Saint Yuri

The Russians made their first cosmonaut a hero. Did they really know him?

A 10-story statue of Gagarin dominates the modern skyline over Moscow's Leninski Prospect. (--)
Air & Space Magazine

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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 

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.

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