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 decision to send a man into space begged a number of questions, including the type of person required for the job. 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.