The Cosmonauts in the Mirror

As a person of a certain age, I always associate the word “cosmonaut” with space villains, who launch spy satellites and build giant lasers on the moon to execute secret plans for world domination. Everyone raised in the 1960-70s “knows” that America did all the important space stuff like design a plane to fly in space and land on the moon. The reality, of course, is that the Soviet and Russian space programs, like the American space program, have been a blend of science and humanity, ingenuity and bravery, success and failure. While many goals were military, the Soviet achievements were as much about beating the United States (or playing catch up to perceived U.S. advantages) as anything else. In that sense, the journey into space and advances in knowledge shared by humanity have derived from a giant game of tag between superpowers.

Since today’s launch of the first astronauts in an American spacecraft since the end of the shuttle program has been delayed until Saturday–godspeed Behnken and Hurley–perhaps it’s a good day to review some space history. But we often hear only about the Americans, like what John Glenn or Neil Armstrong experienced. What about their mirror image counterparts?

A Vostok 3KA descent module like the one used by pioneer cosmonauts. This one was auctioned at Sotheby’s for $2.9 million. Photo by Anatoly Zak.

Soap Bubble in Scrap Metal

I always thought that cosmonauts went into space in a tub of bolts like the Mercury astronauts. The reality is more harrowing to imagine, yet more practical in design. The 1960s Vostok capsule was round although weighted on one side to keep it “pointed” in the direction of travel. The design worked well, better in some ways than the conical U.S. shape, because it was less subject to dramatic changes in atmosphere due to how the craft was oriented. This soap bubble covered by heat shields worked so well that the Soyuz design of 2020 still uses it, with one rather key improvement. The brakes now work.

In the 1960 design, USSR scientists couldn’t get the craft to land gently enough for human safety. The early structure had an ejection seat, not just in case, but as the method of delivering the cosmonauts back to earth. They all had to parachute safely. When you read the account of Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok I landing, it’s easy to imagine why:

Two schoolgirls witness the Vostok 1 capsule landing and describe the scene: “It was a huge ball, about two or three metres high. It fell, then it bounced and then it fell again. There was a huge hole where it hit the first time.” A farmer and her daughter observe the strange scene of a figure in a bright orange suit with a large white helmet landing near them by parachute.

From “The Flight of Vostok 1” at
A Vostok module after a couple of bounces. Ejector seats seem much safer. Photo at

Small Skydivers

This brings up two other little tidbits that set cosmonauts slightly apart from the Americans. All the early spacefarers needed to be under a maximum height requirement in order to fit into the capsule. For the Soviets, it was 1.7 meters rather than 1.8 meters; four inches shorter. (5’7″ as opposed to 5’11”). Being lighter was a definitive advantage, which is why Yuri Gagarin at 5’2″ was perfect for the job.

At 5’2″, Gagarin is towered over by Harold MacMillan and English bobbies on his tour of the U.K. But his height was an advantage. Photo at

Being in space for long periods actually leads the spine to elongate, which caused at least one American astronaut to grow an inch past the height restriction in 1994. For a lot of reasons, it might make more sense to design your craft smaller and then pick someone smaller still, just in case.

If you need a smaller, lighter cosmonaut, there’s another obvious choice. The Soviet Union went there first by training a squad of women to go up into space by 1960. They had heard that the U.S. was planning to launch the first woman and wanted to continue a string of firsts they’d already achieved. (First satellite, first living creature in space, first man in space…). America was, in fact, toying with the idea, and had identified a so-called Mercury 13 group. Somehow, they could never quite put any of the qualified women candidates into the queue, until Sally Ride twenty years later in 1983. So the USSR had a definite first.

Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space, in 1963, and while she also didn’t have the “test pilot” Soviet requirements, she had a unique skill perfect for the job. She was an experienced skydiver.

Tereshkova at her favorite pastime. Photo from

When I first read about Tereshkova’s “skill,” I assumed the USSR was using skydiving as a proxy for having a high tolerance for risk, for being fearless. Nope. It turns out, because of the ejector-seat thing, that cosmonauts needed to be experts with a parachute. Tereshkova additional special qualifications were that she came from a humble working background and was a huge supporter of the Communist Party. That made her a prime candidate for Nikita Khruschev who loved the idea of an ultra-orthodox communist also rubbing it in the American’s faces. Since retiring from the cosmonaut days, Tereshkova has gone on to have that prominent career Khruschev expected, being heavily involved in communist party politics, recently re-elected to her 7th Duma.

Pee on a What?

Tereshkova was paraded widely for years as a role model for women to come in space. However, while she spent those years in P.R. for the Soviet superiority in gender achievement, the USSR shelved the remaining women astronauts in exactly the same manner as their American counterparts. A second female cosmonaut wouldn’t be launched until 1982. This, despite Tereshkova proving that women were capable of handling all the space duties–even continuing a strange practice that Gagarin started, which only a man might consider.

As the tale goes, the bus ride out to the launch pad for Vostok I took longer than expected. No provision had been made for Gagarin to relieve himself in the capsule, which by the way was also true for Alan Shepard and some other U.S. astronauts. Author Mary Robinette Kowal explains rather graphically here how NASA struggled, like their Soviet counterparts, with how to manage normal biological functions in orbit and in space. For Gagarin, even before he launched, the need was urgent. When he got off the bus, nature called–rather insistently–so he peed on the nearest thing, which was a bus tire.

The curious but continuing tradition for cosmonauts. Photo at

This act turned into something of a good luck charm for cosmonauts. Ever since, Soviet and Russian space wannabes have unzipped right before the flight. Tereshkova included, as apparently she squatted down over a tire for good luck before her flight as well. Since American astronauts have been using Soyuz launchcraft since the retirement of the shuttle program in 2011, they have been following the tradition as well. This includes American women, although they bring vials of urine to splash on the tires, rather than trying to master the squat.

Lost Cosmonauts

There’s another weird but persistent story from the early cosmonaut days, although this one sounds more like Capricorn One or a Flat Earther conspiracy. The story of the Lost Cosmonauts asserts that Gagarin was not the first human in space. Rumors have abounded that the USSR launched one or two other pre-Gagarin flights but kept them secret for various reasons.

One rumor suggested that a cosmonaut named Vladimir Ilyushin went first, but that he had crash-landed in China and was in a Chinese prison. Ilyushin, a cosmonaut teammate of Gagarin’s, was reported by the Soviet Union to have been involved in a car crash. This led to a slew of stories that this was a cover-up of Ilushin’s failed launch. Another story, reported by science fiction author Robert Heinlein, was that he was told by Red Army cadets, while traveling in Lithuania, that a USSR launch had occurred that day but was hushed up due to problems with the launch. Why Heinlein would be the receiver of this “truth” is worth asking. Subsequent declassification of a mountain of scientific documents after the fall of the USSR has revealed no evidence of any Lost Cosmonauts.

Conspiracy theorists worldwide have often claimed that the U.S. moon landing was staged, that scientific discoveries have come from a “Black Knight” alien satellites, and that NASA’s entire purpose is to create space hoaxes. In other words, the Lost Cosmonaut story shows that NASA and its counterpart, the Russian Federal Space Agency, have been equally subject to paranoid theories. It didn’t help that RFSA did covered up the death of at least one cosmonaut. It didn’t help that NASA initially blamed Gus Grissom for the failed hatch of his Mercury landing craft or that the poor decision-making overruled scientific caution that led to the Challenger disaster.

The Soviets had no monopoly on spacecraft design problems nor did the United States corner the market on astronaut heroes, willing to brave a lot of unknowns in the name of exploration. Whatever happens with the Space X Dragon capsule on Saturday, crew members Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will add their names to a long and distinguished list of intrepid astronauts and cosmonauts.

Even though there has been a renewed era of Russian and American joint scientific cooperation, Bob and Doug will probably not be continuing that other tradition. They’re driving an Elon Musk-designed car out to an Elon Musk-designed spacecraft. I just don’t see them on national television huddling over the tire of a Tesla.

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