11 April 2011—Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the first human in space—the Russian pilot Yuri Gagarin. All monumental human events attract myths, but this one especially so, as there was deep secrecy around so many fundamental aspects of the mission, and the hero died young under mysterious conditions. While we might hope for clarity in hindsight, the persistence of these popular myths makes it difficult. But one fundamental fact about Gagarin prevails and continues to resound through our culture: He was the first human who went into space—and that will always be the truth.
1. Vostok means "east" in Russian and was picked to signify dominance over the West.
Maybe, but more likely the name of Gagarin’s spacecraft was meant to express the poetic sense of the Russian root words signifying "sunrise"— vos ("upward") plus tok ("flow")—to elicit a sense of humanity rising into space. It’s a beautiful name.
2. The spacecraft was called Vostok-1.
After Vostok-2 was launched in August 1961, the previous craft, initially called Vostok, was renamed Vostok-1, and both designations have been used interchangeably for the last half century. But when the craft was first launched, it was just Vostok, no number.
3. Gagarin was "the Columbus of space."
Gagarin was often referred to this way in Soviet-era propaganda, but it inaccurately assigns him the task of obtaining funding and then organizing the expedition—a role actually played in 1961 by Sergey Korolyov. But it was Gagarin who then rode the rocket despite an array of unknown hazards, and that’s honorable enough.
4. Gagarin was picked to fly because of his solid worker or peasant origins.
Not really. But Gagarin turned out to be a perfect front man for Soviet glory. He wasn’t a very experienced pilot, but even before launch he was recognized as having an alert and flexible mind, and he wasn’t a worrier. Among the candidates he was the fastest learner and the calmest in emergencies. Being the shortest candidate, at only 1.57 meters, didn’t hurt either. Even his rivals for the first flight later admitted that he had been the right choice.
5. Gagarin was only a medical test subject, not a pilot.
The main purpose of the one-orbit flight was to demonstrate that space conditions didn’t drive a person insane or otherwise harm him, so autopilot mode was planned from the start. But Gagarin had the command codes to take manual control and was fully trained for various contingencies that would require piloting. He never had to take control, but he was trained to do so.
6. Gagarin was preceded in space by another cosmonaut, Vladimir Ilyushin.
This myth sprang up even before Gagarin went into space, and it still survives on the Internet and in occasional documentaries. Ilyushin, who died last year, was a top jet test pilot, and like so many American test pilots at the dawn of the space age, he wasn’t interested in just being "spam in a can." All new oral, photographic, and written evidence is against the idea he ever was a cosmonaut.
7. Gagarin was preceded in space by a number of earlier cosmonauts, who were all killed.
Moscow kept its program so secret, and issued so many clumsy lies about it, that almost anything was possible, especially if it eased the bruised egos of Americans tired of getting beaten in the space race. But in hindsight, not a single "secret cosmonaut" was killed in flight—although several were expelled for misbehavior, and their faces were airbrushed out of group pictures.
8. Gagarin’s mission wasn’t announced until he had safely landed so it could be covered up if it failed.
It was announced about 30 minutes before the landing. Space planners had prepared statements in advance to avoid looking scared of failure. They had even readied news releases for a fatality or off-course landing needing international rescue assistance. But after Gagarin lifted off, the official news agency in Moscow got bogged down in bureaucratic buck passing and very nearly missed getting the launch announcement out in time.
9. Cosmonaut Gherman Titov, the second man in orbit, admitted that American astronauts were braver than Soviet cosmonauts "because they have to use a rocket that flies one time and then blows up another [time], while we know Soviet rockets are perfectly safe."
Actually, in the year leading up to Gagarin’s flight, half the Russian test missions had failed in secret, enabling such phony boasts of perfection. But space karma exists. The covered-up failures were real, and rumors flourished that there had been doomed crewmen on board.
10. Two weeks before his launch, Gagarin had stood "death watch" for the fatally injured cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko, who was dying of burns at the Botkin hospital in Moscow.
Shortly before the Vostok launch, a trainee cosmonaut named Valentin Bondarenko suffered massive burns in a fire while he was in an oxygen-rich isolation chamber. Years later, the Russian doctor who had treated him and later emigrated wrote that another military pilot had been standing watch at Bondarenko’s door while he was dying—and the doctor later recognized the face as Gagarin’s. It’s a nice story (and at first I believed it), but subsequent release of detailed cosmonaut records showed that Gagarin and all the other prime Vostok candidates were at the Baikonur launch site during that period. Their commander, General Kamanin, received news of Bondarenko’s fate while they were there and decided to withhold it so as not to depress the trainees.