A new book explores the legacy of the Soviet Union’s human spaceflight program.

During the initial years of the Cold War space race, the Soviets were outright winning. They completed a series of launches into orbit: Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin, and Valentina Tereshkova, who in July 1963 became the first woman in space. These early accomplishments, however, never led the Soviets anywhere close to putting a human on the moon. Cathleen S. Lewis, a curator in the space history department at the National Air and Space Museum, has written Cosmonaut: A Cultural History, which documents the complicated past of Soviet and Russian human space exploration. Examining the social and political underpinnings of spaceflight, Lewis focuses on the achievements of cosmonauts and how their images have often been used for propaganda. She was recently interviewed by Air & Space Quarterly senior editor Diane Tedeschi.


What made Yuri Gagarin a good candidate to be the first human in space?

Gagarin, who died just seven years after his spaceflight, was the inspiration for numerous postcards.

In addition to his youth, intelligence, and physical fitness, Gagarin was a freshly minted pilot with the right ethno-social background. There were over 200 recognized nationalities in the USSR. And yet Gagarin and all but two of the first 20 cosmonaut candidates were Russian nationals. The second factor was social class. Gagarin’s parents worked at a collective farm and his mother had been a daughter of a pre-World War II factory worker. As far as Soviet official culture went, this was an ideal background.   


Tell us about the discrepancies between the initial Soviet account of Gagarin’s flight and what actually happened.

It’s notable that a model or image of the Vostok spacecraft that carried Gagarin into space on April 12, 1961, was not publicly revealed until 1968. This concealment not only protected strategic secrets, but guarded a huge technical shortcoming of the hardware. And the state press agency announced Gagarin’s flight only when it was assured he was going to return safely to Earth. The delayed announcement also obscured the manner of Gagarin’s return. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) governs the rules of setting aviation and spaceflight records. When writing the guidelines for spaceflight in advance of the first attempt, the FAI included a clause that had been standard for aviation records: For a flight to be considered complete, the pilot had to land inside his or her craft. When Soviet members of the FAI submitted the paperwork to claim Gagarin’s record, they neglected to mention that Gagarin did not land inside his spacecraft. The Soviets had not yet developed the technology to slow the reentering Vostok spacecraft to a survivable speed. Gagarin instead ejected from his spacecraft at 20,000 feet and parachuted to Earth. He had, however, still completed the physics of a spaceflight by launching on a rocket and achieving orbital velocity.  


I was surprised to read that—after Valentina Tereshkova’s flight became known in the United States—Jackie Cochran, a pioneer of women in aviation, didn’t think American women were as prepared as men for spaceflight. Why did she feel this way?

As the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova was considered a symbol of women’s equality in the Soviet Union.

One important thing to remember about Jackie Cochran is that her aviation career was formed through a close allegiance with the U.S. military flying forces. She began her flying career in the 1930s, setting records similar to those of Amelia Earhart. As the clouds of World War II began to gather, Cochran ferried U.S.-built aircraft to Britain and became the first woman to pilot a bomber. During the war, she became the head of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). During this time, Cochran abided with American segregationist standards, refusing to accept Black female licensed pilots into the WASP. Given that history, it’s probably not surprising that she aligned herself closely with the military’s justification of the exclusion of woman in the astronaut corps.


The rescue of Salyut 7 in June 1985 by cosmonauts Vladimir Dzhanibekov and Viktor Savinykh is an amazing story. Do you think it’s one of the Soviet space program’s finest hours?

Gagarin was the inspiration for numerous stamps.

I don’t know if I would call the rescue of Salyut 7 one of the USSR’s finest hours any more than I would call the Apollo 13 mission one of America’s finest hours. These were both cases in which survival was snatched from the jaws of disaster. I do think both situations are tributes to the problem-solving skills and tenacity of both sides. The Salyut 7 space station had been unoccupied, and its automated systems stopped responding to ground signals. Soviet space command quickly arranged a crewed mission to reactivate the space station to prevent it from tumbling uncontrolled toward Earth. Without functional responses to ground signals, no one could direct Salyut 7 toward the Pacific Ocean, where it would do the least harm. The concept of docking with a space station that is not in a normal orbit and is somewhat out of control is an astounding technological challenge—one that required skills for which the Soviet cosmonauts prided themselves.  


Is coverage of today’s Russian space program more forthcoming than it was during Gagarin’s time?

It is a sad truth that Russian coverage of their space programs today is probably less candid and less forthright than it was during the Soviet era almost 60 years ago. An example of this that I write about in Cosmonaut is the story of the Soviet Buran space shuttle. Buran was launched once in 1988, in automated mode (without a crew). Members of the Soviet space community decried the program as wasteful. Buran never flew again, and Moscow’s plans to build infrastructure to support the program stopped abruptly. The flown Buran went into storage in a hangar at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. In 2002, the hangar collapsed and eight people lost their lives. The shell of the hangar remains in place. Despite this troubled history, the Putin administration has sought to reevaluate the Buran program, relocating a remaining Buran airframe close to the renovated Kosmos Pavilion in Moscow and celebrating it as an accomplishment. In addition to the tradition of secrecy and covering up failures, we now see a complete rewriting of history, in which programmatic and policy failures are being dubbed as success and where cooperative and open exchange of ideas in space are being denied.


This article is from the Winter 2024 issue of Air & Space Quarterly, the National Air and Space Museum's signature magazine that explores topics in aviation and space, from the earliest moments of flight to today. Explore the full issue.

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