The Russian Icarus: How Gagarin Became Cosmonaut #1

Colleagues at cocktail parties and in the lounges of hotels after conferences have often asked me why Yuri Gagarin was chosen to be the first cosmonaut on April 12, 1961. This blog, excerpted from a draft of my book on Gagarin, describes the circumstances that led to Gagarin’s selection as the world’s first spaceman.

Warriors into Spacemen

The Monument to Gagarin in his Hometown of Gagarin, 2007

The decision to send a man into space begged a number of questions, including the type of person required for the job.[1] Sergei Korolev, the Soviet rocket pioneer known publicly as the “Chief Builder” until his death in 1966, had initially argued that the first cosmonaut should be an engineer – perhaps even himself – although he soon backed away from that position.  The debate was quickly decided in favor of a fighter pilot, although the space capsule was totally automated and required little “piloting.” The decision had more to do with politics and conceptions of heroism than anything else. It was assumed that fighter pilots had the courage to overcome the potentially terrifying experience of weightlessness and that they would follow commands no matter how dangerous the mission. Besides, if something glorious in the air was to be done – should the cosmonaut survive — then it seemed obvious to most that it should be a fighter pilot, the most heroic of the heroes in the Soviet pantheon after World War II. Finally, drawing the first cosmonaut from military ranks was essential to Korolev’s ongoing campaign to win over the military leaders, who would never have tolerated a mere civilian as the first human being in space.[2]

In the summer of 1959, medical and aviation experts thus began canvassing the military commands for candidates, including Gagarin’s outpost near the border with Norway, where he had been stationed after finishing officer training school in Orenburg. When a list of possible candidates at his base came up, Gagarin’s name rose to the top. According to one participant, “the program of selection considered general health, physical preparation, professional suitability, moral and ethical characteristics, psychological particularities, and staying within the physical parameters: a height of 172-174 centimeters and a body weight of 70-75 kilograms.” Curiously, Gagarin did not meet the physical guidelines, at least as stated in this source: he was just 5 feet two inches rather than the prescribed 5 foot 6-7 inches. It is unclear how he managed to convince those in charge to overlook this deficiency. Yet again, Gagarin managed to create his own set of rules.[3]

Gagarin after his flight beside the Chief Builder and the other cosmonauts in training

After a battery of psychological and physical tests 347 pilots made the first cut out of 3,461 candidates. Following further medical exams — and more than a few disqualifications for drunkenness — the number was whittled down to 206 and then again to a final 20. The final 20 “candidate cosmonauts,” as they were known, began training in a new cosmonaut training center in January 1960 just outside Moscow later dubbed “Star City.” The oldest was 35. The next oldest was the 33-year old pilot Vladimir Komarov (who would die in a space flight for which Gagarin was the backup in 1967). Only one of the 20 final candidates had flown on the newest Soviet jet at the time, the MIG-19; the rest flew the older MIG-15 or MIG-17. Gagarin, along with three other candidates, was 26, while German Titov (Gagarin’s backup on his historic flight and number 2 in space) was the youngest at 25.[4]

Each of the finalists was a unique personality, but they all shared certain traits and motivations. Almost all came from the Russian provinces where they had experienced “a hard and spartan life,” remembered one cosmonaut. Growing up in the lean post-war years, they believed that a comfortable life was mostly likely “a temporary state of affairs,” though they hoped for better. Most of the candidates were too young to fight in the war – a deficiency that motivated many of them, especially Gagarin. Feeling that they would have few chances in life, they were willing to take big risks to receive privileges, power, and future career opportunities. One cosmonaut described their mindset: “To succeed against your competitor, to kick him out of the ‘nest’ – for this a person needed temporary alliances and unions, especially if one of the competitors showed a weakness, such as ‘inappropriate conversation,’ even if at the party table, or something of that sort.” It was the sort of environment in which Gagarin thrived. He was ambitious, had a knack for plugging into information networks, knew both how to stand out and fit in, and almost always said the right thing. Moreover, contrary to his life after the flight, Gagarin seems to have had no obvious problem with alcohol at this juncture in his life – beyond those common for most young Russian males at the time. One cosmonaut described Gagarin, contrary to his practiced image of being a simple and straightforward Soviet boy, as a “shrewd guy from the countryside, hard to read,” a wily provincial on the make.  But then again, so were most of his competitors.[5]

One of the leaflets dropped from airplanes in Soviet cities after Gagarin's flight

If the cosmonaut-candidates were ready and eager to train, it was still unclear, however, just what they should be trained for. The individual charged with developing the day-to-day training routine admitted years later that he had no idea what he was doing. “There was no program, no simulators, nothing in general.” What they did have was a two-story wooden barracks with a crude kitchen and cafeteria, the rudiments of the future Star City, and 20 eager fighter pilots ready for heroic duty – and just as eager to party, should the opportunity present itself.[6] Discipline and surveillance therefore seemed like a good starting point. In February 1960, General Nikolai Petrovich Kamanin was appointed overall head of cosmonaut selection and training; and in November 1960 he became head of space exploration for the armed forces. Kamanin was a not just any general – but a KGB general with a proven track record in both military aviation and intelligence work. A pilot himself, he was the first to receive the honor “Hero of the Soviet Union” in 1934, the year of Gagarin’s birth. He had received the title Hero of the Soviet Union for his dramatic flight to rescue the crew of the Cheliuskin ice breaker crushed in Arctic Sea ice. He rose through the ranks after flying numerous sorties during World War II, including daring reconnaissance missions in enemy territory. Like his protégé and future hero Gagarin, he knew what it was like to live simultaneously in the shadowy world of the secret police, behind the gates and check points of the Soviet military-industrial complex, and in the public eye as a Soviet hero. During cosmonaut training he was a constant companion to the cosmonauts, observing them, compiling reports on their character, and maintaining close connections with engineers, KGB informants, and political authorities. He also kept a detailed diary which was published posthumously after the collapse of the Soviet Union and has become one of the most critical sources for understanding the daily lives of the cosmonauts.

Gagarin admires one of Khrushchev's corn fields

During training the cosmonaut candidates split their time between the future “Star City” outside Moscow and the launch site in present-day Kazakhstan referred to erroneously as Baikonur. The Soviets first chose “Baikonur” in 1954 following a reconnaissance mission to the Syr-Dar’ya River. They found a spot in middle of a vast emptiness in the Eurasian steppe called “Tiura-Tam,” named after a small railroad station. Its coordinates, 46 degrees north and 63 degrees east latitude, were a military secret. The actual settlement of Baikonur, after which the launch site was named and is still known, was located 250 miles to the northeast, but in the interests of military secrecy the cosmodrome retained the name “Baikonur.” Until the 1970s, just outside the real town of Baikonur, the Soviets erected plywood facades of buildings – a Potemkin village – to create the illusion of a “Baikonur” cosmodrome.[7]

A portrait of Gagarin in the Gagarin Art Museum in the Town of Gagarin. The museum contains nearly 1,000 art works devoted to Gagariniana.

The train station at Tiura-Tam was a shack in front of some “small shabby houses and a few camels and donkeys in the dusty street,” remembered Korolev’s cameraman. Getting there was an ordeal – an appropriate tribute to the arduous task at hand. “To understand the Russian cosmos, you have to experience Russian roads,” quipped one of the workers at the site. A dozen launch pads were scattered around the cosmodrome. The site was chiefly recommended by its isolation: should a rocket go awry on launch, there was a reasonable chance that it would land in Soviet territorial space, and thus avoid revealing the secrets of Soviet technology to foreign powers. An engineer once jokingly described the reasons for the site’s selection: “You have to find a place which is uninhabited, which is hard to reach by any means of transport, including camel and donkey, with no water and a lot of sand. The latter should be in excess, and should provide the wind with a lot of dust to completely block the visibility. It would be nice if you can feel it in your mouth, in the soup, meat and dessert: to remember and appreciate your wife’s cooking. If you can find such a place you can build a cosmodrome there.” The place also had swarms of rats, extremes of scorching heat and bone-chilling cold, occasional bouts of plague, and an abundance of lizards and scorpions. The landscape was, “half desert…a sea of wormwood with salt-marsh patches of different types, sphere-like bushes of tumbleweed, fenugreek, and occasionally a crooked sacsaul beaten by the winds.” Korolev had a tiny three-room shack – with no stove or hot plate for boiling water and making coffee or tea. At first the inhabits called the place simply “the water pumping station,” after the old water pump that served steam boats which once plied the Syr-Dar’i River. Soon after, they dubbed it “Kalingrad” — named after a certain “Major Kalin” who ran a wooden shack that served as an improvised club. No one called it Baikonur. In 1960 and 1961, as the cosmonauts shuttled back and forth from Star City to Tiura-Tam, they grew used to the desolation of the cosmodrome, a macho rite of passage that complemented a training regime based primarily on figuring out which of the cosmonauts could endure the most pain.[8]

Grace and Humor under Pressure

From left to right on the Podium in the Town of Gagarin: Gagarin's brothers Valentin and Boris, Gagarin's Father, Gagarin, and Gagarin's Mother

Foremost in the minds of the trainers – whether at Star City or Tiura-Tam — was a quality best formulated by Ernest Hemingway: “Grace under pressure.” Hemingway may seem an odd inspiration for Soviet cosmonautics, but the American writer, whose works were deemed sufficiently Soviet and thus translated into Russian during Khrushchev’s cultural thaw, enjoyed wide popularity, especially at the cosmonaut training center.[9] It was during cosmonaut training, for example, that Gagarin picked up the habit of reading Hemingway, whose macho characters complemented conceptions of Russian masculinity that Gagarin had gleaned from numerous Soviet sources. One historian, commenting on the Hemingway cult in the Soviet Union and the reasons for his appeal, remarked: “He lived as he wished: hunted, fished, braved the open sea, killed bulls, enjoyed good food and wine, loved numerous women, and was loved by them in return. Hemingway was a romantic but not starry-eyed, experienced but not cynical, manly but not crude.” Aleksei Leonov, one of the final twenty cosmonaut candidates, remembered his first encounter with Gagarin in the fall of 1959 when both candidates were awaiting yet another round of medical exams. Gagarin was lounging on a sofa reading The Old Man and the Sea as he prepared to be poked and prodded by the men in white lab coats, the epitome of grace under pressure. Said Leonov: “I thought to myself then, ‘what an interesting guy! I’ll have something to talk about with him.’”[10]

Gagarin on the lecture circuit after his flight. Gagarin was perhaps the Soviet Union's most effective motivational speaker.

A battery of medical physiologists, psychologists, doctors of various specializations, and sports trainers concocted the training regime, which effectively transformed the cosmonauts into lab rats.[11] Picking up where they had left off with the space dogs, the trainers aimed to “improve the stability of the organism even while subjecting it to various distractions in the widest possible number of situations.”[12] The doctors were akin to prosecutors – interrogators of the human body – who seemed to be testing the hypothesis that the human body and mind (or at least a Soviet socialist one) could adapt to almost any condition.  “Overloads – okay, for this there was the centrifuge,” remembered one cosmonaut. “Noise and vibrations – no problem, they gave you as much as you wanted for your whole life. The vibration stand could not only knock your soul out of you, but also the stones from your kidney (if you had one or the other). Isolation – no problem, you could select from many options to test for that.” For many cosmonauts, the most dreaded device was the centrifuge that simulated the effects of extreme gravitational pull. Others in that first group broke into a cold sweat just thinking about another dastardly contraption: A spherical cage into which the cosmonaut climbed, arms and legs splayed inside as he held on for dear life. The device, known as “the rotor,” spun wildly along three axes, as cosmonauts were pushed by their comrades down hills and over dales. That element of training was eliminated after Gagarin’s flight, “apparently, [because] it was considered too extreme,” remembered one cosmonaut. Some of the more macho cosmonauts thought that was a pity.[13]

Gagarin Greets his acolytes. For older women he was the son they had lost during the war; for the younger women, he was, in present parlance, a hottie.

While the centrifuge and rotor probed the boundaries of human endurance, the isolation chamber tested the outer limits of the human psyche.[14] The medical personnel referred to the condition they wanted to simulate in the isolation chamber as “public loneliness” (publichnost’ odinochestva). One of the psychologists described it as “a unique condition of a person who, while being alone, knows that someone is always watching with the help of television cameras [the first cosmonaut would be viewed by a television camera in the capsule], but at the same time does not know who, exactly, is the person watching him.” Examining a cosmonaut under conditions of “public loneliness” was, in effect, a way to test the reactions of a subject in a society where no sphere of human activity reached beyond the observing eye of the state. Indeed, the various professions drawn into that first flight were conscious of developing technologies that might have a myriad of new uses, just as freeze-dried coffee and Tang emerged as a supposed residual benefit – rockets into plowshares — of the American space program. Trainers were especially fascinated with new video technology, which would play a crucial role in beaming images of the cosmonauts back to earth as well as eventually allowing real-time video feeds across the planet via satellite and radio tower networks. Peering into the not-so-distant future, the trainers imagined a time when a universal video surveillance system would be considered normal and necessary – a Soviet version of Jeremy Bentham’s famous “panopticon” (a prison designed so that keepers were invisible to the inmates). In such a society, citizens, just like the cosmonauts, would adjust their behavior to match the norms of the supposedly omnipotent yet unseen (and supposedly benevolent!) watchers.[15] Of course, given the possibility of being stranded in orbit, completely alone and cut off from all human contact, the experiment had a purely utilitarian aspect.

The Skill of Self-Observation

A marble Gagarin in the Gagarin Art Museum, Town of Gagarin

Each cosmonaut spent anywhere from ten to 15 days in the isolation chamber. During that time observers could watch the cosmonauts and talk to them but the cosmonaut could not talk back or, to paraphrase the Roman poet Juvenal, watch the watcher. One goal was to test the cosmonauts’ ability to conduct “self-observation” – to see oneself as seen by others (something, incidentally, at which Gagarin excelled, in no small part thanks to his childhood passion for amateur photography). Self-observation was central to the “pilot’s” mission, which was less to fly the ship than to observe his own physical and mental reactions to being trapped inside a tiny capsule in the vacuum of space with only a 50 percent chance of survival. During isolation the cosmonauts carefully recorded their physical and emotional state in a notebook, learning how to control their fears and maintain their focus. One of the psychologists noted: “The ability of cosmonauts to conduct self-observations allows them to evaluate their condition, their reserves and thus regulate their activity and, most importantly, define the most effective means in given situations to solve this or that problem.” It was excellent training, incidentally, for learning to become, not merely a cosmonaut, but also an idol constantly in the public’s gaze.[16]

Gagarin as a transformer in the Moscow monument to Gagarin on Gagarin Square, Erected 1981. The monument was nearly torn down in the 1990s to make way for a road expansion and because of complaints from some residents about the unseemly view from their apartment windows.

Valentina Ponomareva, who was part of the first cohort of women cosmonaut-candidates just after Gagarin’s flight, remembered her sojourn in the isolation chamber: “To the right and to the left over the table were camera lenses, and in front of you the window. Only for some reason they could see me through this window but I could not see them!” There was one exception to total surveillance, at least for the first cohort of women who later trained as cosmonauts: The trainers would turn out the lights to permit the cosmonaut to go to the toilet upon receiving a signal from a button on which was written the mysterious “Lat. Na 6.” The cosmonauts, incidentally, were not told that this was the button to push for toilet time; they had to figure that out on their own. There is no available record of Gagarin’s handling of mother nature’s call. Maybe he relieved himself while smiling, with the light on, peering back at the cameras.[17]

"Welcome to the Homeland of the First Cosmonaut!" Town of Gagarin, 2007

Gagarin underwent his trial by loneliness as an exemplary lab rat, the fifth of the first group of cosmonauts to go through the ordeal. He entered the corpus at the growing training center known by the codeword “Mauritania” and went into the isolation chamber from July 26 to August 5, 1960. Before going into the chamber he did some intelligence work – his close association with chekists apparently rubbing off — and learned the shifts and names of his observers, information which he then committed to memory. When the shifts changed he astonished his unseen observers by greeting them by their names. The watchers, at least for a brief moment, had turned into the watched! Observers were impressed by Gagarin’s close attention to every item in his environment, “each of which had a special value to him.” He composed and sang songs about the objects in his isolation room: electrodes with multi-colored wires, odes to his puree soup and liquid cheese (a kind of Cheez Whiz concoction for cosmonauts). When he was not composing ditties, he imagined a future in which he was flying over the oceans and bright lights of cities below. “Although I have never been abroad, in my mind I flew over Peking, London, Rome, and Paris, over my native Gzhatsk…all this helped me tolerate the burden of loneliness.” Gagarin, like all the cosmonauts, was also allowed to choose books to bring along for reading during his assigned relaxation periods (work periods involved performing numbers games akin to Sudoku while being interrupted and annoyed in various ways). He chose from a menu of politically correct titles: the classic Soviet authors Mayakovsky and Gorky — along with Pushkin, of course, and the Soviet-approved science fiction of Jules Verne. As he read, he maintained a running dialogue with the authors and their main characters. Throughout the ordeal he cracked jokes and sang songs. His favorite song, which began to grate on the nerves of his keepers, was: “I love you, life (Ia lyublyu tebya zhizn’).” Gagarin aced another test which commanded him to sleep during daylight hours and to work during the night. “Without any difficulty he easily adapted to the new work schedule and just as easily reverted back,” remarked one keeper. When it was time to rest, “he lay down and instantly fell asleep, sleeping deeply and calmly.” Without the aid of an alarm clock, he would arise at the precisely the moment he was supposed to awake “and begin working immediately.” One time, while telling a story, he addressed his watcher with a question, knowing that the observers were not supposed to utter a word in response to queries from candidate cosmonauts. The keeper was so engrossed in his tale that she inadvertently blurted out an answer. Gagarin, in short, had an amazing ability to control his mind and body as if he were a kind of machine; even more he had a well-developed sense of “objectivity” that allowed him to understand how his actions might be perceived by others.[18] Gagarin later bragged that the psychologists were “amazed by my coolness and calmness, the stability of my psyche and the strength of my nerves,” his grace under pressure.[19]

Gagarin's Volga, received as a gift for his flight, on display outside his childhood home in Gagarin. His favorite car, however, was a red fiberglass French Matra "Djet," a gift from the French people. Gagarin spent many hours tinkering on his cars.

The trainers also conducted exercises in group isolation – a kind of reality television show for the watchers. Here, too, Gagarin stood out. Given the likelihood of a group flight, how would cosmonauts deal with being forced to bear another person’s company? Under these circumstances a cosmonaut, like the ideal Soviet, had to display “self-discipline, control over his actions, the ability to respond with non-verbal signals,” and, most of all, a knack for “reducing emotional tension.” A sense of humor was particularly useful for reducing emotional tension. The lead psychologist during training was sure that cosmonauts with the best sense of humor made the best candidates. “He said many times,” remembered one of his associates, “that if a person in difficult circumstances can maintain a sense of humor, then you can always count on the high level of his psychological stability.” Gagarin did not disappoint. “His natural optimism and good-natured humor like never before were manifested in his mood,” remarked one observer. The medical evaluation of Gagarin, written before his flight, noted that he had a talent for making jokes and, equally important, for appreciating them – or at least acting like he did: “Y. A. Gagarin maintains his native good sense of humor. He likes to tell jokes, and he also appreciates the jokes of those around him,” noted the medical evaluation. Humor under pressure — that trait made Gagarin stand out and was in fact confirmed when he spontaneously blurted out on lift off, “Poekhali!,” which subsequently became a kind of codeword for enduring trying experiences with a sense of calm and good humor. Said another trainer: Gagarin was “not gloomy,” not the sort of person “who agonized over the thousands of problems plaguing humankind.” He was a forward looker.[20]

A bust of Gagarin, Saratov Memorial Gagarin Museum, 2007

The psychological evaluations during training leave little doubt that quickly became everyone’s favorite son. One doctor listed Gagarin’s traits, as revealed by the training process: “His calm reaction to anything unexpected, his highly developed ability to relax in short intervals of time designated for relaxation, his ability to quickly fall asleep and wake up by himself at a precise time, his ability to become instantly engaged in an activity.” A psychological overview noted his, “self confidence, his thoughtfulness, curiosity, zest for life…” The lead trainer for the cosmonauts years later was struck by Gagarin’s “iron nerves.” He remembered that on the eve of the launch, when it was time for Gagarin to sleep before the flight, he went to bed and fell asleep immediately. Gagarin, remarked the engineer Raushenbakh, “struck me before the flight as intelligent, cheerful, interested in everything and to a degree carefree, although in fact he was rather serious. He was not gloomy or frowning.”  Raushenbakh discerned one other critical trait. “In any company…he always conducted himself tactfully and naturally. Few can do this. Many in a new situation feel constrained, embarrassed, they begin to stammer, but he always seemed to be in a good mood and conducted himself freely.”[21]

Gagarin in the Town of Gagarin's Train Station, 2007. The Train Station's Gagarin museum -- larger than the adjacent waiting room -- is part of a complex of Gagarin museums in his home town. Throw a stone in any direction in Gagarin, and chances are it will hit a Gagarin memorial site.

Korolev, meanwhile, closely followed the results of the isolation chamber. As each candidate returned from “Mauritania,” he asked them what they thought about during their lonely sojourn. Nearly all said they recounted episodes from their own past. Only one, Gagarin, told Korolev he was thinking about “the future.” To which Korolev replied: “That’s a heck of a thing, comrade Gagarin, one can only envy your future!” He was apparently less impressed by another top candidate, German Titov, who liked to read poetry aloud during his stay in the isolation chamber (too high brow) or by the Ukrainian Popovich, who sang Ukrainian folk songs (tactless).[22] Gagarin, meanwhile, actively cultivated the sympathies of his observers and knew how to give them what they wanted to see and hear — perhaps the greatest of his traits, though not one mentioned by the psychologists in their reports. To the team of medical officials who observed him during training before the flight he made sure to deliver a pile of signed photographs, “with warm personal words” after he landed. The doctors, as always, were impressed by his well-developed sense of tact and social grace. They had little doubt that he was the right choice – either before or after the flight.[23]

If Gagarin’s tact and mental toughness impressed the watchers, his physical stamina was as good as any of the other cosmonaut-candidates. Gagarin performed superbly in the dreaded heat chamber. The test was inspired, at least in part, by the Russian tradition of “steeling” one’s body through the masochistic ritual of the “banya,” a cleansing ritual involving being beaten by birch leaves, exposed to extremes of heat in the sauna, and plunges into ice-cold freezing water. Enduring the banya was the standard by which the superiority of the Russian male was to be measured. But this was no ordinary Russian banya. Rather than wood, which absorbed some of the heat, the walls were covered with sterile metal plates, which reflected heat back onto the cosmonaut.  Observers, as always, gawped at the cosmonaut through a small window in the chamber, “to see if you were still alive.” The experiment stopped when the body temperature rose dangerously high – or when the cosmonaut said he or she could not handle it any more. Those who did the latter, of course, were not likely to become cosmonauts. Gagarin, who never asked to be let out, crowed in his autobiography that his previous experiences in the Russian banya had proved invaluable. “A Russian man can’t live without a good steam bath and being beaten by his friend with a birch branch,” he remarked. Each of the cosmonauts went through 8-9 sessions in the sweat machine, each of which lasted anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. Trainers constantly increased the temperature and humidity to “raise the hardiness of the organism” and to develop the ability to adjust one’s body to radically changing temperature conditions — a clearly useful exercise, given the extreme conditions cosmonauts might face during take-off and descent into the atmosphere.[24]

Gagarin in bronze in Star City, 2007

The last part of physical training was parachute jumping. Beyond preparing the cosmonauts for jumping out of their capsules at a height of 7 kilometers (the Soviet authorities lied to the world and claimed that Gagarin landed in his capsule), parachute jumping also had a psychological purpose: to inure the cosmonauts, like pieces of finely tempered steal, to extreme conditions. Performing nearly 50 jumps from a height of 800-4,000 meters, at night and during the day, in water and on land, the cosmonauts would overcome their deepest fears and acquire, as was deemed appropriate for an ideal Soviet subject, an appetite for risk taking. Said one trainer: “The ability to control oneself, to evaluate critically one’s actions and take correct actions in extreme situations when there is not enough time – that is an important component of the professional conduct of cosmonauts.”[25] Parachute training also involved honing the cosmonauts’ knowledge of astronomy and cartography (so they might have some idea where they had landed). The trainers, in addition, wanted cosmonauts who had a keen eye for observing and recording the view of earth from space – becoming, in effect, human spy satellites.[26]

A portrait of Gagarin in his parents' home in Gagarin, 2007

While Gagarin excelled in spycraft, he knew from previous experience that his parachute jumping technique was less impressive. He solved the problem of retaining his leadership position, while engaging in an activity at which he was merely average, by gaming the system. Since childhood he could not bear to wait, especially if he knew that he had to endure a trial for which he was ill-prepared. So when the trainers prepared his group to jump for the first time, Gagarin immediately volunteered to go first. His eagerness to be first, as he had hoped, turned out to be more important than being best. As he put it in a letter to his wife after being selected as the first cosmonaut, quoting the heroic aviator Ckhalov, “If you’re going to do something, be first.”[27]

Gagarin, meanwhile, put the finishing touches on his political credentials during training, arranging sporting events among the cosmonauts and editing the cosmonauts’ newsletter (in which he was singled out for praise). Most importantly, he made the all-important promotion in the ranks of the communist party on a sunny and warm June 16, 1960, without which he could not have been the first cosmonaut. “That’s what the builders of the first five-year plans did, that’s what the heroes of the Great Patriotic War did. And that’s what they do now,” he said in his autobiography. He treasured his party card like a holy relic – showing it off proudly to his mother and wife. It was his ticket to the cosmos.[28]

Finally, the arduous and prolonged period of training taught Gagarin how to keep his life as a cosmonaut a secret from the rest of the world, even from his wife. “I said everything and I said nothing,” he quipped – thus perfecting the technique he would later deploy as a public hero from a secret world.[29]

The Intangibles

A carved wooden sculpture of Gagarin in Star City, 2007

During the course of training, Gagarin had shown that he was the most flexible and adaptable to command — and to surrounding circumstances. He knew how to fit in – yet stand out. He had a chameleon-like ability to adapt physically and mentally to every situation – and to maintain lines of communication with the parallel structures. He was quick on the uptake, capable of improvising the proper response and meeting people’s expectations.  He did not show fear – just like Hemingway’s bullfighters — and was always optimistic – just like his hero from the socialist realist novel by Stalinist laureate Boris Polevoi, Tale of a Real Man.[30] Perhaps most importantly, Gagarin had a well developed sense of humor. Like the trainers, Korolev loved good jokes and witty repartee, as did Kamanin, who remarked in his diary: “Yuri Gagarin is indifferent to chess and cards, but he is passionate about sports and enjoys a witty anecdote or a practical joke.”[31] Finally, he could appear charming without coming across as smarmy and manipulative – though often that was precisely the case. The engineer and cosmonaut Konstantin Feoktistov remembered giving a lecture to the cosmonauts during training about the engineering of the space capsule. He suggested that in an ideal world the cosmonauts would possess an advanced engineering degree, so that they could fully master the technology of their craft and thus be more than mere passengers. After the lecture, Gagarin came up to him and asked for his advice on the best place to get such a degree. Later, he understood the calculated nature of Gagarin’s question, that he was being charmed by Gagarin’s signature pose of naïve sincerity. At the time, however, he was thoroughly impressed by this eager young lad.[32]

Surveying the results of the training, the KGB general Kamanin by the end of January 1961 reduced the list of candidates for the first flight from 20 to six: Gagarin, Titov, Neliubov, Nikolaev, Bykovskii, and Popovich — all ethnic Russians with the exception of Popovich, a Ukrainian. Each of the final six gave themselves nicknames as they entered the final stage of training – the countdown to the cosmos, just three months away. Gagarin dubbed himself “Cedar.” Titov was “Eagle.” Nikolaev was “Hawk.” Popovich was “Golden Eagle.” Even here Gagarin managed to stand out: he was the only cosmonaut among the finalists whose nickname was not a bird of prey, but a mighty evergreen of the vast Siberian forests (thereby avoiding being kicked out of the nest).[33]

Kamanin, meanwhile, contemplated the “intangibles” as the selection process neared the end. He remarked on January 18, 1961 that the cosmonaut-candidate Popovich was “too lenient with his wife during arguments.” Being hen-pecked was apparently a disqualification. On March 20, 1961, he noted in his diary that Titov decided to stay at home and read poetry, rather than join the group of cosmonauts for a movie, which seemed to suggest Titov’s lack of team spirit as well as an overly contemplative character. On April 6, 1961, he spent an entire day observing Gagarin – just the sort of thing that made Gagarin, unlike most people, feel comfortable.  “…[I]n his conduct I did not notice a single thing that was not appropriate for the circumstance. Calm, confidence, and solid knowledge – that is how I would summarize him that day.”[34]

Gagarin on a Palekh lacquer box, Star City, 2007

If Gagarin’s character traits made him the ideal first cosmonaut, they also fairly describe what it took for a young man — Homos Sovieticus — to thrive in the Soviet system during the Khrushchev period. As in any job search for which there are many qualified candidates, the least offensive applicant, though not necessarily the most talented, has the advantage. And that person was Gagarin. A fellow cosmonaut remarked, “I don’t know a person who was liked by so many different people.”[35] One trainer noted that Gagarin did not ask stupid questions. “There are ‘stupid’ questions, when a person doesn’t understand and asks you to repeat, and there are intelligent questions, when a person is trying to delve more deeply into what is being said. His questions were always in the category of intelligent questions.”[36]

The first head of cosmonaut training, who reported to Kamanin, summarized the reasons for Gagarin’s selection, citing above all his “selfless patriotism,” and his absolute faith in the success of the flight. Gagarin, in addition, got a nod of approval from the doctors and psychologists, while others praised him for his “boundless optimism, curiosity and nimble mind, bravery and decisiveness, neatness and patience, simplicity and humility…and an ample human warmth and attention to others.” In the end, the decision was made less because of Gagarin’s skills as a pilot – which at any rate were hardly needed on the automated capsule — than for his potential “to represent our country with honor.”[37]

The choice of Gagarin was nonetheless not an easy one for Korolev and Kamanin. As Kamanin revealed in his posthumously published diaries, he agonized over whether to choose Gagarin or Titov – the final two candidates. He remarked in his diary that Titov in some respects had a stronger character, and was certainly better educated. But he was not screening candidates for a teaching position. Kamanin also had to consider the possibility that his selection would be a death sentence, since nearly everyone believed that the first cosmonaut would have a roughly 50-50 chance of survival. Said Chertok: “If you take today’s standards of reliability for launch vehicles as a point of reference, then by April 1961, we had no grounds for optimism.”[38] Perhaps Kamanin reasoned that it would be better to save Titov for the second, longer flight, since it would be more complicated?

Perhaps the oddest of the Gagarin statues. Gagarin Art Museum, Town of Gagarin, 2007

But the most important consideration seems to have been determining which candidate to bless (or curse) with eternal glory – assuming he would survive the flight. Kamanin understood that the first cosmonaut would achieve instant “worldwide fame and forever have his name preserved in the history of mankind,” while few by comparison would remember the name of the second cosmonaut. The first cosmonaut would therefore have to display a talent for being a national icon – something with which Kamanin was personally familiar as the first recipient of the title “Hero of the Soviet Union” in 1934. Titov struck Kamanin as just a bit too eager to play the role, whereas Gagarin seemed to have mastered the requisite pose of humility. Another factor, Gagarin’s “Russianness,” may have also played a role. Aleksei Leonov, who would become the first man to walk in space, had a premonition that Gagarin would be the first based simply on the way he looked, “an honest (otkrytoe) Russian face, the smile that never left his face, the deep blue eyes, the kindness which seemed to pour forth from the corners of his eyes.” Unlike Titov, Gagarin’s name was indisputably Russian, whereas “German” Titov’s suggested a “German” heritage (though that was not the case). According to one legend, when Khrushchev was told that Titov and Gagarin were the final candidates, the General Secretary supposedly said: “What kind of Russian is this with a German name, where did you dig him up?”[39]

The monument to Gagarin on the landing site just outside Saratov, 2007. Gagarin's mother at its unveiling in 1981 said it was her favorite. "It's his spitting image," she said, weeping.

Korolev, for his part, was also swayed by Gagarin’s charisma – admiring his photogenic qualities as he thumbed through photographs of Gagarin in various situations. Given the response to Sputnik and the first space dogs, it was clear to him that the first cosmonaut would become the most visible symbol of everything Soviet and Russian. Finally, even the cosmonauts had agreed that Gagarin should be the one, as Kamanin learned when he polled them anonymously.[40] So by April 10, two days before the flight, Kamanin and Korolev had made their final decision. Kamanin broke the news to Titov after a game of badminton, a doubles match in which he and Gagarin faced Titov and Neliubov. Gagarin and Kamanin thrashed Titov’s team 16-5. After the humiliation of defeat on the court, Kamanin informed Titov that he had also lost to Gagarin in the race to be first in space. While Gagarin smiled, Titov, not surprisingly, “was a little bit disappointed.”[41]

Gagarin and the Chief Builder, Sergei Korolev. Korolev was especially fond of Gagarin.

If Gagarin’s instant fame and idol status retrospectively confirmed the brilliance of his choice, even before the flight everyone seemed to agree on the wisdom of the selection. During a gathering of engineers, administrators, and the final six cosmonauts on April 10, Chertok remembered his impression of Gagarin, the chosen one. They had gathered at the cosmodrome under a veranda which was instantly dubbed “Gagarin’s gazebo” for a brief ceremony to mark the impending historic flight. After Korolev spoke, Gagarin’s turn came. “I first listened attentively and evaluated Gagarin when he spoke to the assembled elite of the rocket-space community about the task he had been assigned. He didn’t use a lot of fancy words. He was simple, clear, and quite charming. ‘Yes, you have made the right choice,’ I thought, recalling the conversations and the long, drawn-out procedures for selecting candidates for the first flight.”[42] One designer of the Vostok, who worked closely with the cosmonauts on the first flight, recalled that “Gagarin had the most balanced combination of charm, simplicity, humility, work ethic, the ability to grasp the most essential thing, and breadth of world view.” Korolev’s assistant remarked: “When the choice was made, I caught myself thinking that Yuri Alekseevich, even long before the Vostok had been designed, had been designated by fate as the first cosmonaut. That’s how much his look accorded with the conception of who should be the first cosmonaut.”[43]


[1] Slava Gerovitch has thoroughly examined the problem of automation and manual control, and how it affected the professional identity of the cosmonauts, in numerous articles, including “Human-Machine Issues in the Soviet Space Program” in Critical Issues in the History of Spaceflight, ed. Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius (Washington, D.C.: NASA History Division, 2006), pp. 107-140.

[2]Vladimir Suvorov, Alexander Sabelnikov, The First Manned Space Flight: Russia’s Quest for Space (Nova Science Publishers), 8; A. A. Dashkov, “Pervye inzhenery – kosmonavty,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXVII obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2000 g., Chast’ I (Gagarin, 2001), 128-130. Only later would doctors and engineers (and women) be allowed to enter the ranks of the cosmonauts.

[3] M. N. Burdaev, “Iu. A. Gagarin – pervyi chelovek v kosmose,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXVIII obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2001 g., Chast’ I (Gagarin, 2002), 78; V. P. Buianov, “Meditsinskie aspekty professional’nogo otbora pervoi gruppy kosmonavtov,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXV obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 1998 g., Chast’ II (Gagarin, 1999), 128.

[4] B. N. Kantemirov, “Pervyi nachal’nik TsPK,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXVIII obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2001 g., Chast’ I (Gagarin, 2002) 38-39; Burdaev, “Iu. A. Gagarin – pervyi chelovek v kosmose,” 79; Buianov, “Meditsinskie aspekty professional’nogo otbora pervoi gruppy kosmonavtov,” 129.

[5] Konstantin Feoktistov, Zato my delali rakety (Moscow, 2005), 156.

[6] “Vystuplenie B. V. Raushenbakha,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXVI obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 1999 g. (Gagarin, 2000), 8.

[7] L. T. Baranov, A. N. Maksimov, “Baikonur v istorii razvitiia kosmonavtiki,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXVII obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2000 g., Chast’ I (Gagarin, 2001), 101; “Na Baikonure osviashchaiut rakety i moliatsia na turistov,” Izvetsiia, online edition, www.izvestia.ru/special/article3115090/index.html, downloaded April 11, 2008.

[8] Suvorov, The First Manned Space Flight, 14, 16, 20; Natalia Koroleva, Otets, Vol. 3 (Moscow, 2007), 10-11; P. P. Budnik, “Baikonur – vzgliad iz detstva,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXXI obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2004 g., Chast’ II (Gagarin, 2005), 272.

[9] I. P. Ponomareva, “Ekskurs v istorii podgotovki pervogo otriada kosmonavtov,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXVII obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2000 g., Chast’ I (Gagarin, 2001), 85; V. Ponomareva, Zhenhskoe litso kosmosa (Moscow, 2002), 260.

[10] Vladislav Zubok, Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009), 174; “A tret’im byl Kheminguei,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, March 5, 2009, online version, downloaded April 11, 2009, http://www.rg.ru/printable/2009/03/05/leonov.html.

[11] A. M. Chigirinov, “Astronavigatsionnyi trenazher,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXIX obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2002 g., Chast’ II (Gagarin, 2003), 55; Doroga v kosmos: Zapiski letchika-kosmonavta SSSR (Moscow, 1961), 109.

[12] Ponomareva, Zhenhskoe litso, 60-61.

[13] Ibid., 61-63.

[14] Gagarin would eventually write (or rather, have ghost-written) a book on the subject: Iurii Gagarin, V. I. Lebedev, Psikhologiia i kosmos (Moscow: Molodaia gvardiia, 1968).

[15] I. P. Ponomareva, “Zamknutoe prostranstvo v otsenkakh kosmonavtov,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXV obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 1998 g. (Gagarin, 1999), 308.

[16] Ibid., 304.

[17] Ponomareva, Zhenskoe litso, 91-92.

[18] Ponomareva, “Zamknutoe prostranstvo v otsenkakh kosmonavtov,” 308; Ponomareva, “Ekskurs v istorii podgotovki pervogo otriada kosmonavtov,”  92-93; I. P. Ponomareva, “Iu. A. Gagarin – eto molodost’, sversheniia, nadezhdy,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXVIII obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2001 g., Chast’ I (Gagarin, 2002), 27-29; Doroga v kosmos, 134; Ponomareva, Zhenskoe litso, 55.

[19] Doroga v kosmos, 135.

[20] I. P. Ponomareva, “Fedor Dmitrievich Gorbov,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXXIII obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2006 g. (Gagarin, 2007), 110-111; A. Mezentseva, “Iz istorii psikhologicheskoi podgotovki pervykh kosmonavtov,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXVII obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2000 g., Chast’ II (Gagarin, 2001), 196, 199; Ponomareva, “Zamknutoe prostranstvo v otsenkakh kosmonavtov,” 309; “Vystuplenie Raushenbakha,” 9.

[21] Ibid., 9.

[22] Mezentseva, “Iz istorii psikhologicheskoi podgotovki pervykh kosmonavtov,” 199-200.

[23] Ponomareva, “Iu. A. Gagarin – eto molodost’, sversheniia, nadezhdy,” 30.

[24] Ponomareva, Zhenskoe litso, 65; Doroga v kosmos, 109, 130; Ponomareva, “Ekskurs v istorii podgotovki pervogo otriada kosmonavtov,” 94.

[25] Ibid., 96; G. P. Stupakov et al, “Sozdanie sistemy meditsinskogo obespecheniia pervogo poleta,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 1996-1997 gg. (Gagarin, 1998), 75; B. V. Naidenov et al, “Spetsial’naia parashiutnaia podgotovka kosmonavtov,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXX obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2003 g., Chast’ II (Gagarin, 2004), 89.

[26] Chigirinov, “Astronavigatsionnyi trenazher,” 55.

[27]Mezentseva, “Iz istorii psikhologicheskoi podgotovki pervykh kosmonavtov,” 203; as cited in V. I. Rossoshanskii, Fenomen Gagarina (Saratov, 2001), 36.

[28] Doroga v kosmos, 124-126.

[29] Ibid., 130.

[30] Ibid., 104-105; Jay Bergman, “Valerii Chkalov: Soviet Pilot as New Soviet Man,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Jan., 1998), 149.

[31] Ponomareva, “Ekskurs v istorii podgotovki pervogo otriada kosmonavtov,” 93; Koroleva, Otets, 131; Skrytyi kosmos, 32.

[32] Feoktistov, Zato, 111.

[33]Kantemirov, “Pervyi nachal’nik TsIK,” 40; Ponomareva, Zhenskoe litso, 110.

[34] N. P. Kamanin, Skrytyi kosmos. Kniga pervaia, 1960-63 (Moscow, 1995), 13, 29, 32, 46.

[35] Iaroslav Golovanov, Kosmonavt N. 1 (Moscow: Izvestiia, 1986), 62.

[36] “Vystuplenie B. V. Raushenbakha,” 9.

[37] Fenomen Gagarina, 33.

[38] Boris Chertok, Rockets and People. Volume III. Hot Days of the Cold War (Washington D. C.: 2009), 16, 64.

[39]Feoktistov, Zato, 156; Vladmir Tsybin, Kosmonavty pervogo otriada (Engel’s, 2003), 17; Fenomen Gagarina, 34.

[40] Skrytyi kosmos, 13; Fenomen Gagarina, 34.

[41] Koroleva, Otets, 21; Skrytyi kosmos, 48.

[42] Chertok, Rockets and People, 69-70; Vladimir Suvorov, Alexander Sabelnikov, The First Manned Space Flight: Russia’s Quest for Space (Commack, NY, 1997), 58.

[43] Ibid., 58; A. A. Lobnev, “Vosvrashchenie pervogo kosmonavta,” Gagarinskii sbornik: materialy XXX obshchestvenno-nauchnykh chtenii, posvyashchennykh pamiati Yu. A. Gagarina 2003 g., Chast’ I (Gagarin, 2004), 100.

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