On the morning of 12 April 1961, an orange dot appeared in the sky over the Russian village of Smelovka, growing as it fell. A government official reported what he witnessed: ‘A spaceship-sputnik landed with cosmonaut Gagarin Yuri Alekseyevich.’ The official was lying – in fact Gagarin was never there. Villagers arriving at the scene found no one inside the scorched metal sphere. Instead, Gagarin floated down from space by parachute, two kilometres away. He made history, but not quite in the way the Soviet Union wanted the world to know. The reason for the fib is just one among many intriguing revelations in Stephen Walker’s extensive, blow-by-blow account of the race to put a human in space.
At the time, American efforts lagged far behind Russian ones. The paradoxical reason, Walker explains, was US superiority in nuclear weapon design. Their bombs were smaller and lighter, requiring sleeker missiles, while the Soviet Union’s needed massive thrust to reach their intended targets. On both sides, space rockets were a by-product of military technology, with warheads being replaced by payloads of comparable proportions and inestimable propaganda value.
While Soviet failures could be concealed from the public, American mishaps were often live television events. The first US attempt at a satellite launch, in December 1957, was dubbed ‘Flopnik’ by the press after the rocket blew up on the launch pad. The technology gap narrowed in the following three years, so that when the Russian space dogs Belka and Strelka became the first creatures to return alive from Earth’s orbit, the United States soon answered with a chimpanzee. The differing choice of species reflected a further contrast in the two sides’ approaches. Chimps were anatomically close to humans, intelligent but potentially unruly. Dogs were passive and could be trained to stay still. US astronauts were intended to be pilots in control of their vehicles; the first Soviet cosmonauts would be passengers whose main duty was to survive.
American hopes were pinned on the Mercury Seven, an elite group of test pilots selected from over five hundred candidates. Presented to the public at a press conference, they instantly became celebrities, and were given sports cars by a shrewd Chevrolet dealer. They also received the attentions of ‘air hostesses … cocktail waitresses or female contenders for the yearly Miss Orbit award’. John Glenn, the most moralistic of the seven, warned the others to ‘keep their “pants zipped” and not … cede moral leadership to the “godless communists”’.
Their Russian counterparts, later dubbed the Vanguard Six, enjoyed no such glamour, not even being allowed to tell their families what they were training for. Like the Americans, they were chosen for being able to endure extreme physical conditions and mental stress. An additional consideration was size: all had to be small enough to fit inside the capsule. At five foot five, Yuri Gagarin was the shortest of the group, though it was his personal qualities that made him the frontrunner. As a child he had endured the Nazi occupation of his village, being forced to live in a makeshift dugout while soldiers took over the family’s humble wooden house. Gagarin saw his younger brother tortured and his older siblings taken away for slave labour; he emerged from the war a stoical patriot, toughened yet apparently unscarred. From the start of his air force career, he impressed everyone with his ‘infectious vitality, his gift for making a pleasing impression, his leadership skills and intelligence, his immaculateness and martial punctuality’. It also helped that he was good-looking and an ardent communist of Russian peasant stock – an ideal poster boy for the Soviet Union.
The first part of Beyond flips back and forth between the American and Russian programmes, digressing into other events preoccupying the minds of leaders on both sides. On the same day that Belka and Strelka took off, CIA pilot Gary Powers was jailed by a Moscow court, his U-2 spy plane having been shot down after photographing the launch site. The following spring, President Kennedy was scheduling an intervention in Cuba at the same time as final preparations were being made in Russia for the first manned space flight. The Bay of Pigs fiasco began five days after Gagarin’s triumph.
While the bigger geopolitical picture is clearly relevant, it does pull us away from the main theme and into well-trodden territory. The Mercury Seven story is also rather familiar – for instance, from Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. These distractions fall from view, however, as Gagarin’s launch date approaches and the narrative becomes a day-by-day, hour-by-hour, then minute-by-minute account of the historic flight. At times the painstaking detail can feel laborious, but it sheds much light on Soviet attitudes.
Russian capsules typically contained a self-destruct device, to be detonated if the craft went off course and landed in enemy territory. Gagarin’s lacked such a device because the capsule would have been too heavy had it carried one. Navigation was supposed to be automatic; however, there were emergency manual controls, locked with a three-digit code that could be radioed from Earth. This was partly a precaution against any cosmonaut trying to defect and partly in case they experienced ‘space horror’ and threatened to do something rash. In the event, Gagarin was supplied with the code by technicians aware of how impractical the procedure was. Also automatic was the ejector seat that shot Gagarin from the plummeting capsule so he could parachute safely to the ground. Why the lie about him being inside the whole time? The official who reported it was the Soviet sports commissar, who wished to claim a new world altitude record. International rules said the ‘pilot’ had to land in the same ‘vehicle’ he went up in.
When Gagarin met his rescuers he learned he had been promoted to major as well as becoming a world hero. There was to be no sports car as a reward, though he did receive other luxuries almost as rare: a larger apartment, with a refrigerator and washing machine. Alas, he didn’t have long to enjoy them: he was killed in a training-flight accident in 1968. Beyond tells the full story of the finest two hours of his tragically short life.