Starman : the truth behind the legend of Yuri Gagarin

The early days of space exploration are fascinating. The book and the film version of The Right Stuff provide very personal insights into the lives and the activities of the U. S. Space program which, with rare exception, was very open. By contrast, the early days of the Soviet space program have always remained mysterious and opaque. Their great early strides were shrouded by state secrecy mixed in with propaganda. New research on the past history of the program presents some unique views into what was once hidden.

This book first came out in 1998, but was re-released in 2010. It is a brief history of the very short career of the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, who came from a humble background and happened to be in the right place at the right time, plus being the right size to be chosen as the very first man in space.

In 1961 the Soviets did not have an effective landing method, so on his return to earth Gagarin was ejected from the space capsule, parachuted to earth and became an instant international hero. Looking the part and living the part of a hero are two different things. As with others, fame took its toll on Gagarin who began to drink heavily and was the object of numerous adoring and attentive women. Well, at the time he was the only guy who had been in outer space.

That one flight was Gagarin's claim to fame, and he was never sent into space again because he was considered too valuable a propaganda tool to risk another flight. He did manage to get assigned as backup for the flight of Soyuz 1 in 1968. Since he was still active in the space program it is highly likely that Gagarin knew the capsule for that flight was disastrously flawed. Vladimir Komarov took command of Soyuz 1 which successfully lifted off, but on re-entry the parachute failed to deploy and the pilot was killed instantly as he slammed into a mountainside. Gagarin became severely depressed and left the cosmonaut service to get more experience flying jets but died, in what is still a controversial crash, in March of 1968.

In their research, Doran and Bizony benefited greatly from the collapse of the Soviet Union which resulted in the willingness of surviving participants of the early days of the Soviet space program to shed light on a mysterious era. The Space Race is not quite the highly contested and secretive endeavor it once was, compelled by politics and national pride, often conducted in a disastrous manner with perhaps an unnecessary loss of some very talented people.