Thursday, June 2, 2016

Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony

A fascinating look at the other side of the space race
Starman, Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony’s biography of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, was originally published in 1998 and rereleased in 2011 to capitalize on the 50th anniversary of the first manned flight into space. The book covers Gagarin’s childhood under Nazi occupation during World War II, his cosmonaut training, his historic flight as the first human being to leave the earth’s atmosphere, his triumphant yet troubling tenure as perhaps the most famous person in the world, and his mysterious death. It is a fascinating and compelling story, and Doran and Bizony have done an admirable job in researching and telling it.

While following the course of Gagarin’s exciting but all too brief life, the book provides a fascinating glimpse behind the Iron Curtain into the early days of the Soviet space program. Struggling to compete with the Americans for the greater glory of their country, the Soviet scientists stumbled toward greatness as they rushed to figure out how to put a man in space. A great deal of trial and error was involved, and safety was not always priority one. The same was true for the U.S. The authors periodically check in with the American side of the space race to illustrate each superpower’s competitive standing and how decisions on one side influenced those on the other.

One surprising detail regarding Gagarin’s road to space is that the Soviets trained two cosmonauts for that first epic spaceflight, waiting until very late in the process to decide their fates. Only a few days before the launch was Gherman Titov notified that he would be sitting this one out while Gagarin rode into glory. There is some great insight into all the politics behind the final selection, as well as the political struggles behind other decisions in the space program. After his brief rocket ride, Gagarin became phenomenally famous and was treated as a national treasure, carted around the world to make countless personal appearances. He shouldered the role as best he could, but his first love was flying. He wanted to go back into space, hopefully on a moon mission, but the Soviet government treated their cosmonaut heroes with surprising overprotectiveness, not only hindering them from further spaceflight but also severely prohibiting their piloting of aircraft. Gagarin’s rise to greatness is inspiring, but the subsequent aftermath is often surprisingly tragic.

The authors dug up a great deal of documentation from Soviet archives and interviewed many key players in the space program, as well as Gagarin family members. While the research is extensive, the writing isn’t always all it could be. Rather than taking their documents and interviews and distilling them into a compelling and cohesive narrative, Doran and Bizony at times make you feel like you’re reading a bunch of documents and interviews. The research really takes precedence over the writing. There is a sort of magazine journalism style to the prose that sometimes feels out of place within an authoritative account of a man’s life. I also felt like the foreword promised more mystery and controversy than the story ultimately delivered. Nevertheless, I learned a great deal from this book and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Gagarin is a great hero, yet like all heroes—as the authors point out—he had his flaws. The authors go beyond the superstardom to expose the humanity beneath, thereby bringing this stellar hero down to earth for us to appreciate more fully his accomplishments and struggle.
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