Today (April 12) marks the 60th anniversary of the daring launch that despatched the first human into space, paving the approach for manned space exploration of the cosmos.
On April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin turned the first individual to depart Earth’s orbit and journey into space. His historic flight lasted 108 minutes, throughout which he orbited Earth in the Soviet Union’s Vostok spacecraft, guided totally by an automated management system. This superb feat set a major milestone in the space race, as competitors grew between the United States and the Soviet Union to develop extra superior spaceflight capabilities. With the success of Gagarin’s flight, the Soviet Union had overwhelmed the United States at placing a human in space by nearly three weeks, with American astronaut Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight on May 5, 1961
In his new book, “Beyond: The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space” (Harper, 2021), writer and documentary filmmaker Stephen Walker recounts intimate particulars of the months, and years, main as much as Gagarin’s historic flight, revealing the true tales of the Soviet space program as the company ready to launch the first human into space. Walker additionally explores the many parallels between the Soviet space program and NASA as the two space companies labored individually towards a typical objective: to be the first.
Related: Yuri Gagarin, first man in space (photograph gallery)
Space.com sat down with Walker to debate his new book, the early days of the space race and the historic impression of Gagarin’s flight. This interview has been edited for size and readability. You can discover the book on Amazon right here, on sale beginning April 12.
Space.com: Could you discuss a little bit bit about your analysis on the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States?
Stephen Walker: I used to be requested to develop a film [based on] some of the secret footage that we knew had been shot in the Soviet Union in the late Nineteen Fifties, early Sixties, particularly about [Yuri Gagarin’s] unimaginable flight. I knew that these items had all been shot secretly and so I believed, ‘effectively, the place’s the footage? I’ve received to seek out this footage.’ When I used to be commissioned to go to Russia, beginning in 2012, I discovered some of [the footage]. Some of it’s completely unimaginable — it is stuff that is by no means been seen earlier than … So our concept was going to be that we have been going to press it in order that it could possibly be placed on the large display screen.
However, it turned an increasing number of tough to safe this materials, and we do not know to at the present time why that really occurred — it received to the level the place I believed I must let [the movie] go. But while I used to be doing it, I used to be additionally interviewing some unimaginable individuals. I discovered this glorious couple who’d been rocket engineers in Baikonur in the late Nineteen Fifties and early sixties, and so they have been proper there — not only for Yuri Gagarin, however for Sputnik — for the whole lot. They have been husband and spouse who had relocated to the center of nowhere and so they have been engaged on this secret program that they could not inform their dad and mom or anybody about. I had all these superb interviews shot in excessive definition for the large display screen, however we did not have sufficient to make the movie, so I needed to let it go and it was completely heartbreaking.
About a yr and a half, two years in the past, I instantly thought, “the anniversary is coming up — the 60th anniversary of the first human in space is a kind of big deal.” It’s not only a Russian factor, it is not simply an American factor — it is a human factor. And while you suppose of it like that, it turns into terribly pivotal in all of our historical past. We have been on this planet for tens of millions of years, and on April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin was the first to flee the biosphere and take a look at it from the exterior. So I noticed and met and interviewed much more individuals, and I delved into much more archives and skim much more books and got here again. On the first day of lockdown in London in March of final yr, I began scripting this book.
Related: Yuri Gagarin on Vostok 1: How the 1st human spaceflight labored (infographic)
Space.com: Many of your books have relied on intensive analysis, interviews and private artifacts. What do you discover most rewarding about this fashion of writing?
Walker: It’s the confluence of concepts, locations and issues which can be taking place. Putting the two sides collectively so that you simply’re in America [for one chapter] — you is likely to be in Houston, Washington or Cape Canaveral — and you then’re in Moscow or the Baikonur Cosmodrome. I used to be amazed after I put the timelines collectively: one thing was taking place in Moscow at the identical time one thing else was taking place on the different aspect of the world in America. One instance I wrote about was two days after Yuri Gagarin’s flight, there was this large get together — the greatest get together in Moscow’s complete historical past. As that get together takes place, president Kennedy is sitting in the White House, grim-faced, tapping his enamel with a pencil and saying, “what can we do?” And actually, the choice to go to the moon — to begin a brand new race — begins there in that assembly.
Space.com: That’s really an ideal segue to my subsequent query, which was going to be a few quote you included from President John F. Kennedy when he says throughout that assembly, “If somebody can just tell me how to catch up. Let’s find somebody — anybody. I don’t care if it’s the janitor over there if he knows how.” How would you describe America’s response to the Soviet Union’s success?
Walker: I believe [Kennedy] realized that, politically, he was in a nasty approach. Three months into the job after which instantly this factor occurs. If you really take a look at the news convention that [Kennedy] offers on the day of Yuri Gagarin’s flight … he appears to be like damaged and he “extends his congratulations to Soviet Premier Khrushchev.” He cannot even say Gagarin’s title, he simply says “I extend my congratulations to the man who was involved.” So now America’s on the again foot, whereas a nation that was so comprehensively destroyed by the second World War … put a human into space. This was a sign to the world that America had misplaced. So, it is existential this second — it is actually about altering the course of historical past. And Kennedy is aware of that, which is why he had that emergency assembly. We then see Kennedy on May 25, 1961 ask for cash from Congress to assist this daring journey to get to the moon inside the decade, which begins the highway to Apollo.
Space.com: With that mentioned, are you able to discuss a bit about how Gagarin’s first orbital flight in 1961 finally jumpstarted NASA’s Apollo program?
Walker: The moon landings occurred as a result of Gagarin went first into space, not Alan Shepard, who was the man designated to go first on the American aspect. Gagarin will get there as a result of the Soviets see Americans hesitating, whereas they have been taking such big dangers to get there first. Arguably, if Shepard had gone first, Kennedy wouldn’t have dedicated the monumental funds to the [Apollo Program].
So what prevented Alan Shepard from going first? It’s what went mistaken with that first flight of the chimpanzee, Ham, when the gas ran out half a second early, because of this of which, Ham’s capsule aborted and the poor chimpanzee went via this horrific flight and practically drowned in the Atlantic ocean. Literally that half a second, I argue, modified historical past. If the gas had lasted 0.5 of a second longer, Ham’s [capsule] wouldn’t have aborted and Alan Shepard would have possible [flown] in March … and overwhelmed the Soviet Union. Then, Kennedy wouldn’t have felt the humiliation and embarrassment, and due to this fact the want, to decide to a massively chancy and costly manned lunar program.
Space.com: It’s fascinating that you simply say that as a result of it’s mentioned that by touchdown on the moon, the United States successfully “won” the space race. What is your opinion?
Walker: [America] received the second space race. When you say, “who was the first man in space?” Quite a bit of individuals will say Neil Armstrong [the first man on the moon]. Gagarin shouldn’t be well-known in the West, whereas in Russia, he’s God. It is sort of extraordinary the way you cross a border, in case you like, and also you get a completely completely different perspective of historical past. So who misplaced what? The Soviet Union received the race to place a human in space … and Americans received the race to place a man on the moon. One got here after the different, so I believe of it as a first space race, which generated the second one.
Space.com: What was your inspiration for the book and what do you hope to convey to readers about Gagarin’s historic spaceflight?
Walker: What I actually wished to do was simply inform an ideal story, most of all, which is a few pivotal second in historical past. I used to be solely a little bit boy when males went to the moon in 1969. I bear in mind pondering after I was grown up I’d take my children to the moon on vacation — I actually believed that. It felt terribly thrilling, whilst a small baby. So there’s clearly one thing that goes again to being a toddler of the space age. But I’ve at all times cherished the concept of the freedom of being unbound from the Earth. I even have a pilot’s license and I’ve been flying for about 20 years … so I do have a little bit sense of what it is wish to sort of escape the surly bonds of Earth, even when it is solely two or 3,000 ft, not in orbit.
I believe it additionally ties again to “Shockwave,” a book I wrote about Hiroshima in 2005, which was about one other piece of extraordinary world-changing know-how. The change we’re speaking about there may be about destruction — it is about destroying individuals, buildings, life, the planet, finally — and “Beyond” is type of a sequel in a humorous approach; it is about one other piece of know-how that modified historical past. That is, the extraordinary second when the first human steps into the past … and sees what no eyes had ever seen earlier than. It’s about the greatness that we’re succesful of.
Space.com: The book explores very intimate particulars about each the Mercury Seven astronauts and Vanguard Six cosmonauts. Can you clarify some of the similarities and variations between the two teams?
Walker: The American astronauts have been all skilled navy check pilots. The Mercury Seven [astronauts] began their coaching round April 1959, at which level the Soviets had no such program, however they reacted to the American program and chosen [candidates] from a a lot wider pool. The [cosmonauts] have been youthful by about 10 years, a minimum of, and much much less skilled. The cause for that’s as a result of the Americans managed to safe a stage of precise management over their spacecraft, whereas the Soviet cosmonauts have been really simply there to endure [spaceflight] with out panicking. So you have received these two somewhat terribly completely different groups.
They have been additionally completely different in phrases of the approach they lived. The Americans turned celebrities; rock stars. They have been on the cowl of the whole lot, significantly “Life” journal. They have been heroes to every body, and all people knew their names, whereas in the Soviet Union, nobody was allowed to know who the [cosmonauts] have been. Their households did not know something about them, both. They did not have any cash or unique offers. Instead, they lived in tiny Soviet flats with no phone, fridge or automotive. Their wives needed to polish flooring in order to make ends meet. It was two completely completely different worlds. And but, what they shared was a burning ambition to be first.
Related: Yuri Gagarin on Vostok 1: How the 1st human spaceflight labored (infographic)
Space.com: Can you discuss a bit about how the Soviet Union’s and America’s approaches to spaceflight differed in the early ’60s?
Walker: I’d say that the American method was rather more cautious. I believe they needed to be extra cautious for a quite simple cause: as a result of the whole lot was public. They did not let Shepherd launch in March 1961, after Ham’s flight, as a result of, and I quote any person at the time, “if anything goes wrong, this will be the most expensive public funeral in history because everyone is going to see it.” Everybody [in America] had a TV by then. But while you do issues in secret, as the Soviets did, you do not have to be as cautious.
Space.com: Last yr, we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of steady habitation of the International Space Station, which has been occupied by each U.S. astronauts and Russian cosmonauts. While the peak of the space race in the ’60s introduced loads of competitors, what’s your view on how the two companies function right this moment?
Walker: I believe there may be some collaboration, positively. But I additionally suppose the Russians are falling behind and have virtually misplaced curiosity in pursuing any sort of large space endeavors. They’re nonetheless placing up rockets, however in case you go to Baikonur, it is falling aside. It’s not like Cape Canaveral, which is pristine. And, I do see components of a space race nonetheless. There is an financial competitors, clearly, and a political competitors between two elements of the world, maybe exacerbated in current years.
Space.com: This yr marks the 60th anniversary of Gagarin’s historic flight. Can you discuss a bit about the basic impression his flight had on space exploration and the way far now we have come right this moment?
Walker: He was the first to step into the past, which, for me, isn’t just a bodily space, it is a philosophical space. One of the issues I write about is [Gagarin’s] view [from orbit] — that is sort of the “wow” for me. That view is the starting of the whole lot. So each single factor that we do now, in a way, goes again to that second.
One of the issues I’ve began to do each day [on Twitter], as curiosity in the book begins to construct, is a put up about “this day 60 years ago.” The timeline begins to construct in a very bizarre parallel with all the stuff that is taking place now. It’s fairly good placing these time parallels collectively: then and now, as we depend right down to that epochal second in 1961.
Space.com: What do you hope to see in the subsequent 60 years of human spaceflight?
Walker: I believe we’ll get fairly far into the photo voltaic system. I wish to suppose that we’ll get to stay on Mars … and I believe we’ll get to different locations as effectively. But the most vital factor of all is that we uncover life, as a result of that [will] change actually the whole lot … It implies that while you lookup at the stars, it is massively on the market. It cannot not be if it is in our personal little bizarre distant nook of the photo voltaic system.
There was an image I noticed just lately from Hubble, which was simply unimaginable. It was an image of a galaxy so full of stars, there was virtually no black. It appears to be like like one million sensible factors of gentle in space. And the concept that if we discover one thing close to to residence, that may change how we take a look at all of that. I imply, these [stars] could possibly be civilizations. So the future isn’t just about exploring, it is about assembly — it is about discovering. And I do not imply discovering locations. I imply, connecting and assembly. And to me, that’s finally the place this goes.
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