The Russians made their first cosmonaut a hero. Did they really know him?
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, January 1999
I don’t believe in God, but I believe he can punish us,” Alexei Leonov says with a wan smile. It has been 30 years since his friend and fellow cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin died in a MiG crash, and Leonov still can’t reconcile the loss. “We were all fighter pilots. Every fighter pilot has lost friends,” he says and shrugs. “Cosmonauts know they are at risk. But Yuri’s death is still felt keenly.”
We are driving through the Smolensk region, several hours west of Moscow, on our way to Gagarin City for a symposium at which Leonov will speak. The occasion is the 30th anniversary of the day that Gagarin and pilot-instructor Vladimir Seryogin died on the last refresher flight Gagarin was to make before resuming solos in jet fighters. Leonov’s unresolved grief echoes that of millions of Russians: No explanation of the events that led to the First Cosmonaut’s death has ever been universally accepted.
The symposium is held in a converted Orthodox cathedral painted completely white inside and out. Under the vaulted arches of the high ceiling, the speakers on the ad hoc panel make no progress toward satisfying the unanswered questions. Eight aviation experts and academicians, including General Sergei Belotserkovsky, the octogenarian dean of the Zhukovsky Academy of Aeronautical Science, where Gagarin studied engineering, hash over their theories once again. A few in the audience—which consists of space professionals, journalists, amateur historians, and aficionados—interrupt the panel, hotly denouncing the system that they believe let Gagarin die.
But the panel also is there to lionize Hero of the Soviet Union Number 11,175—the number stamped on Gagarin’s medal (signifying, as he liked to say, that 11,174 people were at least as heroic as he had been). Belotserkovsky poignantly reminds everyone that Yuri’s personality still affects the cosmonauts, that they all try to emulate his smile, his positive energy.
The panel members listen to any and all comments from the floor with the patience of priests. They understand the audience’s frustration with questions surrounding Gagarin’s death; some on the panel have been seeking the truth themselves for 30 years. At day’s end, the dispirited consensus is that the untrustworthiness of governments past and present makes any official explanation suspect.
This much is certain: Within half an hour of takeoff from Chkalovskoye airbase outside Moscow on the morning of March 27, 1968, Gagarin lost control of his MiG-15 trainer. By 10:31 a.m., he and Seryogin were dead. The panel acknowledges that the pilots were given poor information on the altitude of the cloud cover. The meteorological report told them that the cloud ceiling was 2,300 to 3,000 feet high. In fact, the clouds were only 1,400 feet above the ground. When they broke out beneath the clouds at nearly 400 feet per second, the pilots had only a couple of seconds to see the dense forest rising toward them. Neither man attempted to eject. Seryogin—a World War II ace, test pilot, and hero of the Soviet Union—was in the back seat and would have had to eject first, abandoning Gagarin to his own devices.
Within a few days of the crash, the woods where the MiG broke up in waist-deep snow had been meticulously combed for the pilots’ remains and pieces of the airplane. Investigators claim to have compiled a 29-volume report on the fatal flight. That neither the material evidence nor the report has ever been released to the general public has fueled rumors on the cause of the crash. Some say the men hit a goose or a weather balloon. Some say the CIA poisoned them, others say Gagarin worked for the CIA. Some believe the cosmonaut’s immense popularity posed a threat to Leonid Brezhnev and his Politburo accomplices, who had ousted Nikita Khrushchev a few years earlier and resented reminders of past triumphs.
Leonov and Belotserkovsky both subscribe to yet another theory, that another jet violated the MiG’s airspace and the vortex of its wake threw the MiG into a spin. In any case, as Leonov points out, Gagarin’s death is surrounded with as much mystery and controversy as John Kennedy’s.
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.”
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?”
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.
In the seven years between his first orbit and his fatal airplane flight, Gagarin’s face—which rivaled the Beatles for worldwide recognition—grew fleshy; his athlete’s belly swelled. He visited 28 countries, and the countless state dinners and banquets took their toll on his physique. The high life led inevitably to gossip. “Yuri tolerated his fame and was equal to his fate as one of the most famous people on Earth,” says Irina Solovyova, a former cosmonaut and now a Star City psychologist. “Of course, as a luminary he was watched, and people constantly speculated on his personal life.” She dismisses the notion that he was an alcoholic and philanderer, preferring to focus on his more admirable qualities. “Star City is a small place,” she says. “If someone was having those kinds of problems, we would know it.”
But there are too many stories to ignore. Five months after his Vostok flight, at the Black Sea resort of Foros, Gagarin injured his left eye and forehead when he jumped from a window after his wife caught him with a young nurse. In 1968, the year Gagarin died, a worried Nikolai Kamanin wrote in his diary: “There were many situations when Gagarin miraculously escaped big troubles. These situations often occurred when he attended parties, drove in cars or boats, or when hunting with the big bosses…. The active life style, endless meetings and drinking sessions were noticeably changing Yura’s image and slowly, but steadily erasing his charming smile from his face.”
Nonetheless, by all accounts he remained a devoted husband and father. Valentina Gagarina’s feelings are unknown—almost 40 years later, she still grants no interviews.
Gagarin’s Star City comrades don’t like to dwell on his transgressions. He is remembered instead as a good friend, a fair boss, and a dedicated engineering student (he graduated with an advanced degree from the Zhukovsky Academy a month before he died, after turning in a thesis on winged spaceplanes). Barred from flight himself, he did what he could to help his colleagues. In 1962 he was given the job of supervising training for five women cosmonauts, which led to Valentina Tereshkova’s flight in June 1963. Six months later he became deputy director of the cosmonaut training center. By September 1966 Khrushchev was long deposed and Korolev, Gagarin’s mentor and champion, was dead. In a perverse twist, Soviet authorities finally allowed him to train for another spaceflight because they no longer wanted him for propaganda purposes.
While a few cosmonauts grumbled that he had pulled rank to jump ahead of the queue, Gagarin threw himself into his role as backup for Vladimir Komarov’s Soyuz 1 flight. Serious problems with the new spacecraft quickly became apparent, however, and what was supposed to be a historic docking mission timed for the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution instead resulted in death and disaster (see “Saving Colonel Komarov,” above).
Gagarin’s inability to stop Komarov’s fatal flight brought him face to face with the corrupt Soviet system from which he had benefited. Compounding the emotional strain of knowing a friend’s life was squandered, the Star City bosses again grounded him from rocket flights due to renewed fears of a fatal accident. But within a few months he prevailed on his superiors to be allowed to fly aircraft, writing: “If I stop flying I will have no moral right to lead other people whose life and work are connected with flying.”
The day he died Gagarin’s office was sealed; eventually it was reassembled in the museum at Star City. Among the books on his shelves were a history of art, a volume of poetry, The Art of Flight, books on astronomy, cosmonautics, and philosophy, a WW II manual on how to ram other airplanes when you run out of bullets, and his memoir, The Road to Space.
On his plain wooden desk was a scrap of paper with some notes, in his hand, about his schedule on March 27, 1968, after the flight with Seryogin. The rest of his day was to have included meetings with civilian pilots, followed by arranging flight training schedules for transport pilots. On that scrap is a doodle smaller than a shirt button. The tiny sketch has a dark center with petals that increase in size as they spiral out from the center. It’s an exquisite design, and Gagarin’s steady hand never lifted the pen as he rendered it. Later that day he did not lift his hand from the control stick of his MiG as it hit the ground at 450 mph. Investigators know this because of the way the bones in his hands were broken. He had not given up trying to fly.
“He was a peasant’s son, he really was, but he rose to the top of the cosmonaut corps because he was willing and worthy and he was a good man,” Irina Solovyova says of her friend. “He became a big boss but never became arrogant, never became self-conscious about his beginnings. After his flight the image of cosmonaut meant a lot.”
The day after the symposium at Gagarin City, on the 30th anniversary of Gagarin’s death, Leonov attends another memorial service some 40 miles northeast of Moscow, in the forest where his friend’s jet crashed. He points to a clump of birch trees: “See the broken tops, where the trees have grown bushy: that’s where they came down.”
Today a 30-foot polished granite obelisk with relief carvings of Seryogin and Gagarin marks the site. Some 4,000 people, bundled up against the lingering winter weather, show up to honor the memory of two Soviet heroes. Several hundred of them knew Gagarin: cosmonauts, scientists, instructors, technicians from Star City and other space centers. But many who come to pay their respects could not have known him personally. The newest generation of cosmonauts in attendance have only seen pictures of him. Scores of schoolchildren climb trees and stand on the raised berms of plowed snow at the edge of the ceremony so that they can get a better view.
In an era when the statues of Communist politicians, military figures, and other Soviet heroes have been torn down and piled like cordwood in Moscow’s Gorky Park, when more than 160 streets in Moscow that were named after cold war icons and other notable Soviets have reverted to their original names, every capital city from the old U.S.S.R. still displays at least one monument to Yuri Gagarin.
On this day his memory evokes passionate speeches, several poems, an original song by folksinger Josef Kobzon, and tears. As hundreds of people queue up to lay floral wreaths at the monument, an 11-year-old girl slides down from a pile of snow, looks me in the eye, and shakes my hand. Her name is Olga, and she tells me quietly, in English, that she studied Yuri Gagarin in her history class. “World history or Russian history?” I ask. “World,” she answers. “He belongs to world.”