a day later in Vostok 4, then flew to within four miles of Nikolaev for a near-rendezvous in orbit. Despite their accomplishments, Titov and the rest slipped into relative obscurity, while Gagarin toured the world collecting laurels.