Science

First in Space: New Yuri Gagarin Biography Shares Hidden Side of Cosmonaut

Pakinam Amer: It was at 09.07 am Moscow time on April 12, 1961 that a new chapter of history was written. On that day, without much fanfare, Russia sent the first human to space and it happened in secrecy, with very few hints in advance.

Yuri Gagarin, 27-year-old Russian ex-fighter pilot and cosmonaut, was launched into space inside a tiny capsule on top of a ballistic missile, originally designed to carry a warhead. 

The spherical capsule was blasted into orbit, circling the Earth at a speed of about 300 miles per minute, 10 times faster than a rifle bullet.

Accounts vary on exactly how long Gagarin spent circling our blue planet before he re-entered the atmosphere, hurtling towards Earth, gravity rapidly pulling him in.

Some say it was 108 [one hundred and eight] minutes. Stephen Walker, my guest today and the author of a new book on Gagarin’s historic feat and the world it happened in, puts at 106 [one hundred and six].

Give or take a few minutes, that space venture aboard Vostok 1 — orbiting the earth at a maximum altitude of roughly 200 miles and putting the first man in space — still set the record for space achievement.

It sparked a space race between the US and Russia that, 8 eight years later, put other men on the moon for that small step hailed as a giant leap.

It is said that Gagarin whistled a love song as his capsule prepared for launch

One man, five feet five, in an orange space suit, strapped into a seat inside a capsule attached to a modified R-7, the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. … 

… 106 minutes or 108, man’s first pilgrimage around the planet we call home

… a solitary journey that is still celebrated as monumental and game-changing 60 years on.

This is Pakinam Amer, and you’re listening to Science Talk, a Scientific American podcast. And today, my guest Stephen Walker and I will talk about a legendary astronaut and a super secret space mission that changed everything.

Stephen Walker: [I] came across a book that was written by a guy called [Vladimir] Suvorov who had kept a diary, a secret diary of the secret Soviet space program which he was filming from about 1959 right the way through into the 60s and it was fascinating because it was so secret that he wasn’t even able to tell his wife what he was doing but he was away filming all this stuff and he says in his diary this felt like science fiction.

It was just so incredible what was happening in secret and I thought myself I want to find the footage because if I can find that footage which is apparently shot in color and on 35 millimeter I can appraise that footage and turn it into a theatrical feature film which gives you the inside image, the inside sight into this incredible first step to space to the beyond.”

That was Stephen Walker, British director and New York Times bestselling author of Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima. And this was his attempt to dust off decades-old footage showing months of preparing Vostok 1 to put a Soviet citizen into orbit before the Americans.

Stephen traveled to Russia, tracked down eye witnesses who worked at the top secret rocket site in the USSR, shot the interviews in high-definition and gathered some raw, never-before-seen insider material shot between 1959 and 61, that he describes as pristine.

But he couldn’t get access to the rest of the footage. What he had was great but wasn’t enough for a full feature film.

So instead, he wrote a book.

It’s called Beyond and it’s published by HarperCollins.

Pakinam Amer: So Stephen, you’re one of those people who actually wrote a book in lockdown.

Stephen Walker: It was incredibly exciting in a way but it was weird, because all this other stuff was going on outside. And I didn’t see it. Really. Of course, I did see it. But when people talk about Corona for me at that point, I wasn’t thinking about the Coronavirus, I was thinking about the corona spy satellite system that the Americans had in 1961, which I talk about in my book where they were spying on secret Soviet missile complexes. I mean, I was in a different world. I was literally in 1961. And I was also in 2020. It was a really weird experience>

Pakinam Amer: But you began weaving the yarn in 2012?

Stephen Walker: Yeah, I mean, I’ve done lots of other things since then. I did three trips to Russia. One in 2012. One in 2013. I think I actually had another in 2014 or 2015. The last one was actually a short trip to St. Petersburg, where I met this incredible couple and one of things is wonderful about the Soviet space program at that time, was that actually very unlike NASA, which seemed to have a real major problem about women being anywhere near NASA.

I mean, actually women were not even allowed in the launch blockhouses at Cape Canaveral in 1961. They were forbidden to get in them … There was one woman, a wonderful woman, I interviewed called Joanne Morgan, who was the only woman engineer of all of them [who was allowed] in the launch Center at Kennedy Space Center in 1969. For the moon landing, she’s the only one woman and everybody else is a guy. And back in 61, she was telling me over crab cocktails in Cape Canaveral. She told me that you know, she was actually not even allowed to go into the launch of the launch blockhouse, she was forbidden to go in.

Whereas actually in the USSR, oddly enough, it wasn’t like that. And I interviewed this couple called Vladimir and Khionia Kraskin, and they’re in my book. And they were this wonderful husband and wife in their 80s. And they entertained me in this wonderful little Soviet-style flat in Saint Petersburg, and told me glorious stories about how they were both engineers, telemetry engineers, that have moved there with their child to this weird place in the middle of the Kazakh Steppe, you know, where this new rocket cosmodrome was being built.

And they actually were working right at the epicenter of the Soviet space program, and for that matter, the Soviet missile program, and these were their glory days. It was quite an incredible thing to sort of talk to them both about and they were there when Gagarin launched and with all of that stuff, they were there all the way through it. It was wonderful; it was so Russian, we ended up sitting and drinking vodka until four o’clock in the morning.

I interviewed them on camera, and we had this wonderful, it was quite glorious. This guy had actually out of chocolate wrappers from Ferrero Roche chocolates had constructed a two-meter-high replica of the R-7 rocket that took Yuri Gagarin into space and it was in his sitting room. It was Incredible. It was all made out of chocolate, you know, gold wrappers, it was beautiful.

And, and so I kind of fell in love with these people. And I also sort of felt, you know, I want to tell their stories because they just aren’t being heard by anybody. It’s all moon, moon, moon, lunar, lunar, lunar. And that’s great. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really important. It’s a landmark. It’s all of that I get it. But this is an amazing story. And these are amazing stories that people don’t know about, and they are really exciting, and really dramatic and really touching and really moving and really, you know, epoch changing, in my opinion.”

Pakinam Amer: Stephen, when I read your book, it almost felt like a novelization of that era. It’s a very intricate and intimate account of the people who were involved in that space mission. A very rich account, not just of the orbit itself, but of the tensions reminiscent of the cold war between the US and the Sovient Union, then the space race. But yours is primarily a human story. What inspired you to write it, decades down the line?

Stephen Walker: It is a major philosophical leap for humankind, this is not just advanced Soviet v. America, it really isn’t. And to think of it in those terms, is to miss the essential point. Because what I believe  is that the first human being in space is one of the most epoch call moments in all human history.

For essentially three and a half billion years since, or any life began on this planet, anything, okay? This man is the first to leave, he is the first human eye to look down on the biosphere from outside, he is the first–to use the words of Plato–he is the first to escape the cave that we are all in. He steps into the beyond; it is that very first step outside. Nobody had seen this before.

It is one of the things that when you actually put yourself back into that world at that time, and Gagarin very quickly became the most famous man on the planet. You understand why? Because what this is all pre-moon, none of that had happened is this guy was seeing something that no one else in all history whether a human or anything had ever seen. When he looked out in that porthole window, he saw the stars, he saw the earth. And he saw a sunrise in fast motion, and a sunset in fast motion. He saw the incredible fragility of the earth. He saw what we’re all destroying, frankly, right now, he saw all of that. And he was the first to see it.

So for me, that is a philosophical psychological quarter, which will be emotional, it is somebody stepping out of the cave into the sunlight as it were to pursue the metaphor and blinking in the light and going, Oh, my God, what’s this? What’s this that’s out here? What is this? He was the first to do it at incredible risk.

It happened because of the politics. It happened because of the race. It happened because of the iron curtain. We know all of those things are valid at all that but actually, in the end, the event, the achievement, better than that the moment is bigger than all of those things way, way, way bigger than all of those things, three and a half billion years. And something changes on April the 12th 1961, at you know, ten past nine in the morning, Moscow time. And that’s this. And that’s the story.

So for me, it’s everything. That’s the first thing that kind of animated me to write the book. And I felt that I even had a sign above my desk saying, “remember, Stephen, three and a half billion years, remember,” I kept thinking that when I started to get into the politics too much or got a bit lost in whatever details, as one always does, and pull back from it. What is this really about?

And the other thing that I thought was really important about this. And it animated my writing too. I’m not interested in writing history books that end up in library stacks for decades. I mean, I’m a filmmaker. I want to reach people. And what I tried to do in this story was tell people about people. What interests me most of all, I’m interested, obviously in the technical achievement and really interested in the politics. Of course I am. I couldn’t write this book if I wasn’t. But what I’m really, really interested in people.

Who was this guy? What was this rivalry like between him and this guy, Titov? He was [the Soviet] number two.

There’s an incredible story there, which I kind of talked about, where you get these two men who are both competing to be the first human in space. They are best friends. They are next door neighbors. And they have a child each the same kind of age little infant child, but Titov’s child Igor dies at the age of eight months, right in the middle of their Cosmonaut Training, and the Gagarin husband and wife with their own child about the same age, a little girl …  they are incredible to him. They are and his wife, Tamara, they are locked in embrace, they are supportive, they are wonderful. And I know this because I interviewed Titov’s wife in Moscow. And she told me all of this, it was quite incredible. She was in tears when she told me this stuff.

And yet, these two men with this love with this tragedy that they kind of shared and helped each other through living next door and on adjoining balconies and crossing over each other’s balconies to spend time with each other and late nights talking and drinking vodka and all those sorts of things. They’re also rivals for immortality, effectively. And we’re not really talking about Titov today, we’re talking about Yuri Gagarin. So he lost, he lost. And yet underlying that rivalry is love.

And to me, that becomes human that becomes rich and interesting. It’s not just ‘Oh, who came first,’ it’s actually a real, it’s a relationship of brothers, with all the complexities that fraternal relationships like that would have, you know, the rivalry, the kind of male rivalry, but also the love and the connection in the background. So it’s complicated, difficult, it doesn’t fit easily into boxes, but a very, very human mix of emotions that drives forward. So characters, people who make the story, this pivotal moment in human history happen, is what really excites me.

Pakinam Amer: Stephen painted an interesting picture of the world where Gagarin’s extraordinary mission happened. How back then, the Soviet Union and the United States were head to head, taking colossal risks in the race to be first in space.

Before Gagarin’s mission, the Soviet Union had already blasted the first satellite in into space, Sputnik 1.

Only three weeks after Gagarin’s earth orbit, American astronaut Alan Shepard–part of the so-called Mercury-7–was launched into space aboard a rocket called Freedom 7.

Less than a year later, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, circling it three times in 1962.

But Gagarin’s leap into the unknown, being a first, was terrifying.

No one knew what would happen to a person once they’re launched into space. Would they go mad? Can their body withstand it?

Like Stephen aptly describes, there was no textbook for that mission … anywhere. So what exactly were the challenges …

Stephen Walker: The challenges are physiological and psychological, the physiological challenges, some of which had been kind of looked at and dealt with some of the animal flights they do, which I write about in the book with dogs in a Soviet Union and with monkeys, and then finally, obviously a chimpanzee called Ham in the United States. But what actually, they didn’t know really was what a human physiology would do in that environment.

So what you’re talking about are unbelievable, first of all, acceleration forces in a rocket. Nobody, let’s just get this really clear. From the beginning. Nobody had sat on top of a nuclear missile, replacing the nuclear bomb, and then firing it upwards, nobody.

And this particular missile, the R-7, was the biggest missile in the world, it was much bigger than any missile the Americans had, it was powerful enough to fly from Kazakhstan, to New York with a thermonuclear weapon on top of it… It was astonishingly radically advanced for its time. And no human had sat on top of one with a million pounds of thrust and lit the fuse and see what happens.

So they didn’t know. I mean, it could blow up straight there on the pad. It could be that the physiological experiences, the actual acceleration, or G-forces could be too much for a body to withstand. And once this rocket had actually got into orbit, and the capsules there, nobody knew what weightlessness would do to a human body.

There were real fears that a human wouldn’t be able to breathe properly, even obviously, in an oxygenated atmosphere. The human being wouldn’t be able to swallow, for example, that weightlessness would do really, really strange things to the heart, they wouldn’t beat properly. You know, nobody knew because nobody experienced weightlessness of any kind for more than a few seconds in one of those aeroplanes that simulated weightlessness with his parabolas, they kept flying. But that was only for about 20 seconds. This is going to be much, much longer than that.

So they just didn’t know. They were tremendous concerns about how he’d get down again, everybody knew that a capsule returning through the atmosphere would build up massive amounts of friction, the temperatures would reach 1500 degrees centigrade, even more, you know, would it burn away? Would whatever protection he had in the form of a heat shield, or in the design of the capsule itself? Would it work already burn up as he came down? You know, would that be a problem?

And then, beyond all of those problems, there was, as I said, the psychological problem. And the psychological problem basically boiled down to very simple sentence, or rather a very simple question, but with a very simple answer. And that was, would he go insane? Was he going mad in space, because the real fear, and it was a real fear at that time.

And there were, there was psychological textbooks that were written about something called space horror, was that the first human being divorced from the planet below divorce from life or life as we know it divorce for all of that sailing alone, and this is ultimate loneliness or isolation, in the vacuum of space in his little sphere, might go mad.

So they had to think about that, too. And what they thought about as I described in my book was a very Soviet response, they decided that flight will be completely automated. So the guy wouldn’t have to do anything at all inside it, except essentially endure it, whatever “endure” actually meant. But they then decided at the last moment, that if actually, something did go wrong, and he needed to take manual control, then how are they going to let him have manual control.

And they came up with this extraordinary solution, which is just utterly mad, where they basically had a three digit code, which you press on, like, the kind of thing you have in a hotel safe on the side of his capsule, and you press these three numbers, which I think will one to five; it’s in the book, and that would unlock the manual controls. But then they worried that he might go so crazy that he might just do that anyway, take control, and God knows what he’ll do, you know, destroy himself, defect to America, in his spacecraft.

These were proper discussions that took place, literally a few days before he flew. And in the end, what they decided to do was to put the code in an envelope, and seal the envelope, and glue it somewhere in the lining of the inside of his spacecraft. The idea being somehow– this is crazy logic, it’s not even logic– that if he was able to find it, open it, read the code and press the correct numbers, then he won’t be insane. And that was seriously discussed in a state commission of the top politicians, KGB people and space engineers, one week before Yuri Gagarin flew in space.

That’s, that’s what they dealt with, because they were they didn’t know space, horror, insanity. So you’re, again, it comes back to my saying at the very beginning, everything here is a first everything is an unknown, nobody’s done it before. Nobody. And what increases that feeling of isolation that would have made the possibility of insanity a real one. Why they were so frightened was because they didn’t have reliable radio communications with the ground.

They didn’t have what the [American] Mercury astronauts would have, which was a chain of stations basically, in circling the globe, where they would always have somebody to talk to, and we’re very used to the moon landings and there’s all those, you know, communications with beeps on the end, and even with Apollo 13, the one that went wrong, they’re always communicating with Mission Control in Houston. But for Gagarin’s flight, I would say a substantial part of his flight.

I’m not sure if you’d actually say the majority, but a substantial part of his flight hidden nobody’s talked to. He had nobody to talk to, except a microphone with a tape recorder that was installed inside his cabin. And as I say, in the book, it turns out that whoever installed the tape in the tape recorder didn’t put enough tape in. So he ran out halfway around the world. And he sat there and made probably one of the few independent decisions that he made in the cabinet, in that Vostok spacecraft, which was to rewind the tape to the beginning, and then record over everything he just said. This is the first mind in space and that’s what happened.

You can’t really make this stuff up.

Although the radio communication with the first human who stepped beyond our planet involved few words, what we know for instance was that Yuri’s first spoken words were, “The Earth is blue, how wonderful,” Stephen includes part of the transcript of the tape that Yuri recorded during orbit aboard the capsule, as he looked out of the porthole of his capsule.

“The Earth was moving to the left, then upwards, then to the right, and downwards … I could see the horizon, the stars, the Sky,” Gagarin said. “I could see the very beautiful horizon, I could see the curvature of the Earth.”

Pakinam Amer: You’ve heard from Stephen Walker, filmmaker and author of Beyond: The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space. His book is on sale today. You can get it through HarperCollins, its publisher, or wherever you buy your books. For more information visit www.stephenwalkerbeyond.com

That was Science Talk, and this is your host Pakinam Amer. Thank you for listening.

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