A new book reveals how badly the Soviets wanted to win the early space race.

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin, a young Russian air force pilot, became the first person to travel to space when his Vostok capsule orbited once around the Earth. The United States was also striving to put a human into space: Three weeks after Gagarin’s triumph, NASA astronaut Alan Shepard reached space on May 5. Shepard’s flight, however, was suborbital. The U.S. would not reach orbit until John Glenn’s flight almost a year later. (Glenn’s space capsule, Friendship 7, will be on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in mid-February.)


British author and documentary-filmmaker Stephen Walker has written Beyond: The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey Into Space. Drawing broadly from written sources and new interviews, Walker explains how the Soviets were willing to cut corners in the development of their rocket technology if it meant getting to space first. Walker recently spoke with Air & Space Quarterly senior editor Diane Tedeschi.

What is the most surprising thing you learned during your research?

I learned how incredibly dangerous Gagarin’s flight actually was. Remember, this was an orbital flight—something the U.S. would not achieve for almost another year. Just launching a human on what was at the time the world’s largest intercontinental ballistic missile—the Soviet R-7—was in itself hugely dangerous. As I describe in my book, the cosmonaut’s only exit (apart from death) if the thing blew up on the pad was to be catapulted from his capsule onto a steel net a hundred feet below and somehow crawl to a bathtub—an actual bathtub—where he would then be lowered to the ground to make his escape. It was madness, of course. But what was madder was that nobody told Gagarin this escape system even existed. They all knew it would never work.

The degree of risk that was taken—just to beat the Americans—was incredible. At a secret meeting only a few weeks before Gagarin’s flight, a senior KGB figure actually recommended that a bomb be placed inside the capsule and triggered to explode—along with the cosmonaut inside—should it veer off course and head off to some capitalist country instead of Mother Russia. The recommendation was finally quashed by the engineers. But can you imagine if the CIA had recommended that a bomb be placed on the Apollo spacecraft in case it went off course?

What were some of the differences in Soviet and American efforts to launch the first man into space?

The Americans largely—though not wholly—did their stuff openly, in front of the world’s media, whereas the Soviets did theirs in secret. A direct consequence of this was that the Soviets—with their closed, totalitarian system—could take on far more risk than the U.S. If a Soviet cosmonaut got blown up on launch, the world would not be told. If an American astronaut got blown up, the whole thing would be broadcast live to an estimated 40 million viewers.

The Soviets—with their closed, totalitarian system—could take on far more risk than the U.S.

How did NASA and the White House react to Gagarin’s triumph?

In a word, badly. Publicly, the major NASA players, including Shepard and astronaut John Glenn, were gracious in conceding victory. Privately, it was another matter. When he first heard the news early on the morning of April 12, 1961, Shepard reportedly smashed his fist on a table so violently that he nearly broke his hand. Kennedy gave a dismal press conference that same afternoon in which he looked almost shell-shocked and was unable even to mention the name of the man now on everyone’s lips. Stumbling his congratulations to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy went on to congratulate “the man who was involved.”

Why was Alan Shepard chosen for the first crewed American space launch—and not, say, John Glenn or one of the other Mercury astronauts?

There is some mystery surrounding the answer to this question. Alan Shepard himself said that he was never told the reason why—at least not directly by the man who made the decision, Robert Gilruth, head of NASA’s Space Task Group and the Mercury Seven astronauts’ boss. Later, Gilruth suggested that Shepard’s sharp intelligence was a key factor. But Glenn was also highly intelligent, as were every one of the other five [Mercury] astronauts.

There is a suggestion that Glenn’s ebullience and natural charm, combined with a highly effective public persona (he had already appeared as a contestant on CBS’ “Name That Tune” TV show) meant that he needed to be reserved for the first American orbital flight, but this is to ignore the fact than in January 1961, when the selection was made, that future orbital flight was far from set in stone. In fact, Glenn was chosen as the number three astronaut after Shepard and Gus Grissom. Glenn tried hard to persuade Gilruth to change the order and place him first, but Gilruth turned him down flat.

Given that the Soviets were leading the early space race, why did they fall behind in the race to put a man on the moon?

The Soviets certainly had plans to put a Soviet comrade on the moon. Indeed, as far back as the late 1950s, the brilliant chief architect of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev, had outlined a timetable for human missions to the moon and even to Mars.

But Korolev’s ambitions ran somewhat counter to the men who actually ran the country. Khrushchev was not interested in a carefully managed, stage-by-stage program to put a man on the moon; he was interested in “space spectaculars,” quickly achieved missions that would excite the world and prove that the USSR was ahead in space. And so Korolev was forced to produce them: the first two-man ship in space, the first three-man ship, the first woman cosmonaut, the first spacewalk, all of them thrilling, crowd-pleasing events but never part of a long-term plan such as NASA was developing with its carefully sequenced Gemini and early Apollo programs.


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