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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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.

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