Exactly 50 years ago today Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to ever cross the threshold of our atmosphere into outer space. But how did a small farm boy beat out his better educated, better prepared, and more physically capable competitors for the shot at everlasting fame?
According to an excerpt from Professor Andrew Jenks’ upcoming biography of the first cosmonaut, it was a mixture of Gagarin’s humour, charm, cunning, good looks and Russian-sounding name that got him is place at the head of the line. Though not necessarily requirements for space flight, it’s these same characteristics that would serve him so well as an instant international celebrity. — Ed.
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.
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.
In the (northern) 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”.
After a battery of psychological and physical tests 347 pilots made the first cut out of 3461 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 centre in January 1960 just outside Moscow later dubbed “Star City”.
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-storey 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.
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.
Grace and Humour under Pressure
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 centre. 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.
Aleksei Leonov, one of the final 20cosmonaut 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.'”
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. 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.” 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.
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).
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 summarise him that day.”
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.
The first head of cosmonaut training, who reported to Kamanin, summarised 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 honour.”
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.” Perhaps Kamanin reasoned that it would be better to save Titov for the second, longer flight, since it would be more complicated?
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.
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?”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
Andrew Jenks is an Associate Professor of history at California State University, Long Beach. Jenks is now completing a biography of the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. The book contains elements of conventional biography, telling the story of Gagarin’s astounding feat as well as the challenges he faced in his personal and public life. It also examines Gagarin’s celebrity in Soviet and post-Soviet Russian culture.