Star Bound №19: The Other First Man
Reading Stephen Walker’s Beyond
Which is better, the dreamy sense of dislocation you get with a great novel, or the heady satisfaction of falling into a whole new world that comes from really well-done nonfiction? Today I’m going to say the latter—but perhaps it’s because I’ve just finished Stephen Walker’s Beyond: The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space.
Published in 2021, Walker’s book is the story of Yuri Gagarin’s historic first flight in space, accomplished in April of 1961 to the astonishment of the world. I wanted to say “as the world looked on,” but I couldn’t, because the feat was mostly over before it was even announced. In fact, almost no one was looking on. Such was the Soviet Union’s obsessive secrecy about its space program that few Russians even knew Gagarin’s name until he was halfway through his 108-minute mission, a single orbit around Earth in a Soviet-made Vostok spacecraft launched atop a converted R-7 missile.
The diminutive Gagarin—he stood only five feet, five inches tall—may have taken off as a nobody, but he returned from space a combination of Lenin, Lindbergh, and Elvis. He was the most famous man in the world. Citizens of the Soviet Union in general and Moscow in particular danced in the streets, giddy with excitement at claiming the honor of the first crewed space flight and thereby beating the capitalist warmongers in Washington. Others were not amused. Al Shepard, for example, who became the first American in space just a few weeks later, pounded a table with his fist when he heard the news of Gagarin’s exploit. He might have been the first star traveler, if not for what he saw as excessive caution on the part of certain NASA engineers.
Most of us know Gagarin by name, but the details of his background, training, and mission have till now been somewhat sketchy. Walker does a great job of showing us the people behind the first flight—Gagarin himself, called “Yura” by friends and family; his friend and chief rival Gherman Titov; Gagarin’s family; and the shadowy Chief Rocket Maker himself, Sergei Korolev. Korolev and Gagarin are the two most prominent figures in the book, and their bond, several times likened to that of father and son, provides one of the chief emotional anchors of the tale. Gagarin is open, engaging, cheerful and earnest. Korolev—who survived imprisonment and hard labor under Stalin—is a brilliant, driven, occasionally unscrupulous dreamer who almost singlehandedly wills the Soviet space program into existence. Like Gagarin, Korolev spent his career before the First Flight in obscurity. Unlike Yura, he continued to haunt the shadows after the famous mission, doomed to anonymity by his KGB overlords who felt that even allowing the West to learn Korolev’s name might somehow compromise Soviet space efforts. Indeed, this absurd zeal for subterfuge permeates the story, as we learn of the socialists’ secret spacecraft command codes, a hidden rocket launch complex, and the veil of deception draped over the fact that Gagarin didn’t land in his spaceship, but rather was ejected from it at an altitude of around 20,000 feet and parachuted to Earth, a detail that was long hidden by Moscow for fear that it might disqualify its first cosmonaut from setting records as defined by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
As we count down with increasing excitement to the date of Gagarin’s launch—something the Soviets didn’t do, by the way, as they have never used the classic 10-9-8-7 routine — we meet a host of characters, from Nikita Khrushchev to John F. Kennedy, from John Glenn to Soviet filmmaker Vladimir Suvorov. We learn the differences between the ideal astronaut and the perfect cosmonaut, watch as animals are tested—and, frankly, tortured—to determine whether mammals could survive in space, and see how and why JFK went from space skeptic to author of the 20th Century’s most famous challenge—the one that sent Neil and Buzz to the moon and established American dominance in space technology once but perhaps not forever.
I’m not a particularly generous reader. I can almost always find something about a book that I would change or delete or expand on. I have to say, though, that Walker’s account seemed just about perfect. I could occasionally see gears turning as the author ended chapters with a gentle expository teaser, but that’s okay. That’s how narrative works. And this time it works exceedingly well. If you’re interested in space exploration, move Carrying the Fire, A Man on the Moon, and Falling to Earth over a few inches on your bookshelf. You’re going to want to put Walker’s work up there with them.
Trust me. You’ll be enthralled till the very end—and maybe even beyond.