SOVIET sculpture renders all its subjects larger than life, but few more so than Yuri Gagarin, who became the first man in space on April 12, 1961, nearly 50 years ago. A gleaming, 125-foot-tall titanium statue of the world’s most famous cosmonaut stands at the nexus of three freeways in Moscow, arms outstretched like a cold war superhero.
Gagarin’s achievement, and the Soviet playbook that shaped it, made him the most celebrated Soviet hero since Lenin, a triumph of nationalist glory, a role model for the young, a hypermasculine sex symbol. His deification set the “right stuff” tone that NASA would follow with its own astronauts: the lumbering icons in their puffy, complicated suits, incapable of error or weakness or even, it sometimes seemed, emotion.
In reality, Gagarin was 5 feet 2 inches tall and nice as heck. He was chosen because of his willingness to follow orders, to be a small part of the technological immensity of the Soviet space program. It is this quality, rather than courage or bravado, that makes him, in a sense, a most modern spacefarer.
Gagarin was, to be sure, the model Soviet citizen. When I visited the Yuri Gagarin museum in Star City, near Moscow, the curator showed me his childhood report cards, “all with excellent marks,” and a toy airplane he made at the industrial school he attended as a boy.
But for all his precocious talent, the space program’s chief designer, Sergey Korolev, is reported to have chosen Gagarin for the history-making mission partly because he was the only one of the original cosmonaut squad to remove his shoes before stepping inside a model of the Vostok I capsule in which he would travel into space.
“Everybody liked him,” said the curator, fanning herself as though overcome by the mere thought of him.
Indeed, Gagarin’s affable willingness to go with the program made him perfect for a mission in which he was, essentially, human cargo. Beyond coming down alive — nailing it first — his only assignment was to write down his observations and sensations (which he mostly failed to do, because he inadvertently let go of his pencil in orbit, and it floated out of sight).
Like the chimpanzees and the Moscow street mutts that went into space before them, Gagarin and other early spacemen were in part an experimental payload. There was a great deal of concern, at both the Soviet space agency and at NASA, about the unknown physiological and psychological consequences of space and zero gravity. Would breaching the infinite blow the crewman’s mind? Would weightlessness cause his eyeballs to change shape, his blood to stop circulating? Gagarin went up to find out.
Strangely, the first man to ascend into the cosmos was a skilled pilot forbidden to use his skills. The controls of Vostok I were locked; the capsule was maneuvered entirely from the ground. As Gagarin himself put it, “I’m not sure if I was the first man in space or the last dog.”
But nothing about Gagarin’s personality prevented him from becoming a Soviet demigod. His museum holds hundreds of official gifts and honors bestowed on him during the 27-nation tour that followed his flight: case after case of plaques and medals and proclamations and keys, a sombrero from the president of Mexico, giant salad tongs from who knows where.
Gagarin was uncomfortable with the adulation and fuss. He wrote in his autobiography of noticing that his shoelace was untied while he walked the red carpet before the presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and being unable to think about anything else. When he found himself seated beside Queen Elizabeth II at a Buckingham Palace luncheon, he reached under the table and squeezed her knee — not out of lasciviousness but, Gagarin biographer Lev Danilkin told me, “to receive evidence that he was not sleeping.” (Her Majesty pretended not to notice.)
Contemporary space travelers have hewed closer to the real-life Yuri Gagarin than his larger-than-life public image. Whatever bravado was tolerated during NASA’s earliest manned space programs has been ironed out; in an era of large-crew, long-duration missions, it is very much the wrong stuff. There is no room for expansive egos, for swagger and machismo, on a year-long stay in a bus-sized space station habitat or a two-plus-year mission to Mars.
A recent list of desirable attributes in NASA astronauts includes empathy, fairness and a good sense of humor. It’s hard to say whether and when the United States will send a human being to Mars, but Yuri Gagarin would be as perfect a choice today as he was in 1961.