Happy Yuri’s Night

It’s Yuri’s Night, a world space party being marked around our little, blue marble to celebrate the great Yuri Gagarin, the very first human who really did go where no man has gone before, riding a column of fire into orbit on this day in 1961. A rocket, leaving the surly bonds of Earth and out into space, launched by the then Soviet Union, a remarkable achievement which came only six decades from the first fluttering powered flight of the Wright Brothers. Six decades from a few seconds in the air, only feet off the ground to a human being thundering into space and orbiting our planet.

There’s something wonderfully, romantically heroic about that first Space Age – engineers, programmers, designers, cosmonauts and astronauts, none of them truly knew exactly what they were getting into. It was all new – building on work that had gone before, of course, but now at a level never tried, at a level where some really did wonder if it would work, and if it did work as they hoped, could a human being travel in it? Could they survive? Nobody even knew if a human body could function in the microgravity environment – would your heart and lungs still function? How do you eat? Does it affect your vision? What about radiation? And how about getting home again safely? The inferno of re-entry, could their frail, basic craft really stand up to the intense heat? And what about the cosmonaut within, the re-entry blocking all communications so for those few moments they would be truly alone, unable to speak to ground control, ground control anxiously waiting for the interference to clear to hear their voice, to hear if they had survived the blaze of re-entry, a few moments which must have been an eternity

None of this had been tried, they simply didn’t know, it was all new, making those first pioneers like Gagarin, Tershkova, Leonov, Glenn, Armstrong all the more heroic in my eyes. Imagine being willing to train for this, to risk your life to push that envelope and achieve something which had only ever been a dream. So much optimism then, onwards, outwards, faster, further! Space awaited, orbit, then the Moon, maybe Mars and beyond… So different to our downbeat present when we have a new generation of spacecraft, but only for the super-rich, and Mars, let alone any further, is still decades off. The promises of my comics annuals that by the time I was an adult space would be in reach of everyone, we would take holidays there! Those promises never materialised, to my eternal regret – now approaching the big five-oh at the end of this year it looks like that’s something I will never get the chance to do.

Yuri became the most famous man on the planet on his return. Dragging his chute and suit from his landing in a field he smiled on his return to Earth and told them not to be alarmed, he was one of them, he was a comrade, a friend. One looked at his capsule and suit and asked if he had come from outer space. Yuri reportedly laughed and said as a matter of fact, yes! Suddenly an idea which had been science fiction, space flight, was now science fact. Sadly Yuri died young, killed, of all things, in a normal aircraft training flight, after having survived the rigours of the space programme tests and that history-making first manned mission. Years ago I read a joint autobiography on both sides of the space race by Alexei Leonov (first man to attempt a space walk) and David Scott; in Leonov’s memoirs of the Soviet effort the affection he and his fellow cosmonauts had for Yuri was still strong, even decades on.

Yuri flew before I was born, he died when I was just a baby, but he’s been one of my heroes all my life.

Reviews from the past: Two Sides of the Moon

This review was first posted on The Alien Online back in July of 2004 and tells the story of the Space Race from the point of view of both an American astronaut and a Soviet cosmonaut. By a stroke of enormous luck one of the two space explorers, Commander David Scott, was in Edinburgh to meet the media in a hotel near my then bookstore and his PA brought him over to sign some copies of the book afterwards, so I got to meet him. Suddenly an ordinary working day was transformed as I got to shake the hand of a man who walked on the Moon. A man who even drove on the Moon! A man who got to live a childhood dream of mine…

Two Sides of the Moon by David Scott & Alexei Leonov

Two Sides of the Moon 1

Two of the pioneers of space flight show how to have the Right Stuff

David Scott and Alexei Leonov. Respectively an all-American fighter jock turned astronaut, and a Soviet test pilot then cosmonaut. Both men trained by their respective air forces during the chilliest periods of the Cold War, both part of the vast war machine both superpowers employed in their most dangerous games. Had history unfolded a little differently these men may well have ended up facing each other in aerial battle. As it was, they and their nations would compete in a new arena: space flight.

Two Sides of the Moon flips regularly from Leonov to Scott and back again as both tell us a little about their early lives and the decisions which would eventually lead them into space. Both men are fascinating characters. Leonov, struggling in the inadequacies of the Soviet system where even obtaining a pair of shoes could be a struggle, still manages to become well-enough educated to become a pilot. Scott works hard to put himself through education and training to also become a pilot. Having achieved this goal though, neither man loses any edge to their ambition or determination. Studying even harder, working and flying, they both excel at both theory and practise of aviation, becoming test pilots. This was the pool from which both superpowers would select the original astronaut crews, although at this point neither man really suspected that this was where their futures lay.

Both men were right in there in the earliest days of manned space flight, undergoing trials and training that make their previous travails seem comparatively straightforward. Both men work with and are friends to explorers who have become legend since those heady days: Leonov with Yuri Gagarin and Scott with Neil Armstrong (who provides the introduction). The physical, emotional and psychological pressure the prospective space crews come under is astonishing – way beyond what is demanded today of those undergoing space flight. It had to be demanding however, these men had to have what Tom Wolfe called ‘the Right Stuff’ because they were not only the pioneers of a new frontier; they were entering a wild frontier. New technology and engineering designed to do something never achieved before in the entire history of human civilisation. Men about to be subjected to who-knows-what kind of dangers? Could a man even live in space? Would his ship survive the environment of chilled vacuum and hot radiation? Could the man? Would a ship make it back to Earth safely? Even if it did, would the man be alright? What totally unknown effects could space flight have on a human body?

When you realise just how little was known about space – and this is only 40 years ago – it becomes apparent that the determination and quiet bravery of these early cosmonauts and astronauts must have been exceptional. If you were a test pilot – as both men had been – trying out a revolutionary new aircraft and it goes wrong, you have a chance to eject and escape. This was not really much of an option in an early rocket vessel and indeed lives were lost on both sides, while more were imperilled but saved, by a mixture of ad-hoc engineering genius, skilful flying and steady nerves. This really was a dangerous time – Leonov elicits great sympathy for lost comrades who gave their lives in pursuit of this bold, new human exploration. Scott, in an incredibly touching display, places a small statue and plaque on the lunar surface honouring the names of both Soviet and American astronauts who had given their lives to the new frontier.

This sense of brotherhood between the rival space explorers is a constant theme throughout the book. Neither man is naïve enough to dismiss the Cold War rivalry and the politics of that period which lead to the huge investment in space exploration for reasons of scientific and military dominance as well as for national prestige. But brotherhood there most certainly is, between these explorers isolated by geography and politics by united by a common pursuit into the unknown. Both groups feel sympathy and pain for the others’ losses and both, while also aspiring to lead, applaud the other’s achievements. This would contribute directly to the mid-’70s brief period of détente when Soyuz and Apollo craft would meet in orbit around our world and dock together. Two Cold War rivals united many miles above the glowing surface of the Earth.

For most readers who are familiar with the history of space flight, this may not be a major revelation. What this book does do however, is give that epic period a human face, to personalise it. Leonov’s love of art leading him to take crayons and paper into orbit to sketch what he sees (Scott, incidentally, echoing Carl Sagan’s heroine in Contact by saying that what we need in space is an artist or poet to really describe it to the rest of us). Scott spending several days on the Moon, realising that if he raised just this thumb he could obscure the entire Earth from the horizon. More Earthly camaraderie as the joint Soyuz-Apollo teams play host to each other during their training, the US astronauts struggling to keep up with the hospitable Soviets who insist – of course – on drinking a vodka toast to their health on each visit. Leonov and his crew taking a quick pee against the wheel of the bus which takes them to the launch area. These small, personal events give a very human shape to men who achieved astonishing feats – Scott driving on the Moon in a Lunar Rover, bouncing along the lunar surface, Leonov the first man to float freely in space, ‘walking’ outside his tiny craft, hanging by a thread above the world. Leonov’s delight at Arthur C. Clarke naming the spaceship in 2010 after him.

Space exploration today has often become a pale shadow it’s former self. Safety and simple economics have both reduced the manned exploration to a rump and the general public pays scant attention for the most part, unlike the ’60s and ’70s when the deeds of astronauts were front page news around the world. Occasionally people pay attention when spectacular images from the recent Cassini probe come in or when lives are lost in a disaster like Challenger. This book speaks to those of us who remember the sheer wonder and excitement of the early space missions, when millions of little boys and girls dreamed of becoming astronauts when they grew up. It’s about the magnificent feats humans can accomplish, the achievements we can make through hard work, ingenuity and bravery.

In a way it is a little sad that this great, heroic period is already just a part of history. These men actually lived what many of us dreamed of; now it looks like the dream is fading away. And yet one of the lessons that can be learned from this book is that the dream never leaves us entirely; the human urge for exploration is simply too strongly ingrained. Those pioneering days of triumph and tragedy may be gone, but they left a route for us to follow. The Apollo and Soyuz project was more than a brief flowering of Cold War détente – it proved that different space craft could rendezvous in space and successfully dock with one another. Without this mid-70s flight the dream of today’s multi-national space station Freedom would have been stillborn. The early days are gone and the men who took giant steps are growing older, but the deeds they accomplished remain as both testament to human endurance in the past and as a beacon for future explorers.

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (UK)
Date: May 2004

Out of this world

The Space Race series on BBC2 is shaping up to be quite excellent, in my (not very) humble opinion. So far we’ve gone from Von Braun and his engineers trying to escape to American forces in the crumbling Third Reich to the early 1960s. 1961 to be exact. Tonight’s documentary covered the wonderfully tense desperation between the USSR and NASA to put the first human into space. Despite being quite familiar with the history I found myself utterly gripped by this episode; how close NASA was, the dreadful explosion in the USSR. The series has the hallmark quality documentary level of detail you would expect from the Beeb mixed with re-creations.

Only 16 years before the most advanced rockets were the V2s being unleashed by the Nazis, raining destruction down on Britain – the dawn of the ballistic missile, which would cast a long and terrifying shadow across the succeeding decades. And yet 16 years later here was Yuri Gagarin climbing into a primitve rocket, knowing full well just how dangerous it was. That acceptance of danger was something astronauts and cosmonauts had in common; the willingness to push themselves into the unknown.

The Space Race was driven very much by Cold War considerations relating to those ballistic missiles and national prestige, but that doens’t mean for one moment we shouldn’t regard some of those achievements with reverence. Picture Gagarin in a violenty shaking tiny capsule, hurled into orbit; the rocket could explode, the capsule may not make it back – hell, they weren’t even sure a human being could actually survive spaceflight even if the machinery worked perfectly. And yet there was no shortage of pilots willing to fly.

So there is Gagarin, being shaken around and experiencing enormous G-force and suddenly it goes quiet and he is floating in orbit around our little world. The first man in the history to look down on the clouds scurrying across the face of the globe from above; the first to travel round the entire world in less than a couple of hours. Short centuries before the first circumnavigations of the globe were celebrated and took months or even years. Now Gagarin flashed round the Earth in just over 100 minutes.

We tend to forget just how big an adventure space exploration is today – we make jokes about Shuttle flights being delayed and are only reminded how dangerous an endeavour it is when tragedy strikes. We complain about costs (which may be big but are a fraction of what we waste on weapons) and lose sight of the sheer wonder of it all. And yet back then it was far more dangerous and raw and yet they did it. But Gagarin was the first to see our world from space and it was wondrful.

Alexei Leonov (the first man to perform a spacewalk and honoured by Arthur C Clarke by having the ship in 2010 named for him) recalled those days and his friendship with Yuri in his portion of Two Sides of the Moon which details the early space programme from both sides (reviewed here I treasure the copy I have signed by Alexei’s co-author, Apollo astronuat David Scott (how blown away was I to talk to a man who had walked on the Moon?!?!)). Yuri Gagarin was one of my heroes when I was a boy and this series reminded me of the mixture of fascination and excitement space exploration sparked in me back then; no wonder I ended up selling SF! Perhaps Ken MacLeod’s books are partly a substitute for space travel for me. I don’t have a poster of him anymore, but Yuri is still one of my heroes; I think he always will be. He really did go where no man had gone before and he did it boldly.