Sixty years ago, on 12 April, 1961, I felt jubilation, not doubt. As a normal 13-year-old, I took that opportunity to skip school, claiming it was my patriotic duty to follow the Soviet triumph on television. We didn’t own a TV set, but the teachers had no way of knowing that.
These days the anniversary of Gagarin’s flight is a major event in Russia, used as a spur to nostalgia for the Soviet Union. ‘We beat Americans into space!’ is a typical headline, while the lunar landings are ignored.
Things do change over time, as do assessments of past events when new facts come to light. The Soviet space programme is no exception. To begin with, contrary to what the Soviets claimed, it didn’t exist at the time.
Sergei Korolev, the anonymous pioneer of Soviet rocketry known to the public only as the Chief Designer, got an order from Khrushchev. The Soviet supremo wanted to have in his arsenal an ICBM capable of reaching America. Space exploration was the last thing on his mind, and no dedicated programme of that nature was started until years later.
Korolev, who had spent years in a Kolyma labour camp and survived only miraculously, took such orders seriously. Compliance was a matter of life or death, literally.
Many other Soviet rocket designers weren’t so lucky. For example, Georgy Langemak, the inventor of the celebrated Katyusha rocket launcher, was summarily shot on a trumped-up charge, as were many of his colleagues.
Others, such as Tupolev of the TU planes fame, were kept in special prisons (sharashkas) where they plied their trade for an extra bread ration. Korolev was fortunate to have been transferred to one of those, which saved his life and made him acutely sensitive to his bosses’ wishes.
With the help of captured German scientists who brought to the task their experience with the V-rockets, Korolev delivered the missile Khrushchev wanted. But he mentioned casually that the same rocket could put a satellite into space. Khrushchev’s eyes lit up: he knew a propaganda coup when he saw it.
Thus the first Sputnik was launched on 4 October, 1957, to the accompaniment of triumphant – and mendacious – din. The Soviets claimed the satellite had scientific equipment onboard, which was a lie. They also referred to the Cosmodrome’s location as Baikonur, a town in Kazakhstan, whereas in fact it was at Tyuratam, some 140 miles away.
Bizarrely, just to keep the record straight, Tyuratam was later renamed Baikonur, though the original possessor of that name also kept it. Monty Python could have had a field day with that.
On 3 November, 1957, the dog Laika (husky, in Russian) went up, and new lies were spun. In those days, there was no technology for bringing a spacecraft back to earth safely. Hence Laika received only a seven-day oxygen supply, after which she was supposed to die quickly and painlessly.
Alas, the dog died almost immediately due to overheating, which didn’t prevent the Soviet press from issuing upbeat health bulletins for several days thereafter. The pattern was set, and it was followed with Gagarin.
First, he was almost certainly not the first man in space – just the first to come back alive and not particularly shop-worn. Rumours of prior disasters spread instantly, and they were eminently believable.
In those days, Soviet space launches enjoyed only a 50-50 success rate, and just a couple of months earlier a booster rocket had exploded on the launch pad, killing 126 people on the ground. That flight was unmanned, but by some accounts there had been three fatal attempts to launch a man into space before Gagarin.
Amateur radio operators in Italy and elsewhere had intercepted several exchanges between ‘Baikonur’ and cosmonauts in distress. One of them was a woman, whose last words were: “It’s getting too hot!”
In 2001, Mikhail Rudenko, a former Soviet senior engineer and experimenter, confirmed that cosmonauts had been sent into space in 1957, 1958 and 1959. “All three pilots died during the flights and their names were never officially published.” According to him, the pilots who took part in the fatal sub-orbital flights were named Ledovskikh, Shaborin and Mitkov.
A year after the Gagarin flight, the British communist newspaper The Daily Worker published a story saying that one man had indeed come back alive before Gagarin. He was Vladimir Ilyushin, an experienced test pilot and the son of the famous designer of many IL planes.
According to the article, Ilyushin’s re-entry was botched. The capsule didn’t separate from the rocket, he couldn’t eject and was badly banged up in a hard landing – in China. He spent months there and was finally sent home in a condition that simply couldn’t be presented to the world. Hence Ilyushin’s flight got hushed up.
Lately doubts have even been voiced about Gagarin’s flight itself. Some reports claim that the Vostok rocket suffered several malfunctions on the launch pad, including one with the hatch that wouldn’t shut properly. Hence the rocket was launched without Gagarin, who was later parachuted from a plane in full space gear.
What gave rise to such speculations is some of the comments made by the hero himself. For example, he said he had admired the beauty of South America when overflying it. In fact, he flew over that continent at night, and the only thing he could admire was pitch darkness.
Then Gagarin said he had seen beautiful, freshly ploughed Russian fields, which was a sheer impossibility from a height of 150 miles. He also claimed he had been singing a patriotic Soviet song throughout the re-entry. In fact, his capsule was then rapidly spinning around its axis, rendering any vocal self-expression impossible.
The Soviets also lied about Gagarin’s landing because they wanted to register his flight as a record with the FAI. To qualify, that international federation demanded that the pilot take off, fly and land in the same craft.
However, such a landing was deemed a recipe for disaster, possibly in view of what had happened to Ilyushin. Hence Gagarin ejected at four kilometres and came down to earth on two parachutes.
Such was the combination of tragedies and comedies surrounding the flight. A telling example of the latter was later provided by Mongolia, at that time effectively a Soviet colony. To please their Soviet masters, the Mongols issued a series of postage stamps commemorating the heroic feat.
Unfortunately Gagarin was portrayed against the backdrop of the American Mercury rocket flown into space by Alan Shepard three weeks after the Soviet triumph. Neither the Mongols nor the Hungarian artists they had employed were to blame.
It’s just that the Americans published photographs of their space rockets all over the newspapers, while the Soviets indulged their secrecy mania by never showing Gagarin’s Vostok rocket. The artists assumed that the two rockets looked more or less the same, which they really didn’t.
Thus Gagarin flashed his celebrated smile at a US rocket, not the one he had actually flown. If he had flown at all.