Designing the Perfect Cosmonaut

In a previous post, I talked about how NASA designed the perfect astronaut – the qualities that were considered vital in selecting the first generation Mercury astronauts. The Soviet Space Program was no different. The organization held its candidates to an equally stringent set of standards as well as a host of unspoken ideal qualities. A cursory look at the Mercury Astronaut selection and the first Soviet Cosmonaut selection reveal two greatly similar processes. But of course, different countries with different resources use different methods. Unsurprisingly, the Soviet Union’s selection and training prior to selecting Yuri Gagarin as its first cosmonaut differs from NASA’s, and some of the main differences between programs are fairly striking. When compared, the agenda of both nations are evident as they determined which man (or men) would represent them as the space age began. So, what makes the perfect Cosmonaut? (Left are three images of the first spacewalk, Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. 1964.)

The prospect of sending a man into orbit was first discussed in the Soviet Union in 1956. Soviet Chief Designer Sergei Korolev (pictured left, the somewhat mysterious man behind the R-7 rocket that launched Sputnik) and his Deputy Chief Designer Konstantin Bushuyev (right) discussed the possibility with engineer and theoretician Mikhail Tikhonravov. The prospect was hardly taken seriously; then men spoke of the proposal as a largely fantastical endeavour.

The initial ‘fantastical’ conversation soon gave way to reality. Two years later, Korolev and Tikhonravov again revisited the possibility of man rating a spacecraft for launch atop the R-7 rocket. The idea was given a green light by the Council of Chief Designers and Scientific Leaders. A manned spaceflight was deemed a good use for the heavy lifting vehicle. With the manned program in its infancy and the spacecraft in the beginning stages, the last piece of the still hazy puzzle was the men.

A schematic depicting the development of Soviet launch vehicles.

Like its American counterpart, the Soviet Space Program considered a wide variety of candidates for its cosmonauts including rocket engineers, submariners, and race car drivers. In the end, the aviation physicians determined that military test pilots would be the most suitable candidates for manned spaceflight.

This decision had less to do with security, as was (at least in part) the case with the Mercury Astronaut selection criteria, and more to do with the physical demands of the job. Military test pilots had the requisite background for spaceflight more than any other group- of men. They had experience dealing with many challenges the Soviet Space Program anticipated occurring during spaceflight. Training men familiar with hypoxia,  g-loads on multiple axes of the body, and ejection and landing by a parachute for spaceflight was a simple choice.

In the late 1950s, Soviet Air Force pilots were all roughly the same age, had all passed the same physical fitness exams, and all had more or less the same flight experience and number of logged hours. Thus, there was no need to look for candidates throughout the whole Soviet Union; the search was limited to the European part of Russia. Korolev, as Chief Designer, set the requirements that would pair all test pilots down to those fit for spaceflight.

Cosmonaut candidates had to be under 30 years of age and shorter than 5 feet 7 inches. By contrast, NASA’s Mercury candidates had to be under 40 years of age and under five feet eleven inches. Notably, Mercury candidates were also required to hold a bachelor’s degree in engineering or its equivalent, be a graduate of a test pilot school, and hold a qualification as a jet pilot with at least 1,500 hours of flying time. The Soviet candidates had no such academic constraints. The Soviet Space program also decided to cast their net wider than the Americans. Looking ahead, they were planning more than seven flights, so needed more than the seven astronauts NASA chose for the Mercury Program.

Over 3,000 men met the basic requirements and were interviewed for Cosmonaut candidacy. Again like their American counterparts, the candidates were not told what the mysterious interview would lead to. The process was difficult to see through. They were asked a wide variety of question ranging from the personal (questions about their past), their flight records (even though the interviewers had the interviewee’s flight log on the table), and veiled questions such as “how would you like to fly a different kind of craft?” (an unsettling questions for fighter pilots). Supporting the initial interview was a critical consideration of flight and medical records. the list was paired down with potential candidates undergoing additional testing in groups of forty.

Applicants also, however “unofficially”, were judged on a set of criteria that drew an invisible line between equally qualified candidates. Factors such as which men had flown the most modern aircraft, and who had flown in the most adverse conditions became relevant. Applicants were also judged on their political reliability in addition to more general moral and human qualities. These personality-driven factors aided in the initial selection. From the thousands of applicants, candidates were selected and sent for additional interviews and medical testing in groups of forty. (Pictured, Alexei Leonov joins a belly dancer on stage during a lighter moment during training for the 1975 Apollo-Soyus Test Program. 1974.)

This second round of interviews and medical exams was significantly more intensive than the first with a fairly low ‘pass rate’; Alexei Leonov was one of eight in his group of forty to move through to the final candidate selection. Another early applicant who became one of the first members to move through to the final training phase was Yuri Gagarin.

Gagarin’s (left) interest in spaceflight began before the call for suitable pilot-turned-cosmonauts went out through military channels. After the launch of the unmanned probe Luna 3 on October 4, 1959, Gagarin wrote a report to his commanding officer in the Air Force expressing his desire to be included in the Soviet Union’s move into space. Whether or not his personal plea was ever heard, he got his wish. At the time of his selection into the final training group in 1959, Gagarin was a 25-year-old third class military pilot.

The final round of medical tests took place at the Central Aviation Research Hospital and comprised the most extensive and thorough physical examinations any of the candidates had previously endured. This was Gagarin’s first indication that this mysterious testing program was serious business. He was sent to the ophthalmologist not once but seven times to ensure his perfect vision. He had to prove he could read the entire letter chart from top to bottom with no mistakes. He was checked for a concealed squint, his night vision was tested, and his retinas were very closely scrutinized. This was more than the Air Force had ever demanded of its pilot’s eyes.

By the end of 1959, twenty men had been selected as suitably qualified Cosmonaut, and most would persist to become the Soviet Union’s first cosmonauts – medical problems and truly horrific training accidents would prevent some men from flying. The first twenty cosmonauts were: Ivan Anikeyen, Pavel Belyayev, Valentin Bondarenko, Valery Bykovsky, Valentin Filatyev, Yuri Gagarin, Viktor Gorbatko, Anatoli Kartashov, Yevgeny Khrunov, Vladimir Komarov, Alexei Leonov, Grigori Nelyubov, Andrian Nikolayev, Pavel Popovich, Mars Rafikov, Georgi Shonin, Gherman Titov, Valentin Varlamov, Dmitri Zaikin.

Most of the cosmonaut group of 1960, with some of their instructors and wives. Front, from left to right: Pavel Popovich, Viktor Gorbatko, Yevgeniy Khrunov, Yuri Gagarin, Chief Designer Sergey Korolev, his wife Nina Koroleva with Popovich's daughter Natasha, Cosmonaut Training Center Director Yevgeniy Karpov, parachute trainer Nikolay Nikitin, and physician Yevgeniy Fedorov. Standing, second row, from left to right: Aleksey Leonov, Andrian Nikolayev, Mars Rafikov, Dmitriy Zaykin, Boris Volynov, German Titov, Grigoriy Nelyubov, Valeriy Bykovskiy, and Georgiy Shonin. Back, from left to right: Valentin Filatyev, Ivan Anikeyev, and Pavel Belyayev.

The twenty men were set to begin spaceflight-specific training early in 1960. Thus in a short time frame, the Soviets were faced with the same question that the Americans had to answer: how do you prepare a cosmonaut for the unknown? The training facility was under the direction of Yevgeny Karpov. Recognizing that he was working towards an unknown goal in fitness levels and acclimatization, Karpov staffed the facility with two hundred and fifty personnel to attend to the twenty cosmonauts.

The testing facility, at the time of the cosmonauts’ arrival, was unfinished. As a temporary lodging and training solution, the men moved into an out of use gymnasium. The arrangement was far from ideal. The men arrived separately; many who were married brought their wives in tow. For the young couples, sheets of newspaper hung over a volleyball net gave them as much privacy as they could manage.

In the early days of their training, there was no proper regime in place. Almost as filler, Karpov had the cosmonauts stay active with general physical exercises, particularly gymnastics and track and field. The goal, at least until a more space-specific regimen could be instituted, was to keep the cosmonauts from getting sluggish during the downtime between classroom sessions.

Some cosmonauts had better levels of physical and cardiovascular health than others; in the long run it would be beneficial if all the men started their proper training at an equivalent fitness level. Many were less pleased with the modified training – running and gymnastics was no substitute for centrifuge training and all other such specialized work they ought to be doing. Part of the problem for the candidates was their general distrust of doctors – another similarity with their American counterparts. A common suspicion was that this basic fitness training was a way to weed out any remaining ‘undesirable’ trainees.

Despite the ‘pell-mell’ nature of the early training, the cosmonauts were expected to adhere to a strict schedule. They would get up at 7 and start their day with some light gymnastics. At 8:30, breakfast would be served, followed by classes and lectures.

Since there were neither proper mockups of spacecrafts nor complete simulators to mimic a complete flight, the lectures covered the bulk of the heavy workload. The cosmonauts studied the fundamental principles of radio communication and telemetry in the hope that the theory would translate into practice. In the interim period, learning the theory behind manned spaceflight would have to suffice.

At 12:30, the training would break for lunch. Afternoons were devoted to physical training, both in rough analogues of spacecrafts as well as less conventional environments. To familiarize the cosmonauts with the prospect of ejecting from their spacecraft prior to landing, the men practised jumping from a high diving board into a pool – a creative way to break a fear of heights. Parachute training would later become an indispensible exercise.

Eventually, the training regimen caught up with the task at hand. One of the biggest changes was the addition of proper weightlessness training. Previously, the cosmonauts had only been exposed to the brief periods of weightlessness during a parabolic flight in the back of a jet aircraft – hardly an environment conducive to moving around and acclimatizing to new sensations. The cosmonauts complained that their preparation was lacking, especially when compared to the Americans’. Not long after, the cosmonauts began parabolic flights in a much larger Tu-104.

They also began centrifuge training to accustom themselves to the higher g-forces associated with launch and reentry – levels of between 3gs and 12gs made up the bulk of the centrifuge runs. Isolation training was also central.  Each cosmonaut was left alone in a soundproof room pressurized to mimic a high altitude for an unknown duration, typically between five and ten days. This was intended to prepare the men psychologically for solitary spaceflight.

While all twenty candidates were going through the initial training, six men were separated from the pack to join a special accelerated training group. Hand picked by Sergei Korolev, these men were selected for the simple fact that they were the shortest and lightest of the group. They would, quite simply, be a better fit inside the Vostok spacecraft. It was no secret that one of these six men would most likely be the first cosmonaut to fly in space.

The shortlist was shortened further before the first flight was assigned. In early 1961, the six men were ranked. Based on their overall performance, physical fitness levels, as well as their test scores on material form their lectures. The top three men would each have an equal shot at the first Vostok mission. Until one was chosen, all three would train for the same mission – one as pilot, one as backup, and one as second backup. The three men were Yuri Gagarin, Gherman Titov, and Grigori Nelyubov, though not necessarily in that order. (Pictured: Glenn and President Kennedy meet Titov, on the right, in 1962.)

To determine which man would make the first flight, a new set of criteria was brought into play. Factors like personality, speaking and conversational skills, political and cultural ideals, as well as the ability to properly represent the Soviet people were necessary considerations when selecting the man who would commit the Soviet Union to the history books as the first true space-faring nation.

Within the top six accelerated cosmonauts, even as one of the top three of the six, Gagarin was not the standout candidate. While his peers thought he was a shoe-in for the first flight, he was in reality just one man in a cohort of men, all of who stood out as the best in their field. Throughout their training, cosmonauts fell into and out of favour with those in charge. At various point, Karpov favoured Titov (who expressed great deal of faith in the new rocket technology), Popovich, and Nelyubov over Gagarin.

Whatever his weaker points may have been in the eyes of Karpov, Korolev, and the other higher ups in the Soviet Space Program, Gagarin was eventually selected to make the first flight. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who doubtless held some sway over the fledgling space program, is said to have shown preference to Gagarin for his boyish good looks and simple background.

In many ways, Gagarin was the perfect poster child for the Soviet Space Program – he was a peasant who grew up on a communal farm, eventually defying his family’s tradition of carpentry to pursue a career as a military pilot. He could be the face of the Communist system, a bright young pioneer to broadcast out to the world. (Above, Gagarin in the foreground en route to his Vostok spacecraft. Backup pilot Titov is suited up in the seat behind Gagarin.)

Although Gagarin was thirteen years Glenn’s junior, there are many parallels between the two. In many ways, Gagarin represented for the Soviets what John Glenn represented for Americans – the success of a nation’s communal effort. Even though Glenn was the third American in space, he is the one most remember. He was the first to orbit the earth, after all.

Both men could be described as having boyish good looks. Both were married, came from humble backgrounds, had made their own success in their respective military fields, and represented the ideals of their country. For Gagarin, it was the success of the Soviet’s communist system. For Glenn (left), it was the American dream and the American hero rolled into one, complete with wife and family.

In Gagarin’s case, the argument could reasonably be made that what he represented was more important than what he did. This is not to suggest that he was an unskilled pilot and cosmonaut by any means. Like most mission in the early days of space exploration, the Vostok 1 flight was not without its challenges. When he was forced to eject from his spacecraft early due to the instrument module’s failure to separate from the spacecraft, he remained calm and managed the situation in a way that saved his life and preserved the spacecraft. But this imperfect finale was kept under wraps, and Gagarin was presented to the world as the hero of the Soviet Union who took a perfect first step into space.

Perhaps the same (somewhat sceptical) interpretation could be applied to Glenn, although the argument of “representation over skill” is weakened when you consider he was the third American in space. Nevertheless, he is the one Mercury astronaut synonymous with the program, sort of like how Neil Armstrong (left, just prior to Apollo 11 launch) is synonymous with the moon landing (very few people know of his exciting career as an X-15 pilot!) Armstrong could certainly be described as having ‘boyish good looks’ in addition to his wife and family, thus completing the American dream. The moon landing, however, would have been a hard mission to schedule with a certain face in command. There was always the chance that the landing would be scrubbed, and Pete Conrad in Apollo 12 would be the name remembered as the first man to walk on the moon.

The suggestion is a little sounder on the Soviet side of the space race. Valentina Tereshkova (right), the first woman in space and a cosmonaut, was rather handsome woman and a fine figurehead for young women in the Soviet Union. Alexei Leonov, the cosmonaut who undertook the first ever extravehicular activity or EVA, could be lumped into the same category. He was also young, had a friendly disposition, was later held in high esteem by his later crewmates Deke Slayton and Tom Stafford on the Apollo-Soyuz Test program, and also had a nice Soviet bride.

Perhaps it is going too far to suggest that the perfect cosmonaut is a mix of physical fitness, piloting ability, clear-headedness, and good looks. But the fact remains that to be the face of a nation, you have to have a face worth putting on posters around the world.

Statue of Gagarin in Star City, Russia

Selected Sources/Suggested Reading

Colin Burgess and Rex Hall. The First Soviet Cosmonaut Team. Praxis. 2009.

David Scott and Alexei Leonov. Two Sides of the Moon. New York: Thomas Dunne Books. 2004.

Asif Siddiqi. Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge and The Soviet Space Race with Apollo. University Florida Press. 2000.

Brian Harvey. Russian Planetary Exploration. Praxis. 2008.

5 thoughts on “Designing the Perfect Cosmonaut

  1. Nice article. One small correction: Leonov’s space walk was in 1965, not 1964 as the caption to the pictures says.

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