Why you should care

Because Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova have become part of modern Russian folklore, but reality is a lot stranger.

They came from the sky. Their landings frightened Siberian locals and got Washington buzzing. As the Cold War raged, the Russians did the impossible in 1961 and 1963: They sent the first man and woman into space.

Soviet propaganda and international press attention turned Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova into mythic figures. Their names are some of the few that people who lived through the Soviet era still like to hear. And despite being ambassadors of peace, they advanced the start of the Cold War.

“If you could bring a man safely back from space, you could also do the same for a nuclear warhead,” Dr. Emmett Sullivan of Royal Holloway University of London explains. “America’s fears were made real. Sputnik dented America’s confidence beyond the Soviet Union’s A- and H-Bomb tests. Gagarin crowned that and became the ultimate Soviet Space Race Hero.”

Gagarin — just 5’2” in real life — towers above the Moscow skyline as a 130-foot-tall statue. Tereshkova was an Olympic Torch bearer for the Sochi Olympics. A recent documentary on Gagarin produced by Russia Today, often criticized as the heart of Putin’s propaganda machine, showed artist Boris Kukuliev sketching the first man in space as a kind of sci-fi warrior.

“This comes from the heart, you know. I’ve never even seen him in person,” Kukuliev enthused. “For me, this is the image of a hero.”

But just like engineers didn’t fully know what would happen to the human body in space, no one could have predicted what being a Russian space hero would do to these intrepid trailblazers. Yuri Gagarin’s life as a cosmonaut the Russian term for astronaut was nowhere near as straightforward as the flight that made him famous.

Valentina Tereshkova pictured training at Moscow's space center in June 1963.

Valentina Tereshkova trains at Moscow’s space center in June 1963.

Source Keystone-France/Getty

From the outside, Gagarin’s upbringing seemed to make him an ideal Soviet hero. He was from a modest, rural family that had survived occupation during World War II. After an apprenticeship, he joined the air force and learned to fly fighter jets. His tenacity, hard work and intelligence caught the eye of recruiters looking for candidates for a top-secret project: sending the first person into space.

Skydiver Valentina Tereshkova was also caught up in space fever. After the success of Gagarin’s 108-minute flight on April 12, 1961, the Soviets clamored to put a woman in orbit — something the U.S. wouldn’t do until 1983. Compared to Gagarin’s quick jaunt, Tereshkova’s flight two years later took almost three grueling days. As soon as Gagarin and Tereshkova each reached ground, they were whisked up in the political machine. But fame came at a cost.

The tone of the space race had changed dramatically. After the Cuban missile crisis, Sullivan tells OZY, the Soviets were more interested in building nuclear warheads, not manned spacecraft. “By the time of Tereshkova’s achievement, the shift of emphasis was such that the first woman into space failed to have the seismic impact that Sputnik and Gagarin had,” he says.

That, and the Soviet space program was not the big success the propaganda made it out to be. With NASA scrambling to compete, the Russians cut corners and took deadly risks. But the Russian space myth, according to Slava Gerovitch, MIT historian and author of the upcoming Voices of the Soviet Space Program, didn’t make room for stories of failure.

Gagarin and Tereshkova were profoundly shaken by the death of Vladimir Komarov, their friend and fellow cosmonaut who died when his Soyuz 1 capsule crashed upon re-entry in 1967. Gagarin, knowing the technology wasn’t ready, had fought until the last minute to stop Komarov’s flight.

Tereshkova was not allowed back in a plane by Soviet authorities. Gagarin started drinking heavily and died in a plane crash just a year before American astronauts reached the moon. The exact circumstances of his death remained a mystery until just last year.

The Russian space myth still lives on. Visiting Gagarin’s tomb is a pre-launch tradition for cosmonauts. And while Tereshkova, now 77, is no longer a propaganda tool, she has set her sights on space once again as one of the oldest volunteers for a one-way trip to Mars.

The space race ended long ago, but at least one former cosmonaut may reclaim the stars on her own terms.

This OZY encore was originally published Jan. 2, 2015.

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