Mary Roach: In Space, Nice Guys Finish First





[Mary Roach is the author of “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.”]

Oakland, Calif.

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....

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....



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