Thirteen years ago, BBC filmmaker Jamie Doran and I began an extraordinary journey into the heart of the early Soviet space program. We told Western audiences something of what really happened in the lead up to Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space. So far as we recall, by the late 1990s only Jim Oberg’s excellent “Red Star in Orbit” had broached similar ground for a mass-market book audience in the West (and James Harford’s authoritative English-language biography of Sergei Korolev, first published in 1997, was also essential reading). We explained, to British audiences unfamiliar with the details of Soviet rocketry, that the Moon race was never, as so many people imagined, a “done deal,” with NASA as the inevitable winners. Apollo 8 was sent to the Moon on an accelerated schedule because NASA chiefs had good reason to fear that Russia might, perhaps, succeed in a manned circumlunar mission, even if its more ambitious landing projects were not likely to win the race to the lunar surface.
We revealed Yuri Gagarin as a kind, cheerful, loyal man, much loved by colleagues. We introduced our audiences to a brilliant, brave man they had never heard of: Korolev, the engineer-manager who made Gagarin’s flight possible. We also encountered stark and terrible stories from the darkest aspects of Soviet life. Korolev’s utterly pointless arrest and beating are now reasonably well-known to historians, but it still comes as a shock to most ordinary people in the West that the man who kick-started the space age staggered, half-starved, out of the Gulag system before reaching for celestial glory.
Naturally, as our book begins to find a Russian audience, some of what we have to say has created controversy. In particular, we found evidence suggesting that Yuri Gagarin was just one among many people within the post-Korolev Soviet space effort who tried, and failed, to prevent the launch of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov aboard the first prototype Soyuz craft. Those familiar with the craft’s engineering knew, ahead of time, that it was not fit to fly. Korolev died in 1966, and rival fiefdoms created a difficult atmosphere in the Soviet space effort, with alternative lunar projects fighting for dominance. By contrast, NASA chief Jim Webb imposed unity, with all NASA field centers persuaded into “loyalty” towards one approach: Apollo and its lunar module. The history of rocketry is one of different management systems as much as hardware.
Gagarin spent much of his postflight life attended by KGB officers, who guided him in his many dealings with the press, with one eye turned warily towards their watchful masters in the Kremlin and another rather fonder eye on Gagarin’s well-being. One of these minders, Benyamin Russayev, was steered in our direction by someone who had been close to Gagarin. Russayev told us a story that was entirely credible. Political pressure was exerted on the Soyuz project, with the result that its engineering was pushed too far and too fast, and a space traveler lost his life.
In 1997, Yuroslav Golovanov, a respected Russian space journalist and an eyewitness to some of the greatest events in space history, told us a fleeting story about Gagarin, in his role as Komarov’s backup, apparently “demanding to be put in the protective suit.” This alerted me to something odd. Komarov was not supposed to be wearing a suit for his mission. Something, somewhere, was wrong. When we interviewed Russayev, some of the pieces began to fit together. Many people on the ground, including Gagarin, were agitated and nervous on the morning of Komarov’s launch day, and Russayev told us why.
History is never settled. Our book, “Starman,” no doubt contains mistakes, and we genuinely welcome corrections of factual errors. We also eagerly await forthcoming biographies of Gagarin that deal in even greater detail with Gagarin the man, rather than, as in our book, Gagarin the participant in a broad phase of space history.
If we had been writing on the theme of a 1960s NASA project, we’d have had no excuses for the tiniest mistake, for nothing in human history has been better documented than Apollo’s progress to the Moon. By contrast, in unveiling at least some of the story behind the first Soviet space projects, we encountered many difficulties, as can be imagined. But tender-hearted Russayev was not one of them. He was loyal in his recollections about Gagarin and generous with his time spent with us. He also appeared, on camera, in our 1997 BBC TV prime-time documentary of the same name, “Starman.” We regarded him as a decent and reliable source.
Now to our sins. In our eagerness to reveal unexplored facets of early space history, we quoted the “memoirs” of a supposed former National Security Agency operative, Perry Fellwock, who recalled listening in to Komarov’s dialogue with the ground. We are told, by our critics, that nothing in the official ship-to-ground transcripts supports Fellwock’s claims that Komarov was distressed. In the book, we do say that “rumours” were based on Fellwock’s accounts, and some of his recollections may have been “exaggerated.” In retrospect, I wish we had downplayed Fellwock’s quotations a little more. Even so, we certainly felt it appropriate to quote them, so that further trails of investigation can be triggered.
Like many space historians, I, too, would like to see more data, including an unexpurgated transcript of all mission dialogue. Like all journalists, I reserve judgment on official accounts. As former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson once so famously warned, official memoranda are all too often written not to inform readers but to protect writers. We must give at least some weight to eyewitnesses speaking informally, beyond the boundaries of office walls. When their testimony conflicts with official records, this is not something to be angry about. On the contrary, it’s a challenge for historians to dig further. There’s much more work still to be done in clarifying the story of Russia’s early years in space.
In our book, Komarov’s death is handled in perspective. A similar story could be told about the Challenger disaster in 1986, where a bureaucratic impulse to meet targets and impress a president led to fatally flawed launch decisions in circumstances that, in retrospect, look bad. “Starman” is not a story of Russian villains versus American goodies. It’s a tale of incredibly brave people, in space and on the ground, accomplishing feats that will be remembered now and into the future, for as long as humans still have language to voice them.
Above all, “Starman” is the story of how a cheerful, good-natured young lad became the first man in space, and on his return to Earth, proved himself every bit the star that people thought he was. The occasional upsets of a life in the spotlight simply reveal that Gagarin was, first and foremost, a wonderful human being — and not, as the history books have so often treated him, merely a comic-book hero on a triumphal publicity poster.
Piers Bizony is co-author of “Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin.”