Category Escaping the Bonds of Earth


John Glenn’s flight – dubbed Mercury-Atlas 6 or, in keeping with Shepard and Grissom’s spacecraft-naming tradition, ‘Friendship 7’ – was eagerly awaited by the United States, although it proved a long time coming. The choice of name, Glenn recalled in his memoir, had been made by his children, Dave and Lyn. ‘‘They pored over a thesaurus and wrote dozens of names in a notebook,’’ he wrote. ‘‘Then they worked them down to several possibilities, names and words, including Columbia, Endeavour, America, Magellan, We, Hope, Harmony and Kindness. At the top of their list was their first choice: Friendship.’’ Although the name would be kept quiet until the morning of launch, Glenn had privately asked Cecelia Bibby, the artist at Hangar S, to inscribe the name on his capsule in script-like characters, adding more individuality than the block lettering employed to stencil Freedom and Liberty Bell onto Shepard and Grissom’s spacecraft.

‘‘From what John Glenn told me later, [he] had decided that he wanted the name of his spacecraft applied in script and applied by hand,’’ Bibby said, ‘‘because Al Shepard’s and Gus Grissom’s names had been applied by some mechanic who went into town, got a can of spray paint, a stencil-cut of the names and then spray-painted them onto the capsule.’’ Apparently, added Bibby, Glenn felt that men had such poor handwriting that a female artist would be preferable. When she painted the name on the capsule, Bibby, clad in white clean-room garb, became the only woman to ascend the gantry to Pad 14 at Cape Canaveral and was even told by a disgruntled Guenter Wendt that she did not belong there. So pleased was Glenn with the design that Gus Grissom dared Bibby to secretly paint naked women on the spacecraft as well.

She rose to the challenge, not by painting on the exterior of Friendship 7, but by drawing a naked woman on the inside of a cap used to cover the periscope. Although the cap would be jettisoned before launch, it would be seen by Glenn as he boarded the capsule and hopefully might give him a laugh. Reading ‘It’s just you and me against the world, John Baby’, the drawing was placed there by Bibby’s friend, launch pad engineer Sam Beddingfield. The launch itself was scrubbed, but Bibby got into work the following morning to find a note from Glenn, ‘‘telling me he had


With artist Cece Bibby proudly looking on, John Glenn displays the Friendship 7 logo on the side of his spacecraft.

gotten a big kick out of the drawing”. Bibby was almost fired for her practical joke, although fortunately both Grissom and Glenn intervened on her behalf and saved her. Later in the launch preparations, she sent Glenn another gift: this time a drawing of a frumpy old woman in a house dress, bearing mop and bucket and the legend ‘You were expecting maybe someone else, John Baby?’ Not long afterwards, Glenn’s backup, Scott Carpenter, requested a naked woman for his own capsule, Aurora 7, which would fly the second American orbital mission in May 1962 …

Sadly, the news at the beginning of the year was nowhere near as light-hearted: a launch attempt on 16 January was postponed by at least a week, due to technical problems with the Atlas rocket’s fuel tanks. With each successive delay, more criticism was voiced from journalists and congressmen, who questioned whether Project Mercury – already a year behind the Soviets – would ever succeed in placing a man into orbit. Even President Kennedy, at a news conference on 14 February, expressed disappointment, although he felt that the final decision on when to launch should be left to the Mercury team. Others, however, commended NASA’s frankness in conveying the reasons for each delay. It was stressed that the orbital mission had been planned for over three years and a few more weeks’ delay was of little consequence, a sentiment shared by Glenn himself, who described being not “particularly shook-up” by the postponements.

Indeed, according to planning charts issued by NASA in April I960, the orbital mission was originally scheduled for May 1961, then July, October and ultimately December. A variety of manufacturing changes to Glenn’s capsule – Spacecraft No. 13 off the McDonnell production line – had contributed to delays in its progress: a shortage of environmental control components had virtually stalled work in October 1960 and then extensive re-planning ordered after the MA-3 failure in April 1961 prompted NASA to assign No. 13 to the first manned orbital mission. By the end of August, the capsule had been delivered to Cape Canaveral and early in January 1962 was mated to its Atlas launch vehicle on Pad 14.

Following the 23 January postponement, caused by poor weather, another attempt was scheduled for the cloudy morning of the 27th. Glenn rose early for his low-residue breakfast of filet mignon, scrambled eggs, orange juice and toast with jelly, before undergoing the laborious process of having biosensors glued onto his body and his pressure suit fitted. That day, he lay inside Friendship 7 for more than five hours, hoping for a break in the overcast skies. It never came and, at T-20 minutes, Walt Williams scrubbed the launch. “It was one of those days,’’ Williams remembered later, “when nothing was wrong, but nothing was just right either.’’ Another event, back in Arlington, Virginia, which did not go right, at least for Vice­President Lyndon Johnson, was his plan to visit Glenn’s home… complete with a television crew and a horde of the media.

Johnson also asked for Life journalist Loudon Wainwright, who was in attendance at Glenn’s house as part of the Mercury Seven magazine deal, to leave. Annie Glenn, who wanted nothing less than to have television lights in her home and wanted Wainwright to stay, flatly rejected Johnson’s request. “I understand the vice­president was pretty pissed off,’’ wrote Deke Slayton, “and that he wasn’t too happy with Jim Webb or Webb’s astronauts at that point.’’ In the weeks that followed, there were theories, Slayton added, “that Webb had gotten ticked-off at John Glenn’’ as a result of the episode and had begun searching for a way in which to better ‘control’ his astronauts. Some observers would speculate that Slayton, assigned to fly the next Mercury-Atlas orbital mission, would be an unfortunate victim of Webb’s politicking. Although it was not a theory that Slayton himself supported, he remained convinced, years later, that the decision made about his career just weeks after Glenn’s flight ‘‘was political’’.

After the 27 January postponement, Glenn’s launch was initially targeted for 1 February, necessitating the emptying, purging and refilling of the Atlas’ propellant tanks. Then, two days before launch, on the 30th, as the ground support team began refuelling, a mechanic discovered, by routinely opening a drain plug, that there was fuel in the cavity between the structural bulkhead and an insulation bulkhead which separated the propellant tanks. Initial estimates suggested at least a ten-day delay to correct the problem and recheck the rocket’s systems. The 600 accredited members of the media at the Cape could do little but groan as John Glenn’s launch was postponed yet again, this time until no earlier than 13 February.

Most of the journalists quickly dispersed, together with Glenn himself, who spent a few days with his family at home in Arlington, before travelling to the White House for a brief visit with President Kennedy. For the astronaut, it was time of peaks and troughs. “I think people normally build up to a peak when they are getting ready for an event as complicated as this,” he said later, “and here we had a situation where we kept building up psychologically and nothing happened. It was like crying ‘wolf5 over and over again. But I needn’t have worried at all. These people kept working and preparing and lost none of their sharpness.’’ Some psychologists were concerned that he would suffer emotionally under the strain. In Glenn’s mind, the delays simply gave him extra time to run each day, to study, to read and respond to mail (one of which told him that it was God’s way of letting him know that he shouldn’t tamper with the heavens) and to work in the simulators.

‘‘If I was suffering,’’ he said, ‘‘I wasn’t aware of it and neither were the psychiatrists whose job it was to keep track of my emotions. The nearest I came to getting upset was after I visited a friend’s house for a home-cooked meal and a quiet evening with his family. A couple of days later, it turned out that the friend’s children had the mumps. As far as I could remember, I’d never had them. Delays for weather and for technical difficulties were facts I could accept, but a postponement or a possible replacement while the astronaut recovered from a childhood disease seemed a bit silly. It would make quite a headline!’’

On 13 February, although weather conditions remained foul, NASA personnel began to move back into position to attempt a launch. The media’s pessimism was reflected in their turnout: by that evening, only 200 had checked in at the nearby Cocoa Beach motels. Their doubt was well-placed and the launch gradually slipped towards the end of the month. By the 19th, with liftoff rescheduled for the following morning, the Weather Bureau predicted only a 50 per cent chance of a launch: conditions in the recovery zones were fine, but the Cape was poor. A frontal system had been observed moving across central Florida, which, it was surmised, could cause broken cloud over the Cape in the early hours of the next day.

Glenn rose early on the morning of 20 February, to be greeted by physician Bill Douglas at 2:00 am, who told him that the weather still offered little more than a 50­50 chance of a successful launch. After breakfast, he underwent the now-customary pre-flight examination and was outfitted with biosensors and helped into his silver pressure suit. Technician Joe Schmitt tested the suit and Bill Douglas ran a hose into a fish tank to check the purity of the air supply – dead fish meaning bad air – which offered Glenn the chance for some humour. ‘‘Bill, did you know a couple of those fish are floating belly-up?’’ Douglas’ shocked reaction as he rushed over to the tank was soon arrested by a broad grin on Glenn’s face.

Out at Pad 14, clouds rolled overhead by the time the astronaut arrived outside the capsule at 6:00 am. However, forecasters were predicting possible breaks by mid-morning, producing a different atmosphere on the gantry, with less casual chatter, as if everyone sensed, said Glenn, ‘‘that we were going for real this time’’. Weather caused the original launch time to be missed and a broken microphone bracket inside Glenn’s helmet required repair before Friendship 7’s hatch could be finally closed and bolted at 7:10 am. One of the bolts sheared, necessitating the removal of the hatch while it was replaced. (Several months earlier, Gus Grissom


Godspeed, John Glenn!” The Atlas takes flight with a man aboard.


flew with a defective hatch bolt, but this time Walt Williams was taking no chances.)

Forty minutes later, the countdown resumed. By the time the pad crew moved clear of the Atlas, Glenn – whose pulse varied from 60-80 beats per minute – was granted his first view of blue skies as the realisation took hold that 20 February might be ‘The Day’. He was also assailed by the peculiar, eerie sense of being atop the silvery rocket. ‘‘I could hear the sound of pipes whining below me as the liquid oxygen flowed into the tanks and heard a vibrant hissing noise,’’ he said later. ‘‘The Atlas is so tall that it sways slightly in heavy gusts of wind and, in fact, I could set the whole structure to rocking a bit by moving back and forth in the couch!’’ Thirty-five minutes before launch, the rocket’s liquid oxygen supply was topped off and, despite another brief hold caused by a stuck fuel pump outlet valve and a last-minute electrical power failure at the Bermuda tracking station, the clock resumed ticking.

With 18 seconds to go, the countdown switched to automatic control and, at four seconds, Glenn ‘‘felt, rather than heard’’ the engines roaring to life far below. At 9:47:39 am, with a thunder that overwhelmed Scott Carpenter’s ‘‘Godspeed, John Glenn’’ send-off, the Atlas’ hold-down posts separated and the enormous rocket began to climb. The ‘gas bag’ was on its way.


As the crew debate continued, the spacecraft itself was put rigorously through its paces in the summer of 1964. Air-drop tests to verify its new soft-landing system were conducted close to the Black Sea resort of Feodosia. These proved initially successful, but on 29 August problems materialised when jettisoning the parachute hatch: an error in the circuit design caused it to fail and the test capsule – which some sources suggest was Gherman Titov’s old Vostok 2 – was destroyed. In retrospect, Korolev claimed the test capsule’s electrical system was not representative of a ‘production’ Voskhod and, at a State Commission on 18 September he declared that he was ready to certify the new spacecraft as ready to fly. The final air-drop on 3 October, with Korolev present, was successful. However, other glitches remained.

Firstly, the launch of a Vostok-based Zenit 4 reconnaissance satellite, employing a rocket identical to that planned for Voskhod 1, was aborted on the pad when one of its first-stage strap-on boosters failed to ignite. It was the first such failure in more than a hundred launches of Korolev’s Little Seven. Rescheduled for mid-September, the Zenit liftoff was normal, quantifying the rocket’s capabilities and clearing it for use with Voskhod 1. Then, as the launch neared, the spacecraft’s Tral telemetry system exhibited discrepancies, requiring a week to fix. Finally, on 6 October, a full – duration, day-long unmanned dress rehearsal of the Voskhod 1 mission was flown under the cover name of ‘Cosmos 47’.

Early plans called for dogs to be flown, although this was eventually set aside in favour of full-sized mannequins. The Cosmos 47 spacecraft duly entered a 177-413 km orbit, inclined 64.8 degrees to the equator, and flew for 24 hours before landing in Kustanai. It was returned to Tyuratam on the 8th for examination, which

“The world’s first passenger spaceship” 189

confirmed that both its interior, exterior and – perhaps most importantly – its soft – landing parachute were in good shape. Indeed, Cosmos 47 was described as having “zero velocity” on impact with the ground, penetrating merely 90 mm into the soil, and, although strong winds dragged the parachute and capsule some 160 m after touchdown, it was decided that a cosmonaut crew could jettison the canopy and endure this. The Little Seven, too, performed well, despite a slight depletion in thrust which was supplemented by the engine controller.

By 11 October, the Moscow rumour mill was billing Voskhod 1 as the ‘Soviet Apollo’; a false illusion that would endure for many years. Wire services relayed news of a forthcoming flight with a cosmonaut known only as ‘K’, who was described as a violin player, a full Communist Party member and the bearer of a Ukrainian accent! Some observers already suspected Vladimir Komarov’s involve­ment, particularly in light of an earlier rumour, in mid-August, when the Vostok 3 and 4 cosmonauts revealed that their backups were ready to fly. Those backups happened to be Komarov and Boris Volynov, which made some sense.

More problems with the Tral system on the evening before launch, which necessitated its last-minute replacement and, according to Nikolai Kamanin in his diary, caused Korolev to fly into a rage, did not conspire to delay the flight. The morning of 12 October dawned frosty, wrote Kamanin, although he considered it ideal: wind speeds were gentle and visibility extended to more than 20 km. The State Commission approved the launch at 3:00 am Moscow Time and, shortly thereafter, the Voskhod 1 crew – Komarov, Yegorov and Feoktistov – were awakened. The men washed, ate breakfast and were fitted with biosensors and dressed in blue flight garments. Since no pressurised suits would be worn, all three were fully outfitted by 7:00 am and ready to ride to the pad. During this quiet time, Kamanin advised them of secret code words to be used during the mission: ‘‘Outstanding’’ would mean just that, ‘‘Good’’ would denote the appearance of problems and ‘‘Satisfactory’’ would request an immediate emergency landing.

By 8:15 am, the cosmonauts had arrived at Gagarin’s Start and Komarov rendered a smart salute and a declaration to the State Commission’s chairman that he and his crew were ready to perform their mission. The two fliers whom Kamanin had labelled ‘invalids’ were first to enter the capsule; donning suede slippers, Yegorov boarded first, then Feoktistov moved to his middle seat and Komarov brought up the rear in his couch, closest to the hatch.

Launch itself came at 10:30 am Moscow Time – or 12:30 pm local time in Tyuratam – and the ride to orbit, thankfully, was uneventful. Indeed, Kamanin and Korolev had already discussed the crew’s dire predicament in the event of a booster failure: a safe recovery was simply impossible for at least the first half-minute of the ascent and even an abort during the remainder of the climb to orbit only ‘‘should’’ have been achievable and survivable. (Korolev, apparently, was so nervous that he was visibly shaking during Voskhod 1’s ascent.) With the benefit of hindsight, it is perhaps fortuitous that only two of these exceptionally high-risk ventures were ever attempted with men aboard.

Five hundred and twenty-three seconds later, Voskhod 1 entered orbit. Communications between Komarov and fellow cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin at


The crew of sardines: Feoktistov, Komarov and Yegorov.

Tyuratam had been clear and consistent throughout the ascent phase and the first few hours of the mission were characterised by only minor problems. A false reading was registered by Yegorov’s biosensors, then there was a two-hour delay in confirming the correct operation of Voskhod 1’s orientation system and the cabin temperature rose unexpectedly from 15°C to 21°C. However, by the seventh orbit, all cabin readings – pressure, humidity, gas composition and temperature – were normal and voice contact and televised images from the cabin proved crisp and clear.

At 11:46 am, a UPI wire revealed that “… the Soviet Union today launched the world’s first passenger spaceship with three men aboard…’’ and Radio Moscow’s famous wartime announcer Yuri Levitan boomed out the news to an astonished world. Orbital parameters were given as 178-408 km, inclined 64.9 degrees to the equator, and radio hams in western Europe and North America picked up Morse transmissions from the spacecraft, identifying Komarov’s callsign of ‘Ruby’. The three cosmonauts extended greetings to the athletes of the 1964 Olympic Games, which had begun two days earlier in Tokyo, and spoke to both Nikita Khrushchev and his deputy, Anastas Mikoyan. At one stage, Khrushchev declared that Mikoyan ‘‘is standing next to me and is keen to take the telephone receiver from me’’. Within hours, not only the telephone receiver, but also the mantle of power as head of the Soviet Union, would have been taken from him. By the time Voskhod 1 parachuted to terra firma on the afternoon of 13 October 1964, Russia would be under new management.

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Physical conditioning would prove crucial for Ed White’s survival on the United States’ first spacewalk, as fellow astronaut Gene Cernan would discover on his own excursion a year later. During training, White spent a total of 60 hours in vacuum chambers, rehearsing opening the hatch, pushing himself outside and moving around in a mockup of the space suit that he would wear, all at simulated altitudes of up to 55 km. The suit itself weighed 14 kg, cost over $30,000 to construct and comprised no fewer than 22 layers to provide protection from the intense heat of direct sunlight to the frigid cold of orbital darkness and, Time magazine told its readers, ‘‘as a pressure force to keep White’s body from exploding in the near-vacuum of space’’. Estimates that the suit could be punctured by a high-velocity micrometeorite were placed at about 10,000 to one, although tests blasted it with splinters of plastic fired at speeds of 7.6 km per second – and it held its own. The hand-held manoeuvring unit, which White would position just below his midriff, consisted of two cylinders of compressed oxygen, belted to a handle which also acted as a trigger to send jets of air through a pair of hollow tubes. White would position it as necessary to aim its impulse through his centre of mass in order to make a specific movement.

As the launch drew nearer and information about the forthcoming spacewalk trickled out, some sections of the media expressed scepticism that it had been a long – planned exercise and felt it was a hastily-concocted stunt to catch up with the Russians. Chris Kraft, the lead flight director for Gemini IV, angrily suppressed such talk. “We’re not playing Mickey Mouse with this thing,” he snapped. “We’re trying to carry out flight operations. I don’t think it’s very fair to suggest we’re carrying out a propaganda stunt.’’

In spite of the doubts, the media response to the mission was enormous. All 800 seats in the MSC’s main auditorium proved woefully inadequate for the 1,100 journalists who requested accreditation before the launch and NASA was forced to lease a nearby building at a total cost of $96,165 per year, plus $181,000 for modifications, television monitors and chairs, to handle the overspill. This ‘Gemini News Center’ would track each mission over the next 17 months and provide a base for over a thousand newspaper, magazine, radio and television representatives, as well as five dozen public relations groups from industry.

Twelve hours before liftoff, a Martin team began the lengthy effort to fuel the Titan II, while the backup crew of Frank Borman and Jim Lovell oversaw checks inside the capsule itself – flipping switches to their launch positions, testing communication circuits and handling routine chores for McDivitt and White. The prime crew was duly awakened at 4:10 am on 3 June 1965 and marched crisply through their medical checks, steak-and-eggs breakfast, suited-up and were at the foot of Pad 19 by 7:07 am. Among the procedures put into place in support of White’s EVA – which would necessitate the depressurisation of the entire cabin, thus exposing McDivitt to vacuum, too – was prebreathing pure oxygen to flush nitrogen from their bloodstreams and avoid attacks of the bends.

Once aboard the spacecraft, White’s faceplate fogged, but he quickly cleared the problem by switching on his suit fan. Then, barely half an hour before the scheduled launch, as the erector was being lowered, it stuck at a 12-degree angle from the Titan. A second attempt was made to raise then lower it, but it stuck again. Eventually, engineers discovered an improperly-fitted connector in a junction box, replaced it and the erector lowered. After a 76-minute delay, Gemini IV speared for the heavens at 10:16 am, to the synchronised yells of ‘‘Beautiful!’’ from both McDivitt and White. Despite initial pogo effects, which caused the astronauts to stutter their words over the communications link, the Titan quickly calmed down and gave them a perfect ride to orbit. They would later describe it as exhibiting little noise, but stressed that the near-perfect silence was shattered abruptly when pyrotechnics jettisoned the first stage and the second stage ignited.

Monitoring the ascent and, indeed, the entire mission, were 300 flight controllers, technicians, engineers, physicians, and scientists supervised by Chris Kraft in the new MOCR. In the Real Time Computer Complex, five IBM 7094-11 computers each processed 50,000 bits of telemetry per second from the vehicle. Also watching the launch, thanks to live television coverage from the Intelsat 1 (‘Early Bird’) satellite in geostationary orbit, were citizens of a dozen European nations.

Within minutes, Gemini IV had entered an initial elliptical orbit of 163-282 km and, almost immediately, McDivitt set to work on the first task of the mission: to station-keep with the Titan II’s second stage. It was whilst attempting this manoeuvre that they encountered problems. Firstly, despite having been outfitted with flashing, 2.5 million-candlepower lights, the stage had not been designed as a rendezvous target and when the capsule entered orbital nighttime, it was rendered almost invisible to them. Moreover, it was tumbling and the astronauts were cautious about getting too close. Difficulty in judging distances by eyesight alone complicated matters yet further.

When they first spotted the booster, propellant streaming from its nozzle, McDivitt estimated it to be 120 m from them, whereas White felt it was 70 m away. McDivitt cancelled the motion imparted by the separation manoeuvre and thrusted towards the target, but after two OAMS burns he was surprised to observe that the Titan seemed to move ‘away’ and ‘downward’. A few minutes later, he pitched the spacecraft nose-down and pulsed the thrusters again, with no success. Approaching orbital nighttime by this point, he reported that he could see the flashing lights, but that the gap seemed to have increased, he guessed, to around 600 m. For a while, circumstances improved and McDivitt felt he was gaining on the stage, but with the early streaks of dawn its lights dimmed and vanished from view. At length, realising that he was wasting precious propellant, McDivitt asked Chris Kraft which objective was more important – rendezvous or EVA – and was assured that the latter was the mission’s main task.

Their biggest obstacle of all, as rendezvous expert (and fellow astronaut) Buzz Aldrin would explain after the flight, was a lack of understanding of basic orbital mechanics. ‘‘When they emerged into daylight, the booster was below and ahead of Gemini IV,’’ wrote Tom Stafford, who was following the mission closely in anticipation of his own rendezvous on Gemini VI. ‘‘Jim’s instinctive move was to thrust toward it, as though he were flying formation in a jet airplane. By doing so, of course, he increased the speed – and moved into a higher orbit even further behind the booster. The only way to get even close to the Titan, in these circumstances, would have been to fire thrusters retrograde – against the direction of travel – slowing the Gemini and dropping its orbit.’’ It was an early lesson: adding speed raises altitude, moving a spacecraft into a higher orbit than its target. However, paradoxically, the faster-moving spacecraft actually slows in comparison to the target, since its orbital period – a direct function of its distance from the centre of gravity – also increases. To catch up with a target ahead, future crews would drop into a lower orbit, then rise back up to meet it.

It was an early lesson, admittedly, but not an easy one. ‘‘It’s a hard thing to learn,’’ wrote Deke Slayton, ‘‘since it’s kind of backward from anything you know as a pilot.’’ Added engineer Andre Meyer: ‘‘We just didn’t understand or reason out the orbital mechanics involved. As a result, we all got a whole lot smarter and really perfected rendezvous manoeuvres.’’


On a bleak, featureless expanse of steppe, some 200 km east of the Aral Sea, lies a tiny junction on the Moscow-to-Tashkent railway, known as Tyuratam. In the local

Kazakh tongue, its name is roughly translatable as the gravesite of Tyura, beloved son of the great Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, whose medieval empire spanned much of Asia. According to some sources, the place began as an ancient cattle­rearing settlement on the north bank of the Syr Darya River, although at least one Soviet-era journalist expressed preference for giving it a more modern origin, hinting at its foundation as recently as 1901 as an outpost to refill steam engines passing between Orenburg and Tashkent.

Its significance over the past half a century, though, cannot be disputed. It was from this sparsely populated region, five decades ago, that the first steps of a journey far more audacious, much longer and considerably more difficult than any the Great Khan could have envisaged were taken. It was this place that Gary Powers, following the line of railway tracks in his U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, tried to find when he was shot down in May I960. It was this remote corner of old Soviet Central Asia – a region swarming with scorpions, snakes and poisonous spiders, whose climate is characterised by vicious dust storms, soaring summertime highs of 50°C and plummeting wintertime lows of -25°C – that a young man, clad in a bloated, pumpkin-orange suit and glistening white helmet, sat atop a converted ballistic missile, defied all the odds and took humanity’s first voyage beyond the cradle of Earth.

One morning in April 1961, as five months of bitter snow and fierce, hurricane – strength blizzards yielded to the first murmurings of spring on the steppe, his kind achieved what had previously existed only in dreams. He rose from Earth, as Socrates once said, right to the top of the atmosphere and beyond and obtained a glimpse of the world from which he came. Contrary to some long-held expectations, the vista that Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin beheld from 175-300 km high was not flat, nor could he discern any atlas-like lines dividing the countries, nor still, it is said, did he perceive any physical notion of God. Instead, he saw a beautiful, fragile oasis; a world iridescent with life and colour, encircled by what he described as “a very distinct and pretty blue halo’’ of an atmosphere, which almost merged into the blackness of space beyond. Flying at 28,000 km/h, in his journey of just 108 minutes, he somehow managed to plant fleeting images into his brain of rivers, islands, continents, forests and mountains. Never before had they been seen from so high by human eyes.

It is hardly surprising that the site from which he left Earth – known today simply as ‘Gagarin’s Start’ and still used to blast humans into space – was kept under wraps by the Soviet government. Indeed, in the early Seventies, when American astronaut Tom Stafford asked to visit the site in readiness for the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission, he met stubborn resistance. The Soviets’ desire to mislead and confuse prying westerners about this ultra-secret place was pursued to such an extent that even its name remained imprecise. Today, it is still variously known as Tyuratam, after the tiny railhead, or, more often, as Baikonur, which covers a wider and different geographical area. In fact, the town of Baikonur is more than 200 km from the launch base. For this reason, at a 1975 press conference, ABC News anchorman Jules Bergman expressed displeasure at the Baikonur name, pointing out that, despite its diminutive size, Tyuratam is actually closer.


Clad in space suit and helmet, the first man in space, Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin, bids farewell to the genius who made his flight possible, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev.

Whatever one’s preference, in February 1955 the site was chosen for a research and testing facility for the R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile; a missile developed by Sergei Korolev, the famed ‘chief designer’ of early Soviet spacecraft and rockets, originally to deliver huge warheads across distances of several thousand kilometres and, later, to send the first men into orbit. Assembly of the R-7 base – consisting of airports, rocket hangars, control blockhouses and the first of several colossal launch pads – was completed in a little over two years and, on 4 October 1957, one of these behemoths carried the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, aloft. Within a month, a living creature, the dog Laika, was boosted into space aboard Sputnik 2. However, not all missions were successful: two of Korolev’s Mars-bound probes exploded shortly after liftoff and in October I960 an R-16 missile misfired on the pad, destroying the launch complex in a conflagration which claimed the lives of almost 130 technicians, military officers, engineers and Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin. An American reconnaissance satellite, which overflew the site a day later, saw only a blackened smudge across the barren steppe. The awful truth of exactly what happened would not reach western ears for decades.

Ironically, only days before the R-16 disaster, Premier Nikita Khrushchev had boasted to the United Nations that Russia was producing intercontinental ballistic missiles ‘‘like sausages from a machine’’. On the fateful night of 23 October, just half an hour before its scheduled liftoff, the R-16 exploded, destroying the launch pad and breaking in half. Everyone in the vicinity of the inferno was either incinerated in the 3,000°C temperatures or succumbed to the missile’s toxic propellants. Marshal Nedelin’s remains were recognisable only from a Gold Star pinned to his uniform, whilst another man was identified from the height of his burned corpse. Although the R-16 was not directly connected to the R-7, which would be used for piloted missions, its loss caused an inevitable delay to the first manned space launch. In fact, many design organisations were involved with both the R-16 and R-7 and Nedelin himself chaired the State Commission for the man-in-space effort.

Consequently, in spite of its relative youth, the place already had historic and tragic attributes by the time Nikolai Kamanin, head of the newly-established cosmonaut team, arrived there in the spring of 1961 to oversee final preparations to send a man into space. The middle-aged Kamanin was one of the Soviet Air Force’s most distinguished generals, having led air brigades and divisions during the Second World War. In 1934 he had received the coveted Hero of the Soviet Union accolade for his role in the daring rescue of the icebound steamship Chelyuskin on the frozen Chukchi Sea. Throughout the Sixties, as the cosmonauts’ commander, Kamanin frequently disagreed with Korolev over differing policies, attitudes and requirements for the spacecraft and rockets, the men who would ride them and the often whimsical desires of the Soviet leadership. His memoirs are preserved in a series of quite remarkable diary entries, first published in 1995, which reveal a tough, bitter man who would blame his country’s loss of the Moon race on Soviet engineers’ unwillingness to give cosmonauts active control of their spacecraft.

Kamanin’s diaries paint a portrait of a man who fought fiercely for ‘his’ cosmonauts and show the close relationship between them during their time together on the isolated Kazakh steppe. However, he has also been described by space analyst Jim Oberg as an ‘‘authoritarian space tsar, a martinet’’ and by Soviet journalist Yaroslav Golovanov as ‘‘a malevolent person… a complete Stalinist bastard’’. Others, including cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, have proven more complimentary, seeing him as ‘‘very approachable” with a keen love of sports, especially tennis. Still, his brand of leadership, in most cases, successfully prepared the first generation of space explorers for their ventures into the heavens.

By the beginning of April 1961, wrote Kamanin, a number of obstacles remained to be overcome before a man could be launched. The basic design of his spacecraft had already been established and tested under the smokescreen name of ‘Korabl – Sputnik’ (‘Spaceship-Satellite’) which, between May 1960 and March 1961, had ferried dogs, rats, mice, flies, plant seeds, fungi and even a full-sized human mannequin famously nicknamed ‘Ivan Ivanovich’ into orbit. These missions evaluated everything from the spacecraft’s habitability to the performance of its ejection seat. Some proved to be dismal failures: the retrorockets of one mission fired in the wrong direction, sending the capsule into a higher orbit, while a July 1960 attempt exploded seconds after liftoff, killing its two canine passengers, Chaika and Lisichka. Others, notably the flight of the dogs Belka and Strelka, were hugely successful.

The latter were launched at 11:44 am on 19 August, accompanied by mice, insects, plants, fungi, cultures, seeds of corn, wheat, peas, onions, microbes, strips of human skin and other specimens. Two internal cameras provided televised views of them throughout the day-long mission. At first, the images showed the dogs to be deathly still – Belka, in particular, squirmed uncomfortably and vomited during the fourth orbit – prompting medical chief Vladimir Yazdovsky to gloomily recommend no more than one circuit for the first manned flight. The dogs’ return to Earth, however, was perfect and the capsule landed just 10 km from its intended spot in the Orsk region of the southern Urals. Belka and Strelka earned their places in history as the first living creatures recovered safely from orbit.

Upon examination, both were found to be in excellent condition, with no fundamental changes to their health. This data, together with the exemplary performance of the capsule’s systems, provided encouragement that a Soviet man could be launched before the year’s end. In fact, documentation from the Council of Chief Designers to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, produced around this time and finally declassified in 1991, revealed the formal timetable for sending a human pilot aloft. It recommended one or two more test flights in October and November I960, before attempting a manned shot in December. Signed by ministerial heads, rather than the standard deputy ministers, the document clearly reflected how important the man-in-space effort was to the Soviet leadership.

Known as ‘Vostok’ (‘East’ or ‘Upward Rising’), the machine that Yuri Gagarin, Gherman Titov and others would fly comprised a spherical cabin to house the cosmonaut and a double-cone-shaped instrument section. However, unlike the United States’ man-in-space effort, the true form of Vostok remained hidden from the world and would not be revealed in its entirety until a full-scale model appeared at the Moscow Economic Exhibition in April 1965. Until then, the Soviet Union’s propaganda apparatus continued to misinform western observers as to precisely what kind of spacecraft had placed the first man into orbit. Careful to maintain the ambiguity, Gagarin himself waxed lyrical, cryptically describing it as ‘‘more beautiful than a locomotive, a steamer, a plane, a palace and a bridge; more beautiful than all of these creations put together’’. His praise, though under­standable, was not especially helpful. In the four years before Vostok was finally unveiled, the world could rely only on brief clips from Soviet documentaries and scenes from the Moscow Parades, which variously showed a contraption with an attached rocket stage, payload shroud and even, in the case of Vostok 2, a pair of short, stubby wings.

Today, at the Tsiolkovsky Museum in Kaluga, just south-west of Moscow, Vostok is presented for what it was: a 4,730 kg monster of a spacecraft, some 4.4 m in length and 2.4 m wide. Its capsule – nicknamed ‘the ball’ or ‘sharik’ (‘little sphere’) by the cosmonauts – comprised a little over half of its total weight, rendering it so heavy that not only a hefty parachute, but also an impact-cushioning rocket, would be needed to bring a man safely to the ground. Since this additional weight would have pushed it above the R-7’s payload capacity, Soviet designers incorporated an escape system to stabilise Vostok’s own descent by parachute, then allowing the cosmonaut to eject at a relatively low altitude of 7 km and land under his own canopy. During his descent, he would separate from his seat and touch down at about 5 m/sec. The Vostok, on the other hand, would impact roughly twice as fast, easily sufficient to injure the cosmonaut had he remained inside.

Questions of whether or not cosmonauts remained aboard their capsules throughout descent and landing were by no means insignificant. In order for such flights to be officially recognised for their achievements – specifically by taking the World Aviation Altitude Record – the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) required pilots to remain inside their machines from launch until landing. This would sidestep any accusation that they had been obliged to abandon their ships due to problems and ensure that their missions would be considered a successful ‘first’. The reality that none of Vostok’s fliers accompanied their capsules to the ground, but still made successful flights, was kept carefully hidden by the Soviets for many years.

In June I960, Korolev took Gagarin, Titov and 18 other cosmonauts to his OKB – 1 design bureau in Kaliningrad, north-east of Moscow, to see the first Vostoks in production. Their silvery spheres contained no aerodynamics, control surfaces or propulsion systems and, with their double-coned instrument sections, could only stand upright with the aid of metal frames. All of the cosmonauts were fighter pilots who could barely comprehend what they were seeing. All were enthusiastic to someday guide these machines through space, but none could understand how, without wings, they were supposed to do it.

Within the capsule, they found a tan-coloured rubber cladding, covering a myriad of wiring and piping, with little obvious instrumentation, save for a single panel containing switches, status indicators, a chronometer and a small globe representing Earth. Other systems would provide Vostok’s fliers with temperature, pressure, carbon dioxide, oxygen and radiation readings, as well as ticking off each circuit of their home planet. The bulky ejection seat occupied much of the cabin. At its foot was the ‘Vzor’ (‘Eyesight’) periscope to indicate that the spacecraft was correctly oriented for atmospheric re-entry. It consisted of a central view, encircled by eight ports; when Vostok was perfectly centred with respect to the horizon, all eight would be lit up. Within reach of the cosmonaut was a small food locker, providing up to ten days’ worth of supplies, and herein lay one of the problems that, in April 1961, stood in the way of future flights.

Attached to the base of the capsule was the double-coned instrument section, some 2.25 m long and 2.4 m wide and weighing 2,270 kg. Spread around the ‘waist’ between the two sections was a set of 16 spherical oxygen and nitrogen tanks for Vostok’s life-support system. At the bottom was the TDU-1 retrorocket, which employed a self-igniting mixture of nitrous oxide and an amine-based fuel. Capable of delivering a total thrust of 1,614 kg with a specific impulse of 266 seconds, the device would operate for 45 seconds with a 275 kg propellant load, slowing Vostok by around 155 m/sec to permit atmospheric entry at the end of a mission.

As long as the retrorocket operated without incident, the best opportunities for bringing the capsule back to Earth, and back to Soviet territory, were after one orbital pass – as was planned for Gagarin’s flight – or a full day later, somewhere in the midst of the 17th revolution. Admittedly, it could be fired at any other time, if necessary, but at the risk of bringing Vostok down within foreign borders or possibly


The Vostok spacecraft during construction in the assembly shop.

into the sea. However, in the worst-case scenario that the retrorocket should fail to fire at all, the cosmonaut may have had to remain in orbit for up to ten days until his spacecraft naturally decayed from orbit. Although food and water were made available for such a long flight, the capsule’s lithium hydroxide canisters, meant to scrub exhaled carbon dioxide from the cabin, proved insufficient and in ground tests were expended within four days. Since Gagarin’s mission would last only a couple of hours, Kamanin felt that this would not preclude the ability to launch him in April 1961, but believed a new approach would be needed for longer flights.

Other obstacles had arisen during the Korabl-Sputnik missions, among them the 800 kg ejection seat. Although the ejection of a dog named Chernushka from the Korabl-Sputnik 4 spacecraft on 9 March 1961 and that of another dog, Zvezdochka, together with the life-sized mannequin Ivan Ivanovich, from Korabl-Sputnik 5 two weeks later, were successful, sea-based trials proved harder to quantify. Despite these misgivings, after three successful tests on the ground and from an Il-28 aircraft, coupled with the Korabl-Sputnik results, the seat was declared ready.

Months earlier, in September 1960, Korolev had submitted his proposal for a human flight to the Central Committee of the Communist Party and received approval. His original plan was to stage the mission before the end of that year, but the failure of Korabl-Sputnik 3 on 1 December – in which the dogs Pchelka and Mushka were incinerated, said the Soviets, when their capsule re-entered the atmosphere at too steep an angle – cast doubt on this schedule. (In reality, Korabl – Sputnik 3 had suffered a failure of its TDU-1 retrorocket and was remotely destroyed lest it land in foreign territory.) Another attempt just three weeks later uncovered a rare anomaly with the R-7 booster itself, whose third stage ran out of thrust halfway to space, although both of its canine passengers were ejected safely … landing thousands of kilometres off-course in a remote and inhospitable area of Siberia. Earlier in the year, another R-7 had exploded seconds after liftoff, ironically with many of the cosmonauts on hand to watch. “We saw how it could fly,” Gherman Titov said darkly. “More important, we saw how it blows up.”

By 7 April 1961, the final decision to go ahead with the mission was made and events moved rapidly. The Soviets were keenly aware that the United States’ first attempt to put a man into space was imminent, perhaps as soon as 28 April, although Kamanin firmly believed that Vostok would beat them. By this time, Gagarin and Titov had been selected as the prime and backup candidates for the flight. Their last few days were spent undergoing refresher classes on spacecraft and rocket systems, including the troublesome ejection seats. At one meeting, Kamanin reminded them of the option to fire the seat manually in the event of an emergency. Titov expressed total confidence in the seat and felt that worrying about it was a waste of time. Gagarin, on the other hand, offered a more considered response, perhaps so as not to embarrass Titov or the seat’s engineers, by pointing out that although his confidence was high, the manual option increased his chance of survival. He certainly knew how to play the game of cosmonaut politics.

It is difficult, though, to determine if one single event allowed the decision of Gagarin over Titov to be made. In their 1998 biography of Gagarin, Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony stressed that Kamanin himself had a hard time deciding between the two men. Only days before the mission, he noted in his diary that Titov completed his training more accurately than Gagarin, but that Titov’s “stronger character’’ put him in a better position to fly Vostok 2, which was planned to spend a full day in space. Others have hinted that Korolev simply liked Gagarin from their first meeting, that his calmness under duress and even his respectful removal of his boots before entering a Vostok capsule in the OKB-1 workshop may have played a part. Of equal, perhaps overriding, significance from the Soviet government’s point of view was the political need to favour a humble farmboy (Gagarin) over Titov, a more bourgeois teacher’s son. Even the simplicity of character between Gagarin and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, both of whom came from peasant roots, has been cited, together with Titov’s perceived lack of charm, reserved personality and ‘strangeness’ when spouting from memory reams of poetry or quotes from tsarist literature.

Certainly, an early evaluation of Gagarin’s personality, conducted in August 1960 by Soviet Air Force physicians and psychologists, was highly favourable of his ‘other’ talents. It read: ‘‘Modest: embarrasses when his humour gets a little too racy: high degree of intellectual development evident in Yuri; fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his sharp and far-ranging sense of attention to his surroundings: a well-developed imagination: quick reactions: persevering, prepares himself painstakingly for his activities and training exercises, handles celestial mechanics and mathematical formulae with ease as well as excels in higher mathematics: does not feel constrained when he has to defend his point of view if he considers himself right: appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends…” He seemed the perfect choice.

On 9 April, that choice was publicly made and filmed in colour by the official cameraman, Vladimir Suvorov. In reality, the decision had been made in secret the previous day, after which Kamanin had told both cosmonauts the outcome. Titov, he wrote, was visibly disappointed to have lost the flight, but both men mimed their way through ‘spontaneous’, though pre-rehearsed, speeches. Ironically, Suvorov’s camera ran out of film halfway through the acceptance speech, forcing Gagarin to repeat everything, word for word.

At 5:00 am Moscow Time on 11 April, the enormous R-7 booster, carrying the Vostok 1 spacecraft – simply labelled ‘Vostok’, so as to give no hint to the world that it might be the first in a series of missions – left the main assembly building in a horizontal position atop a railcar. Korolev, who knew it intimately as his ‘Semyorka’ (‘Little Seven’), accompanied it to the launch pad. Fuelled by liquid oxygen and kerosene, it consisted of a two-stage core, measuring 34 m long and 3 m in diameter and weighed 280,000 kg. Strapped around the core were four tapering boosters. Upon arrival at the pad, it was raised to a vertical position, ready for the arrival of its human passenger early the next morning. Liftoff was set for 9:07 am on 12 April, with plans calling for the jettison of the strap-on boosters two minutes into the flight, followed by insertion into low-Earth orbit at 9:18 am. Half an hour later, Vostok would orient itself in preparation for an automatic retrofire at 10:25 am, parachute deployment from the capsule at 10:43 am, ejection of Gagarin at 10:44 am and touchdown of both shortly thereafter. The entire flight would be shorter than one of today’s Hollywood blockbusters.

That night, the prime and backup cosmonauts stayed in a cottage close to the pad, their every toss and turn monitored by strain gauges fitted to their mattresses to allow physicians to determine whether they experienced restful sleep. The results indicated that they did, but Gagarin would later admit to Korolev that he hardly rested at all and spent much of his time trying to remain perfectly still in bed, so that he would be declared well prepared to fly the following morning. Months later, he would joke with Kamanin that the only reason Titov did not ride Vostok 1 was because he had rolled over in his sleep. Korolev also slept very little. His major concern was that the R-7’s third stage might fail during the ascent, perhaps dropping the spacecraft into the ocean near Cape Horn, an area notorious for its violent storms. Shortly before the launch, he demanded that a telemetry antenna be set up at Tyuratam to confirm the satisfactory operation of the third stage; if it worked as planned, the telemetry data would print out a string of ‘fives’ on tape, but if not, there would be a string of ‘twos’.

At 5:30 am on what is now universally known as ‘Cosmonautics Day’, 12 April 1961, Korolev and his head of medical preparations, Vladimir Yazdovsky, woke Gagarin and Titov from their slumbers. After washing, shaving and a breakfast of meat puree and toast with blackcurrant jam, physicians glued sensor pads onto their torsos and sent them to the spacecraft assembly building to don their pumpkin – orange suits. These had been designed by Gai Severin, the Soviet Union’s most accomplished manufacturer of attire and ejection seats for MiG fighter pilots. Severin utilised several key elements of earlier suit designs – including a tight fit around the legs to prevent blood from pooling into the lower torso and starving the supply to the brain – to protect Gagarin from the rapid acceleration of the R-7. The main layers of the suit, designed and built in only nine months, consisted of a blue – tinted rubber material, overlaid by the high-visibility orange coverall.

On launch morning, Titov donned his suit first in order to reduce Gagarin’s time spent overheating inside his own uncomfortable garment. As he continued his own suiting-up, Gagarin realised for the first time that he was – or soon would be – the most famous man on Earth. In his heavily-censored account of the mission, ‘The Road to the Stars’, published later in 1961, he recalled technicians offering him slips of paper and work passes on which to scrawl his signature. Titov beheld this and wished Gagarin luck, although he was disappointed and, even as he rode the bus to the launch pad, considered his role that day as hopeless. ‘‘He was commanding the flight and I was his backup,’’ Titov said later, ‘‘but we both knew, ‘just in case’ wasn’t going to happen. What could happen at this late stage? Was he going to catch the flu between the bus and the launch gantry? Break his leg? It was all nonsense! We shouldn’t have gone out to the launch pad together. Only one of us should have gone.’’ Vladimir Yazdovsky, who was also aboard the bus and gave him the order to remove his suit as soon as Gagarin was strapped inside Vostok, recalled Titov’s tension. Admittedly, Titov would fly Vostok 2 in a few months’ time, but history would not recall the Second Cosmonaut with the same clarity as the First.

Much tradition surrounds Gagarin’s trip to the pad, including, famously, his need to relieve himself through his suit’s urine tube against the tyres of the bus. Unable to share the going-away custom of kissing three times on alternate cheeks, he and Titov merely clanked their helmets together in a sign of solidarity. Korolev gave Gagarin a tiny pentagon of metal – a duplicate of a plaque flown on the Luna 1 probe two years before – and wryly suggested that, someday, perhaps the First Cosmonaut could pick up the original from the Moon’s dusty surface.

After reaching the top of the gantry, Gagarin manoeuvred himself into his ejection seat. Senior engineer Oleg Ivanovsky and chief test pilot Mark Gallai tightened his harnesses and plugged his suit hoses into Vostok’s oxygen supply. After giving him a good-luck tap on his helmet, Ivanovsky motioned for Gagarin to lift his faceplate to inform him of three significant numbers.

Since the beginning of their adventure in space, the Soviets had operated their machines through on-board systems controlled exclusively from the ground and, for a time, considered that manned missions should be undertaken in the same way. What would happen, wondered the medical experts, if a cosmonaut went mad in orbit, overcome by a profound sense of separation from his home planet, or even attempted to defect to the west, deliberately bringing his capsule down onto foreign soil? Guidance, it was decided, must be automatic.

However, if the cosmonaut’s sanity and devotion to the Motherland could be demonstrated, and if he needed to assume command, a six-digit keypad was provided to unlock Vostok’s navigation system, disengage it from the automatic controls and

allow him to fly the ship. The three-digit combination for the keypad would be radioed to Gagarin if ground staff considered him sane enough to take over. Yet the logic was questionable: what would happen if Vostok lost attitude control or its radio went dead and communications were impossible? Instead, a face-saving measure was adopted, whereby the three-digit code would be kept in a sealed envelope aboard the spacecraft, ready for the cosmonaut to open if needed. Gagarin’s ability to open the envelope, type in the numbers and activate the keypad would supposedly ‘prove’ that he had not lost his mind and was fully aware of his actions.

‘‘ft was a dangerous comedy,’’ Ivanovsky recalled later, ‘‘part of the silly secrecy we had in those days.’’ The envelope, though, had to be placed somewhere within easy reach, should he need to get to it in an emergency and a mentally unstable Gagarin could easily have opened it if he really wanted to do so. Mark Gallai, whose role included supervising the training of the Vostok cosmonauts, agreed, pointing out that all were qualified military pilots with experience of flying high-altitude, nighttime missions. The chance of them going mad was considerably less likely than suffering a radio failure. Consequently, betraying an official state secret and theoretically putting himself at risk of a lengthy prison spell, fvanovsky told Gagarin the three digits: 1-2-5. To his surprise, the cosmonaut smiled and replied that Kamanin had already given him the combination!

Assisted by Tyuratam’s chief of rocket troops, Vladimir Shapovalov, and two launch pad staff members, the next task for fvanovsky and Gallai was to seal Gagarin inside his capsule for liftoff. At this point, a problem reared its head. A series of electrical contacts encircling Vostok’s hatch should have registered a signal – known as ‘KP-3’ – to Korolev and his control team in the nearby blockhouse, informing them that it was secure. Furthermore, the signal was supposed to confirm that explosive charges around the hatch could jettison it at a millisecond’s notice in the event of an emergency and enable Gagarin to eject. On the gantry, the contacts seemed fine and the enormous hatch – which ‘‘weighed about a hundred kilos and was a metre wide,’’ according to fvanovsky – was manhandled into place and the laborious process of screwing its 30 bolts began. No sooner had they finished, the launch pad’s telephone rang. No KP-3 signal had been received, barked Korolev, and he demanded that they unscrew, remove, then reseal the hatch. After more fiddling, it was done. This time, thankfully, the KP-3 signal came back clearly.

ft was now less than 40 minutes away from the projected 9:07 am launch. fvanovsky, Gallai and the remaining personnel left the pad for the nearest control bunker. Vladimir Suvorov, determined to seize the most important photo opportunity of his career, stayed out in the open and would record some of the 20th century’s most remarkable imagery as the first man headed into space. Elsewhere, Gherman Titov was midway through stripping off his own space suit and his neckpiece was halfway over his head when the attending technicians disappeared to watch the launch. Meanwhile, alone in his tiny capsule, the young Soviet Air Force senior lieutenant, who had celebrated his 27th birthday and the birth of his second daughter a few weeks earlier, could scarcely have believed that his humble, peasant-stock roots in the small Russian village of Klushino could possibly have brought him this far.


Before February 1963, it seemed that the likely outcome of the woman-in-space project would involve two female cosmonauts, launched 24 hours apart in the March-April timeframe, with each spending two or three days aloft. Valentina Tereshkova was considered the most likely candidate for Vostok 5, with Valentina Ponomaryova following her aboard Vostok 6. Within weeks, the picture had changed considerably. A meeting of the Presidium of the Communist Party on 21 March killed off the plans and insisted instead that only one woman should fly and a male cosmonaut – a Soviet Air Force lieutenant-colonel named Valeri Fyodorovich Bykovsky, born on 2 August 1934 in Pavlovsky Posad, near Moscow – would be rushed into last-minute refresher training for the other Vostok. By inserting Bykovsky into the mix at such a late stage, the joint flight would have to be delayed; but, due to the limited shelf-life of the Vostok hardware, it would still have to fly before July 1963.

Like Gagarin, Titov, Nikolayev and Popovich before him, Bykovsky had been selected as a cosmonaut trainee in March I960 and had a similar background. He had been one of the final six candidates for the first Vostok mission and, although his examination scores were good, it was noted that he made few important or substantial contributions to group discussions. His performance on Vostok 5, though, would be nothing short of exemplary and would mark the beginning of an illustrious, three-flight cosmonaut career, as well as securing a record which still stands to this day for the longest solo space mission in history. His backup, according to the final crew selections made on 10 May 1963, was Boris Volynov.

Only days earlier, Nikolai Kamanin had written in his diary that the joint endeavour would occur within the following six-week period, but noted that both Bykovsky and Volynov needed to make a few more parachute jumps and additional training runs in the Vostok simulator before being cleared for the mission. Two support cosmonauts, Alexei Leonov and Yevgeni Khrunov, were also listed as requiring more centrifuge training, pushing the launch until no earlier than the second week of June. Then, when the State Commission convened on 4 June, concerns were raised that wind speeds for 7 June were expected to be around 15-20 m/sec, exceeding the uppermost limit at which an R-7 could be launched. The failure of a command radio line, which required three or four days to repair, enforced an additional delay. A 10 June liftoff also became untenable due to the intensity of increased solar flare activity and the Crimean Observatory warned that risks would remain high for several days.

Even on 14 June, when Bykovsky finally clambered aboard Vostok 5, circumstances were far from perfect. Firstly, controllers reported that the ultra­shortwave transmitters on the spacecraft were refusing to operate properly; it was decided that, to avoid halting the launch preparations, the mission would rely upon its shortwave transmitters instead. Then a stuck pin in the ejection hatch caused a 30- minute delay and, finally, shortly before liftoff, the indicator light on the control panel for the R-7’s third stage failed to light up as it should have done. This problem was traced to a failure in the stage’s gyroscope instrumentation unit. Korolev was furious and began a heated argument, in front of other colleagues, with Viktor Kuznetsov, the man responsible for the gyroscope systems. Indeed, it was not a minor problem: the failure could have had a devastating impact on the mission and, if not fixed quickly, Vostok 5 would have been postponed another day, the rocket drained of its propellants and returned to the assembly building. Readying it for another attempt would have pushed the spacecraft itself past its shelf-life and derailed both flights. In light of these facts, it is perhaps not surprising that the hot­headed Korolev reacted as he did.

Fortunately, one of Kuznetsov’s deputies announced that his engineers could replace the offending unit within a couple of hours and Bykovsky was kept aboard Vostok 5. At length, the cosmonaut – callsigned ‘Hawk’ – finally headed for space at 2:58:58 pm Moscow Time. Sadly, a less-than-nominal performance by the R-7 immediately reduced his mission from an expected ten-day orbital decay, which would have ensured eight days aloft, to an eight-day decay and a flight of around five or six days. The final orbit achieved was 162-209 km, inclined 65 degrees to the equator. Indeed, Bykovsky would recount in his post-mission debriefing that ‘‘the engine noise of the launch vehicle was weak’’, adding that, after separation from the rocket, he noticed a lot of frost particles which rendered it difficult for him to properly orient Vostok 5 to view the expended third stage. Nonetheless, for Khrushchev, the launch was ideal, corresponding as it did with a visit to Moscow by Harold Wilson, then-leader of Britain’s Labour opposition. When asked by Wilson how many cosmonauts were in space this time, Khrushchev could not help but gleefully reply: ‘‘Only one… so far!’’

By the early hours of 16 June, it was clear to many western radio enthusiasts that something extraordinary was about to happen at Tyuratam, and Tereshkova was duly launched aboard Vostok 6 at 12:29:52 pm Moscow Time. Her liftoff, she reported later, was ‘‘excellent’’ and her experience of weightlessness presented no problems. In fact, despite her pulse rate soaring to 140 during the elevator ride up the gantry to the capsule, she seemed to have handled the ascent into orbit better than Nikolayev or Popovich, according to her biomedical readings. Original plans had called for her to launch five days into Bykovsky’s mission, thus enabling them to both land on the same day, but the changes to the Vostok 5 duration called for a liftoff on his third orbital day instead. Both would then land on 19 June.

After insertion into space, Tereshkova’s orbital plane caused the two Vostoks to draw towards each other for a few minutes, twice daily, with the closest approach of about 5 km. Some three hours after launch, Tereshkova’s voice could be heard radioing her callsign ‘Seagull’ and she was certainly in direct voice contact with Bykovsky by 7:50 pm Moscow Time. Next day, ground controllers experienced some difficulty trying to contact her and even asked Bykovsky to help at one point. According to radio transmissions picked up by a Japanese station in Chiba, east of Tokyo, the Vostok 5 cosmonaut replied that he had attempted to contact Tereshkova without success, but did not think there was any reason to worry. Besides, the two Vostoks did not have a direct line-of-sight with one another on 17 June. All did appear to be well, in fact, and it appeared that Tereshkova was trying to contact the ground, but had been prevented from doing so, perhaps by being tuned to the wrong reception channel or, more likely, due to a problem with her receiver. At 5:58 pm Moscow Time on the 17th, the Enkoping station in Sweden picked up a message from her, expressing that she felt “fine” and that all was well aboard Vostok 6. She even tried to communicate via rudimentary Morse code, which analysts described as “inexperienced”. Fortunately, by 9:00 pm, she could be heard talking to ground controllers and asked to speak to “Number 20”, the code for Sergei Korolev himself.

In his diary, Nikolai Kamanin wrote that communications in general were good and Bykovsky even reported that “she is singing songs for me”, evidently hinting that the loss of contact did not prove a significant concern. It was speculated by the official Soviet media that she had simply fallen asleep. Indeed, she spoke to Nikita Khrushchev, her televised image was broadcast throughout the Soviet Union and she was able to undertake most of her planned scientific research programme. Although she experienced difficulty when changing camera films and could not reach her biological experiments to activate them, she was able to record images of terrestrial cloud cover and terrain. Using light filters, she observed Earth’s horizon over the poles – describing it as “a light blue, beautiful band’’ – and the Moon on several occasions. Photographs returned from her mission and Bykovsky’s flight suggested that it was possible to determine structures in the stratosphere and their data recorded two aerosol layers between 11.4 and 19.4 km above the surface.

Reports soon emerged, though, that Khrushchev’s gamble of flying an ‘ordinary’ Russian girl, albeit one with over a hundred parachute jumps to her credit, was not entirely successful. Various accounts of the mission hinted that Tereshkova was unwell during the early stages of her flight and apparently vomited during her third day aloft; she also appeared tired and weak in televised images. She reported nagging pains in her right shin, pressure points from the helmet on her shoulder and left ear and irritation caused by biomedical sensors attached to a headband. In fact, both she and Bykovsky felt that future cosmonauts would be considerably more comfortable if they were permitted to remove their suits during missions. This recommendation proved ironic on the very next Soviet spaceflight, in October 1964, when three cosmonauts would fly without any space suit protection whatsoever.

Flannels, said Tereshkova, were too small and not moist enough to clean her face, there was no provision to clean her teeth or freshen up her mouth and she reported that she did not consume 40 per cent of her food. This could not be confirmed because she apparently gave away the rest of her food to onlookers at the landing site. Indeed, she complained that the bite-sized chunks of bread were too dry and, although she enjoyed the fruit juices and cutlet pieces, she began to crave Russian black bread, potatoes and onions by the end of the flight.

Bykovsky was also experiencing discomfort. An undisclosed problem with his spacecraft’s waste management system, perhaps a spillage, had made conditions inside the Vostok 5 cabin very unpleasant and possibly contributed to the further shortening of the mission to just under five days. He also commented that the fan of his space suit’s oxygen supply tended to cut off whenever he released himself from his seat and that this posed ‘‘a real problem’’. Nonetheless, he seemed to have enjoyed his time in orbit and performed many observations of terrestrial objects and places.

“I couldn’t see Volgograd,” he reported in his post-flight debriefing, “ft was clouded over. I could make out islands easily and recognised Leningrad, the Nile and Cairo, At sea, I could see the wakes of ships and large barges; in Norway, the fjords and mountain summits. At night, through the Vzor, I could see lightning flashes and cities over South America. I saw aircraft contrails over France.’’ Tereshkova, too, reported seeing fires in South America and the twinkling of city lights at night. Today, with almost five hundred individuals having journeyed into space, such sights are commonplace. In the summer of 1963, however, they were novel, hard to comprehend and truly remarkable.


‘‘Liftoff was slow,’’ Glenn recounted in his 1999 memoir. ‘‘The Atlas’ thrust was barely enough to overcome its weight. I wasn’t really off until the umbilical cord that took electrical communications to the base of the rocket pulled loose. That was my last connection with Earth. It took the two boosters and the sustainer engine three seconds of fire and thunder to lift the thing that far. From where I sat, the rise seemed ponderous and stately, as if the rocket were an elephant trying to become a ballerina.’’ For the first few seconds, the Atlas climbed straight up, before its automatic guidance system placed it carefully onto a north-easterly heading; a transition which Glenn found noticeably ‘‘bumpy’’. However, his checklist took priority, requiring him to tick off cabin pressure levels, oxygen and fuel limits and ampere readings on Friendship 7’s batteries. Forty-five seconds into the climb, the rocket entered ‘Max Q’, the highly dynamic phase of the flight in which MA-1 had faltered two years earlier.

‘‘It lasted about 30 seconds,’’ said Glenn. ‘‘The vibrations were more pronounced at this point. I did not expect any trouble, but we knew there were certain limits beyond which the Atlas and capsule should not be allowed to go. . . Since it is difficult for the human body to judge the exact frequency and amplitude of vibrations like this, I was not sure whether we were approaching the limits or not. I saw what looked like a contrail float by the window and I went on reporting fuel and oxygen and amperes. The G forces were building up now. I strained against them, just to make sure I was in good shape.’’ A successful liftoff and passage through Max Q completed two of the four major hurdles needed to achieve his mission: the third, shutting down the Atlas’ outboard boosters, followed perfectly, leaving only the


Demonstrating the cramped nature of the Mercury spacecraft, this interior view shows

John Glenn hard at work during his five-hour mission.

central sustainer engine to continue the push into orbit. “There was no sensation of speed,” recalled Glenn, “because there was nothing outside to look at as a reference point.”

Shortly before 9:50 am, two and a half minutes into the ascent, and by now outside the ‘sensible’ atmosphere, the Atlas’ LES was released, “accelerating [away] at a tremendous clip’’. The fourth hurdle – insertion into orbit – followed with the sustainer engine’s cutoff, separation of the Atlas from the capsule and the firing of Friendship 7’s posigrade rockets to push it clear. By 9:52 am, according to the operations team in their flight logs, the mission was ‘‘through the gates’’ and Glenn was in orbit.

Although he was able to describe the magnificent views he was seeing, it was on this mission that the rest of the world was also able to capture something of the grandeur of Earth – thanks to a camera. Glenn had discussed this idea with Bob Gilruth some months earlier and the two men had begun searching for an appropriate device: small enough to operate with one hand, yet adaptable, so that he could advance the film with his thumb and snap the shutter with his forefinger whilst encased in a pressure suit. Their search achieved little success. Then, one day, whilst getting a haircut in Cocoa Beach, Glenn saw ‘‘a little Minolta camera in a display case. It was called a Hi-Matic.’’ The camera, he noted, had automatic exposure; he would have no need to fiddle with light meters and f-stops. He bought it on the spot for $45. NASA technicians adapted it for the spacecraft and, in tests, Glenn found that it was the easiest camera to use, even wearing his pressure suit gloves. ft would yield some of the most amazing images of the entire mission.

Five minutes after launch, as planned, Glenn achieved orbital speed of 28,200 km/ h, an altitude of some 160 km and – for the first time – experienced the strange state of weightlessness. “Zero-G and f feel fine,” he exulted; words that he would repeat more than three decades later after reaching orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. “Capsule is turning around,” he added as Friendship 7 slowly swung around into the re-entry attitude. “Oh, that view is tremendous!” he exclaimed as the horizon appeared in the window and he caught his first sight of the curvature of the Earth and the fragile atmosphere.

At length, Friendship 7 oriented itself into its ‘normal’ operating position, with its blunt end facing into the direction of travel, flying eastwards. Looking back, Glenn could clearly see the spent Atlas making slow pirouettes as it tumbled away. At first, the parameters of his trajectory were so good that he was given a go-ahead by Capcom Al Shepard for ‘‘at least seven orbits’’. With all systems running as expected, Friendship 7 crossed the Atlantic and passed over the Canary fslands.

Glenn’s first tasks involved checking the spacecraft’s roll, pitch and yaw attitude controls in case an emergency re-entry became necessary. At 9:59 am, he crossed the coast of western Africa – ‘‘a fast transatlantic flight,’’ he later wrote – and felt one of his earliest sensations of weightlessness: a grey-felt toy mouse, pink-eared, with a long tail, drifted from an equipment pouch. ft was one of Shepard’s jokes, a reference to Bill Dana’s astronaut character, who had always felt sorry for the experimental mice sent aloft in rocket nosecones. ft also offered a subtle ‘gotcha’, following Glenn’s own placement of a girlie pin-up in Shepard’s Freedom 7 nine months earlier. Next, out came the Minolta, which floated comically before Glenn’s eyes. ‘‘f found that f had adapted to weightlessness immediately,’’ he recalled in his memoir. ‘‘When f needed both hands, f just let go of the camera and it floated there in front of me. f didn’t have to think about it. ft felt natural.’’

After quickly checking his blood pressure for the Canaries ground station, Glenn turned his attention to photographing selected spots on Earth’s surface. One of the first was a patch of cloud covering the Canaries, followed, at 10:08 am, by shots of enormous dust storms brewing over the Sahara Desert. Next came further checks of his capsule’s attitude controls, which he reported were ‘‘well within limits’’, followed by exertion tests with a bungee cord attached beneath the instrument panel and then reading the vision chart at eye-level. Glenn’s vision, it seemed, was not changing. Head movements, too, did not cause him any disorientation, ‘‘indicating,’’ he wrote later, ‘‘that zero-G didn’t attack the balance mechanism of the inner ear’’.

Forty minutes into the mission, Friendship 7 drifted into darkness as Glenn approached his 240 km apogee. A sunset from space was one of the features of the flight about which he was most excited. He was already a lover of the beauty of terrestrial sunsets, but seeing one from orbit, ‘‘was even more spectacular than f imagined and different in that sunlight coming through the prism of Earth’s atmosphere seemed to break out the whole spectrum, not just the colours at the red end, but the greens, blues, indigos and violets at the other. It made ‘spectacular’ an understatement for the few seconds’ view. From my orbital front porch, the setting Sun that would have lingered during a long earthly twilight sank 18 times as fast. The Sun was fully round and as white as a brilliant arc light and then it swiftly disappeared and seemed to melt into a long thin line of rainbow-brilliant radiance along the curve of the horizon. I added my first sunset from space to my collection”.

As he hurtled onwards, Glenn was also able to describe the absolute blackness of the sky above him, although he admitted that he could see stars, successfully identifying the Pleiades cluster. When astronaut Gordo Cooper, the capcom at the Muchea tracking station, just north of Perth in Australia, came within communica­tions range, Glenn related the shortness of the passage from orbital daytime into darkness and proceeded through the humdrum blood pressure readings. Then, almost 55 minutes after launch, as Friendship 7 passed directly over Perth and Rockingham, Cooper asked him if he could see lights. ‘‘I can see the outline of a town,’’ he replied, ‘‘and a very bright light just to the south of it.’’ Glenn thanked the residents of Perth for turning on their lights to greet him.

Travelling over the South Pacific, close to the tiny coral atoll of Canton Island, midway between Fiji and Hawaii, the astronaut lifted his visor and ate: squeezing some apple sauce from a toothpaste-like tube into his mouth, gobbling some small malt tablets and confirming that weightlessness posed no obstacles. As he approached orbital sunrise, Glenn was surprised to see around the capsule a huge field of particles, like thousands of swirling fireflies. ‘‘They were greenish-yellow in colour,’’ he said later, ‘‘and they appeared to be about six to ten feet apart. I seemed to be passing through them at a speed of three to five miles an hour. They were all around me and those nearest the capsule would occasionally move across the window, as if I had slightly interrupted their flow. On the next pass, I turned the capsule around so that I was looking right into the flow and though I could see far fewer of them in the light of the rising Sun, they were still there.’’

The particles diminished in number as he flew eastwards into brighter sunlight. Scott Carpenter, who duplicated Glenn’s mission in May 1962, would also see them and they would be attributed to little more than ice crystals venting from Friendship 7’s heat exchanger.


By the summer of 1964, opinions of Khrushchev within the Presidium were hardly complimentary. He had long been considered a boorish leader, which some blamed on his limited education. He had twice interrupted a speech by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, labelled Chairman Mao as an “old boot”, famously pounded his fists – and shoe – on the desk during a United Nations General Assembly meeting and declared, in reference to capitalist nations, “We will bury you!” Not only did he prove hugely embarrassing for the Soviet Union’s ruling elite, but many of his policies were ill-conceived and ill-considered. For example, in a bid to solve his country’s agricultural woes, he had suggested the mass-planting of maize, on a scale akin to the United States, without realising that the inappropriate Russian soil and climate made this impractical.

Pivotally, the events of October 1962 humiliated Soviet hardliners, who perceived his removal of missiles and withdrawal from Cuba as a victory for the United States. Equally, the more liberal members of his government opposed his moves in Cuba as reckless ‘adventurism’. Khrushchev’s deposition came as the result of a conspiracy among a Communist Party leadership that could no longer disguise its irritation at his major political mistakes. Led by Leonid Brezhnev and Alexander Shelepin, together with KGB chief Vladimir Semichastny, the conspirators struck whilst their premier was on holiday at the resort of Pitsunda in Abkhazia, Georgia.

Writing in Time magazine two decades later, Sergei Khrushchev recalled the tension his father had felt when he called Leonid Smirnov on 12 October 1964 to demand news of the Voskhod 1 launch. Smirnov, barked the premier, should have kept him fully informed of the launch and circumstances pertaining to the mission. Little did he know that his most senior colleagues, including Smirnov – an aide of the past 30 years – were already deserting him. That evening, as Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan walked together along the Pitsunda beachfront, they were approached by a duty officer who told the premier that he had a telephone call from Presidium and Secretariat member Mikhail Suslov. ‘Questions’ needed to be asked, Suslov told him, which could not wait for the end of Khrushchev’s two-week vacation, nor could ‘discussion’ of the Soviet Union’s agricultural problems. Eventually, the premier agreed to return to Moscow the next day, 13 October.

After a three-hour flight to the capital aboard an Ilyushin-18 aircraft, during which time Khrushchev was uncharacteristically quiet and demanded to be left alone with Mikoyan, he was greeted by. . . nobody. Not a soul from the Central Committee was waiting for him on the tarmac. His first contact was Vladimir Semichastny, who offered a polite welcome and informed the premier in a low voice that ‘‘everybody’’ had gathered at the Kremlin to meet him. Various charges were levelled against Khrushchev: unsatisfactory performance in dealing with Soviet agricultural problems, disrespectful treatment of members of the Presidium – including Brezhnev – and disdain for their opinions, the embarrassing withdrawal from Cuba, deteriorating relations with China, ongoing events at the Suez Canal and others.

Khrushchev had already decided, his son later wrote, to resign his powers without

a struggle. He would stand down on the basis of ill-health and his son would recall him returning home on 14 October, thrusting a black briefcase into his hand and declaring “It’s over… retired”. He was granted a dacha and city apartment for life, a pension of 500 roubles per month, together with his own security staff, car and chauffeur. Still, until his death in 1971, the events of those days would prove painful and he would complain bitterly of the spinelessness of his colleagues, including Brezhnev, who succeeded him as First Secretary and who had previously not given the slightest hint of wishing to oust him. Mikoyan, alone among the Central Committee to have supported Khrushchev, wanted to employ him as a ‘consultant’ to the Presidium, but, predictably, the request was turned down.

By 15 October 1964, two days after Voskhod 1 returned to Earth, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet formally accepted Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev’s resignation. It also ratified the appointment of Alexei Kosygin as the new premier, Brezhnev as First Secretary of the Communist Party and Mikoyan as chair of the Presidium. Kosygin would attempt to implement economic reforms to shift the paradigm of the economy from heavy to light industry and the production of consumer goods, although Brezhnev opposed this and as the Sixties wore on it was the latter who came to be seen as master of the state. Disturbingly, in a May 1965 speech, Brezhnev mentioned Stalin in a positive light for the first time in more than a decade – even adopting the dictator’s old title of‘General Secretary’ – and set about implementing increasingly conservative, regressive and repressive reforms.

The ‘thaw’ of de-Stalinisation which Khrushchev had overseen was steadily replaced with a period of socioeconomic stagnation under Brezhnev, which, ultimately, would pave the way for perestroika and the end of the Soviet Union. Notoriously, in February 1966, the writers Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky would be tried and sentenced to hard labour for penning ‘anti-Soviet’ satirical texts, published under pseudonyms in western Europe. This prompted several historians to link the infamous episode with starting the movement to end communist rule. Under Brezhnev, the KGB would attain a similar level of power to that which it enjoyed under Stalin. In 1968, Czechoslovakia would be invaded at his direction, in response to Alexander Dubcek’s proposed reforms, and relations with China would decline to the extent of armed clashes along their borders on the Ussuri River.

In January 1969, as the blood-spattered decade drew to its close, an attempt would be made on Brezhnev’s life. For cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova, Georgi Beregovoi and Alexei Leonov, it almost signalled the end of their lives, too.


To be fair, both McDivitt and White only received a minimum amount of rendezvous training and the primary focus of their mission was the EVA itself. For this task, James Alton McDivitt would be the Inside Man, although, fully-suited, he would be exposed to vacuum throughout White’s spacewalk.

The first Roman Catholic to be launched into space, son of an electrical engineer and the first American astronaut to command a crew on his first flight, McDivitt was born in Chicago, Illinois, on 10 June 1929. Described as “whippet-lean” by Time magazine, his 1.8 m frame was one that was forced to squeeze its way uncomfortably into the Gemini capsule before the Stafford Bump eased the tall astronauts’ suffering. Yet his background, unlike White’s, did not immediately mark him out as an obvious spacefarer. After graduating from high school in Kalamazoo, Michigan, he worked for a year as a furnace repairman, then drifted into college in 1948, vaguely describing his ambitions for the future as either a novelist or an explorer. Two years later, he completed his education and opted to enter the Air Force, discovering a love of aviation whilst flying 145 combat missions over Korea. His achievements were rewarded with three Distinguished Flying Crosses and five Air Medals.

After Korea, in 1957, McDivitt was sent by his parent service to read for an aeronautical engineering degree at the University of Michigan, where he proved himself to be a straight-A student, graduating first in his 607-strong class. Whilst at Michigan, he met Ed White for the first time, though he could hardly have guessed how far their friendship would endure. He was selected for the Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base and seemed a likely candidate to fly the X – 15 rocket-propelled aircraft, but applied instead for the 1962 astronaut class. Despite Time having labelled him as “a superb pilot and a first-class engineer’’, McDivitt approached his NASA career from a purely practical and technical standpoint. “There’s no magnet drawing me to the stars,’’ he was quoted as saying. “I look on this whole project as a real difficult technical problem – one that will require a lot of answers that must be acquired logically and in a step-by-step manner.’’


A little more than a year earlier, Gagarin had been just one of hundreds of Soviet military pilots who received unusual instructions to undergo classified briefings and physical and psychological tests as part of an entirely new, and mysterious, aviation project. The search for the world’s first spacefarers began in earnest in May 1959, when representatives of the armed forces, the scientific community and the design bureaux met at the Soviet Academy of Sciences under the supervision of Vice­President Mstislav Keldysh to discuss methods of selecting the most suitable candidates for Earth-orbital missions. Aviators, rocketeers and even car racers were considered in the early days, but, at length, bowing to Soviet Air Force pressure, Keldysh agreed to narrow the selection criteria to qualified pilots from this branch of the military.

Despite its obvious vested interest in wanting to have ‘its’ fliers taking the first manned spacecraft beyond the atmosphere, the logic was inescapable: Soviet Air Force pilots had proven themselves under exposure to hypoxia, high pressures and varying G loads and had undergone rigorous ejection-seat and parachute training. In addition to their flying experience, candidates would only be admissible if they could meet the height and weight requirements of the Vostok spacecraft: they needed to be no taller than 1.75 m and weigh no more than 72 kg. Moreover, anticipating that they would be embarking on lengthy careers as ‘cosmonauts’ (the word literally means ‘star sailor’), the age limit was set between 25-30 years old.

Throughout 1959, groups of physicians were sent to a number of air bases in the western Soviet Union and by August the selection teams had the records of more than 3,000 pilots ready for inspection. Most of these were eliminated at a fairly early stage, on the basis of not meeting the height, weight, age or medical criteria; some, indeed, were dropped for bronchitis, angina, gastritis and colitis, renal and heptic colic and pathological cardiac shifts. The remainder were then systematically interviewed from early September, still unaware of exactly what the so-called ‘special flights’ project entailed. Three thousand soon became a little over two hundred, who were despatched in groups of about 20 for further tests at the Central Scientific Research Aviation Hospital in Moscow. In addition to more interviews, the candidates were spun in stationary seats to assess their vestibular apparatus, placed in low-pressure barometric chambers and wrung through a centrifuge to evaluate their performance under high-gravity loads. Original plans, it seemed, called for seven or eight pilots, but Sergei Korolev insisted on tripling this number, for no other reason than because he wanted a larger team than the United States’ seven – strong Mercury group.

In January I960, Konstantin Vershinin, commander-in-chief of the Soviet Air Force, formally signed plans to establish a centre for cosmonaut training in Moscow. Although it was under the control of physicians, the Air Force General Staff eventually assumed command of cosmonaut affairs, under Nikolai Kamanin. It was Kamanin who formally approved a final shortlist of 20 Air Force cosmonaut candidates in late February: Ivan Anikeyev, Pavel Belyayev, Valentin Bondarenko, Valeri Bykovsky, Valentin Filatyev, Yuri Gagarin, Viktor Gorbatko, Anatoli

Kartashov, Yevgeni Khrunov, Vladimir Komarov, Alexei Leonov, Grigori Nelyubov, Andrian Nikolayev, Pavel Popovich, Mars Rafikov, Georgi Shonin, Gherman Titov, Valentin Varlamov, Boris Volynov and Dmitri Zaikin. Their ages ran from just 23 in Bondarenko’s case to as old as 34 in that of Belyayev; this criteria was waived in a couple of instances out of respect for their exemplary performance during testing. Some of them would become the most famous names in spaceflight history, whilst others would disappear into anonymity. . . and, in a few cases, disgrace.

On 7 March, the 20 cosmonauts were given their welcoming speech by Vershinin at the Central Scientific Research Aviation Hospital. A week later, after settling their affairs at their respective air bases, they began training with Vladimir Yazdovsky’s first class in aerospace medicine. The following four months were consumed by a mixture of in-depth lectures and an intense physical fitness regime, the latter of which included two hours daily of intensive calisthenics at the Central Army Stadium in Moscow. Parachute training was also conducted in the Saratov region, near Engels, using a converted An-2 aircraft and within six weeks each of the candidates had made between 40-50 jumps over water and land, from high and low altitudes and during daytime and nighttime.

It was partway through this training regime that the Air Force began exploring a number of more suitable sites for the cosmonauts to continue their preparations. Two possible places were identified: one in Balashikha and the other close to the Tsiolkovsky Railway Station in Shelkovo. The latter was eventually chosen in recognition of its isolated location, large area and proximity to Korolev’s OKB-1 design bureau, the Academy of Sciences and the Monino airfield. The new cosmonauts and their training staff relocated to the new site at the end of June I960 and the suburb itself, near Shchyolkovo, some 30 km north-east of Moscow, came to be known as Zelenyy (‘Green’). Nowadays, it has become world-famous as ‘Zvezdny Gorodok’ (variously ‘Star City’ or ‘Starry Township’).

With the appearance of the new cosmonaut town came the development of the first spacecraft simulators in which they could work. Known as ‘TDK-1’ and built by the M. M. Gromov Flight Research Institute, it received its first trainees – Gagarin, Kartashov, Nikolayev, Popovich, Titov and Varlamov, nicknamed ‘The Vanguard Six’ – in the summer of 1960. The make-up of this group changed almost immediately, however, when a reddening was discovered on Kartashov’s spine, diagnosed as haemorrhages and he was dropped from the Six. He was eventually dismissed from the cosmonaut team in April 1962. Shortly after Kartashov’s removal, Varlamov was involved in a swimming accident in which he displaced a cervical vertibra and disqualified himself from consideration. Their places were taken by Bykovsky and Nelyubov. The ‘new’ Six formed a cadre who would vie for the chance to become the Soviet Union’s first man in space. Indeed, with the exception of Nelyubov, they would fly five of the six Vostok missions. First among them, of course, was Yuri Gagarin, whom many cosmonauts felt had been a strong contender right from the first time he met Korolev. His journey to the stars had begun, rather strangely, as a child saboteur.


After checking his safety, the boy crept over to a pile of Panzer batteries and began dropping fistfuls of soil into their accumulator caps. On other occasions, he might deliberately muddle up their chemicals, pouring them into the wrong compartments, so that SS commanders would return furiously to Klushino at nightfall to complain about their tanks’ dead batteries. Sometimes, he would even shove potatoes deep inside the exhaust pipes of German military cars. It was the autumn of 1942. The Nazi invasion had begun a year before, but, after scoring several major successes, they had now been drawn so deep into Soviet territory that the harsh Russian winter prompted a lengthy retreat. The Smolensk district, some 160 km west of Moscow and containing Klushino, lay directly in the path of the Nazi fallback. It was here that the young boy, Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin, born on 9 March 1934, saw war for the first time. Yet although his childlike attempts at sabotage certainly helped his village’s struggle against the German occupiers, he didn’t do it for patriotism. He did it to avenge himself on the Devil.

‘The Devil’ was a red-haired Bavarian known only as Albert, whose job included collecting flat batteries from German vehicles and replenishing them with acid and purified water. The Klushino children had already used broken glass to burst their tyres and, one day, in retaliation, Albert tried to murder Gagarin’s younger brother, six-year-old Boris, by stringing him from an apple tree with a woollen scarf. The attempt failed, but Albert still managed to evict the entire family from their home. Later, the two elder Gagarin children were abducted and taken to Poland, their father was beaten and their mother slashed with a scythe. It was just the start of what Gagarin’s fellow cosmonaut Alexei Leonov would later describe as ‘‘a very dark period for our country’’.

Following the expulsion of the Germans from Klushino in March 1944, the family eventually moved to nearby Gzhatsk, building a new home, and as Gagarin entered his teens he and Boris learned to read from Russian military manuals. However, it was witnessing a wartime dogfight between two Soviet Yak fighters and a pair of German Messerschmitts that kindled Gagarin’s interest in aviation, garnered a fascination with mathematics and physics and led to model aircraft clubs and maddening demands for his father to build him miniature gliders. By 1950, he had applied – but was not accepted – to study at the College of Physical Culture in Leningrad, hoping to become a gymnast or sportsman. Instead, he took his second option as an apprentice foundryman at the Lyubertsy Steel Plant in Moscow. His work record led directly to training at the newly-built technical school in Saratov on the Volga River and, while there, he saw a notice for an aeroclub, which he promptly joined.

After graduating from Saratov in 1955, and by now with considerable flying experience in an antiquated Yak-18 trainer through the aeroclub, Gagarin was recommended by his instructor for the pilots’ school in Orenburg. This required him to sign up as a Soviet Air Force cadet, which neither of his parents found particularly appealing, and one of his Orenburg instructors, Yadkar Akbulatov, considered him by no means a piloting prodigy and felt that Gagarin may have failed the school

altogether if he could not land without bouncing on his tyres. Ultimately, Akbulatov recalled later, Gagarin solved his problem by placing a cushion under his seat to gain a clearer line of sight with the runway. Never again, it is said, did he fly without the benefit of a cushion.

Whilst at Orenburg, Gagarin met his future wife, Valentina, whom he married in October 1957, only three weeks after the launch of Sputnik 1. By this time, he had begun flight training in high-performance MiG-15 jets, successfully qualified with outstanding grades from the pilot’s school and earned a lieutenant’s commission with a posting to the Nikel base at the northern tip of Murmansk. During his time at this remote place, 300 km north of the Arctic Circle, he flew MiG-15 reconnaissance missions, enduring terrible weather conditions, with ice on his control surfaces and snow blindness proving an almost daily hazard. Then, in October 1959, with his wife and two-year-old daughter desperate to leave the sub-zero setting, something happened that would change his life forever.

At first, the recruiting team that arrived at Nikel sought interviews with the pilots, in which mysterious questions were posed about flying in “more modern planes’’, then “flying something completely new’’ and later “long-distance rocket flights’’. As the pilots were winnowed into smaller groups, they were sent to the Bordenko Military Hospital in Moscow for extensive medical and psychological screening. Finally, after more than 2,000 candidates had been poked and prodded, on 8 March 1960 a cadre of 20 pilots was selected from throughout the Soviet Union to fly the first missions into space. Most were twentysomethings – the intention being that they would be hired whilst young to prepare them for careers as cosmonauts – and each was less than 170 cm tall and below 70 kg in weight to meet Vostok’s limitations.

For the remainder of 1960, the trainees undertook academic and physical work in Moscow’s major scientific establishments, including the Zhukovsky Academy of Aeronautical Sciences on Leningradsky Prospekt and the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems, near Petrovsky Park. Gagarin and the others were sealed, individually, inside isolation chambers for days at a time, with the barest of provisions, as pressure levels were alternately raised and lowered and the trainees given mind-numbing tasks to test their ability to overcome the tedium of lengthy flights. Towards the end of one 24-hour session, Gagarin even tried to alleviate his boredom by conjuring up songs about the electrodes taped to his chest. At other times, the cosmonauts were whirled in a centrifuge – sometimes peaking at 13 G – which caused their breathing to become laboured, their facial muscles to twist and contort and, said Gagarin, “the blood in my veins felt as heavy as mercury’’. Still more torture was effected through oxygen-starvation experiments, which made the more ‘normal’ pilot-training activities, such as parachute jumps, a blessed relief.

On 6 January 1961, six of the cosmonauts – Gagarin, Titov, Valeri Bykovsky, Andrian Nikolayev, Pavel Popovich and Grigori Nelyubov – were selected for final examinations prior to the announcement of who would fly first. Eleven days later, the six men were each sealed inside a Vostok simulator for almost an hour apiece to describe the equipment and operations to be conducted during each phase of a mission. Their understanding of how to orient the spacecraft for a manual retrofire and properly egress the capsule was scrutinised. Gagarin, Titov, Nikolayev and

Popovich were rated “outstanding” by the examiners, with Nelyubov and Bykovsky a close “good”. Written examinations followed, after which all six were proclaimed fit to fly, with Gagarin, Titov and Nelyubov categorised as the best candidates.

Three days before launch, Gagarin was chosen and Titov would later agree that from an image-conscious Soviet perspective, he was indeed the perfect choice. “Look at his biography,” Titov recalled years later. “Yuri Gagarin is an ordinary man from Smolensk. During the war, his brother and sister were driven away. After graduating, he went to a factory school and became a foundry worker, then followed the Saratov industrial specialised school, an air club and a flight school. He was a lad who made his dream come true all by himself, without a father and mother to help him.” In fact, on 12 April 1961, as Gagarin waited atop Korolev’s latest Little Seven, ready for his chance to make history, his parents, brothers and sister had absolutely no knowledge of what he was about to do. By nightfall, Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin would be the most famous man on the planet.


Described by some western observers as resembling a tougher-looking Ingrid Bergman, rumours would abound for decades that Tereshkova’s mission had not gone well and, even, that she handled her return to Earth badly. Still, with radioed guidance from Gagarin, Titov and Nikolayev, she had managed to orient her spacecraft by manual control in a 20-minute-long experiment just before retrofire and successfully held the correct re-entry attitude. At 10:34:40 am Moscow Time on 19 June, the retrofire command was sent to Vostok 6 and executed 20 minutes later. However, the cosmonaut herself did not call out each event as required: she did not report a successful solar orientation, nor did she report the progress of the retrofire procedure, nor even the jettisoning of her spacecraft’s instrument section. In fact, the only information coming in to the control centre was downlinked telemetry data.

Tereshkova ejected on time, but apparently broke a mission rule by opening her helmet faceplate and gazing upwards; she was hit by a small piece of falling metal, it is said, which cut her face. Barely missing a lake in the violently-gusting wind, she landed at 11:20 am, some 620 km north-east of Karaganda, on the 53rd parallel. The bland fare she had eaten over the past three days was replaced, thanks to kindly locals, by fermented milk, cheese, flat cakes and bread, although this ruined the physicians’ chances of properly analysing her dietary intake. Three hours later, at 2:06 pm, after ejecting from Vostok 5, Bykovsky touched down 540 km to the north­west of the mining city and on the same parallel as Tereshkova. Unfortunately, in a worrying recurrence of the Vostok 1 and 2 problems, his instrument section failed to separate cleanly from the capsule, causing wild gyrations until the aerodynamic heating of re-entry finally burned the restraining straps away.

Little of this was evident in Bykovsky’s post-mission report. “The solar orientation for retrofire worked correctly,’’ he recalled, “and the braking engine fired for 39 seconds. Immediately after shutdown of the engine, the capsule separated from the service module. There were no big G forces during re-entry. There was a powerful explosion when the cabin hatch blew off” – it would appear that Bykovsky, too, ‘chose’ to eject – “and I was ejected from the capsule in my seat two seconds later. . . ’’ After landing, he was greeted by a man on horseback and a car which drove him to the charred Vostok 5, lying a couple of kilometres away. With a mission elapsed time of some 119 hours, just shy of five full days, he had set a new

Return to Earth 57

record for the longest solo manned spaceflight, which still remains unbroken. Tereshkova, too, had firmly ground all of America’s Mercury astronauts beneath her heel in terms of space time: her 48 orbits of Earth and 70 hours aloft soundly surpassed all six of their missions combined.

Khrushchev loved it. A few days later, in Moscow, he declared that, unlike bourgeois society’s emphasis on women as representing the weaker sex, the Soviet system permitted them to prosper and, literally, reach for the stars. Although the reality was decidedly more insincere, Tereshkova, for her part, agreed with him. “Since 1917,’’ she said, “Soviet women have had the same prerogatives and rights as men. They share the same tasks. They are workers, navigators, chemists, aviators, engineers. . . and now the nation has selected me for the honour of being a cosmonaut. On Earth, at sea and in the sky, Soviet women are the equal of men.’’ Many observers in the west agreed. The wife of Philip Hart, the Democratic senator for Michigan, remarked that Russia was providing its women with a chance that American women simply did not have. Others, including anthropologist Margaret Mead, added that “the Russians treat men and women interchangeably. We treat men and women differently’’.

The purely propagandist nature of the mission would be shown up, however, by the fact that no more Soviet women would venture into space until 1982. Even a decade after Tereshkova’s flight, fellow cosmonaut Alexei Leonov told an interviewer that her results indicated that “for women, flying in space is a hard job and they can do other things down here. After training, she will be 28 or 29 and if she is a good woman, she will have a family by then’’. Clearly, the real motivation of the Soviets in putting a woman into orbit was different from how it was presented to

– and, surprisingly, accepted by – the rest of the world. Andrian Nikolayev, who married Tereshkova in a lavish ceremony presided over by Khrushchev at the Moscow Wedding Palace on 3 November 1963, shared Leonov’s sentiment. “The mission programme makes big demands on her, especially if she is married,’’ Nikolayev said, “so nowadays we keep our women here on Earth. We love our women very much; we spare them as much as possible. However, in the future, they will surely work on board space stations, but as specialists – as doctors, as geologists, as astronomers and, of course, as stewardesses!’’

Whatever Tereshkova’s own opinions on the matter of future female space travellers, she dived with vigour into her post-flight life on the international speaking circuit, touring India, Pakistan, Mexico, the United States, Cuba, Poland, Bulgaria and elsewhere, assuming dozens of ceremonial posts and moving into the office of the president of the Committee of Soviet Women on Pushkin Square in Moscow. Like the other cosmonauts, she was honoured as a Hero of the Soviet Union, together with the Order of Lenin and the Gold Star Medal. Five months after Vostok 6, amid much pomp and circumstance, she wed Nikolayev, previously the only bachelor cosmonaut. Apparently, their romance had developed during training

– one story told that she kissed him farewell at the foot of the Vostok 3 gantry – and at the wedding, a beaming Khrushchev himself gave the bride away. The truth, it seemed, was very different. Although a daughter, Yelena, was born to the couple in June 1964, becoming the first child whose parents had both flown into space,

Nikolayev and Tereshkova were not even living together by the end of that same year. They divorced in 1982. To this day, speculation exists as to whether or not their marriage represented a genuine love match or a cynical ploy engineered by Khrushchev.

Tereshkova herself has always argued vehemently against allegations that she performed poorly during her flight, saying only that she suffered from fatigue and lack of sleep. Sergei Korolev had already been heard to mutter that he would not deal with “broads” again and, at a private interview with her on 11 July 1963, he expressed severe displeasure with her performance. His anger was shared by his deputy, Vasili Mishin, who claimed that she had been “on the edge of psychological instability”. In fact, whilst drafting the official press release a few weeks earlier, the head of medical preparations, Vladimir Yazdovsky, had suggested including a paragraph to explain Tereshkova’s “overwhelming emotions”, coupled with tiredness and a sharply reduced ability to complete all of her assigned tasks. He was persuaded not to do so by Kamanin. Other rumours hint that she experienced significant menstruation whilst in orbit and at one stage became hysterical and began crying uncontrollably until she was scolded by Korolev over the radio.

Two decades later, in June 1983, shortly before the launch of America’s first woman into space, Time magazine speculated that perhaps Tereshkova’s poor preparation for the mission had contributed to the Soviets’ decision not to fly female cosmonauts more frequently. Despite these apparent slurs on her ability, it was revealed in 2004 that an error in Vostok 6’s control software had made the spacecraft ascend from orbit instead of descending; Tereshkova had noticed the fault during her first day aloft and had reported it to Korolev. She then calmly entered data to repair the mistake and landed safely. None of this was made public for more than four decades.

After her flight, Tereshkova would remain for many years a member of the cosmonaut corps, though in a purely honorific capacity, with little chance of another flight. She would study at the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy, graduating in October 1969 with distinction as a professional engineer, before learning of the dissolution of the female cosmonaut team later that year. To be fair, she and her female colleagues were never truly considered ‘regular’ members of the corps and the availability of flight assignments for them, realistically, ended shortly after Vostok 6. The entire woman-in-space effort was, for Korolev, simply a means of currying favour with Khrushchev: providing him with yet another propaganda coup to upstage the Americans, in exchange for signing off plans for the ‘real’ space programme to continue. That space programme would take two paths after Vostok: an improved version of the capsule (Voskhod) would fly from 1964 onwards with crews of up to three cosmonauts for long-duration and spacewalking exercises and an entirely new (Soyuz) spacecraft would be inaugurated shortly thereafter to pave the way for Earth-circling space stations and manned journeys to the Moon.