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Starman: Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri…

Starman: Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin (edition 1999)

by Piers Bizony, Jamie Doran

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1394124,843 (3.8)6
Title:Starman: Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin
Authors:Piers Bizony
Other authors:Jamie Doran
Info:Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (1999), Edition: New Ed, Paperback, 248 pages
Collections:Your library

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



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This is a biography of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, but it's one that often takes a step back from Gagarin's life to offer us a somewhat broader perspective on the Soviet space program and the politics of the time. And that's a very good thing, I think. Space buff that I am, I knew quite a lot about the US side of the space race, but the Russian side has always been much more obscure. Which is not surprising, of course, given the Soviets' penchant for secrecy and obfuscation. Indeed, much of this book was based on interviews with people who really didn't feel free to talk very much until the 1990s. So it's very welcome for its ability to shed a little light on a murky but fascinating part of space history, as well as for the somewhat bittersweet portrait it paints of Gagarin himself as a smart, charming, interesting guy who suffered a bit under the weight of his fame and the strain of life in the USSR, and who died far, far too young. ( )
  bragan | Jun 13, 2014 |
This is a biography of Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey into outer space. How his sense of nationalism grew out of a childhood in German-occupied WWII Russia. His fascination with flight, his love of adventure and general good nature took him far in the qualification rounds to fly what he was told "was not a plane."

The first half of the book leading up to his historic flight just flew by for me. The second half slowed down a little, perhaps modeling Gagarin's own life. He was lauded and paraded and became so unattached to his previous existence that he found himself drinking too much. He was no longer in top physical condition and was too highly prized to risk on flying, his first passion. Like many other people, life after celebrity was too much for Gagarin to handle. Finally he got himself together, pulled considerable rank and demanded to train for another mission - much like our Senator John Glenn did many years later. It was during this training that Gagarin perished in a MiG accident.

In addition to the material on Gagarin, I found the information about the USSR space program to be good reading as well. The troubles they had with their own engineering and rockets, the cosmonaut fatalities... these are stories I had not read about before. I particularly found the supposition that the US, tired of being beaten, went for the moon only because they knew Russia lacked the resources to make it there very interesting indeed.

I felt the authors did a good job weeding through the propaganda to present a picture of the real Yuri. The book was very approachable, very conversational and I would recommend it if you're interested in the subject. ( )
1 vote VictoriaPL | Jan 17, 2012 |
"So there's a cosmonaut up in space, circling the globe, convinced he will never make it back to Earth; he's on the phone with Alexei Kosygin — then a high official of the Soviet Union — who is crying because he, too, thinks the cosmonaut will die."

So begins Robert Krulwich’s NPR piece entitled, “Cosmonaut Crashed into Earth Crying in Rage." I couldn’t resist the title or the lead paragraph, both of which are based on Krulwich’s reading of Doran and Bizony’s Starman. I have slightly mixed feelings about the book. It’s not nearly as “juicy” as the excerpt Krulwich chose to highlight, and it’s not the best writing I’ve come across. However, the authors were able to gather a lot of first-hand information that had never before seen the light of day or been uttered in public. In addition to gaining access to archival documents, they also conducted interviews with Gagarin’s family, friends, and colleagues. Most of it is fascinating.

Starman does a good job of relating Gagarin’s childhood, including his family surviving the Nazi invasion; discussing cosmonaut training and Gagarin’s eventual selection to be the first man in space; and showing how instant catapult into the spotlight disrupted his family life and dreams and directly led to his struggles with alcoholism.

While reading Starman, I ended up watching the film adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (which I haven’t read). The secrecy surrounding the development of the Soviet space program is a stark contrast to the rollicking, rolling PR machine that swirled around NASA’s fledging efforts. Though the Mercury 7 astronauts became household names, it was Yuri Gagarin’s contribution that paved the way by becoming the first man to orbit the earth. Yet, as Starman relates, when Gagarin and his fellow cosmonauts were first recruited, they weren’t initially told for what purpose they were being recruited.

As with their American counterparts, they were put through a “bewildering array of medical, physical and psychological tests” – moreso experiments - aimed at finding the limit of what humans can endure. There are graphic descriptions of things like oxygen deprivation tanks, isolation chambers, and catapult sleds that are fun but disturbing to read. Obviously these tests were somewhat necessary because nobody knew what conditions would be like in space, but I was particularly enthralled by the 1,200 or so ‘testers’ whose contributions were a vital part of the early space race. Starman talks about the testers, all of whom were less accomplished on the academic/aviation ladder than the cosmonauts, were “invited” to participate – the kind of invitation where the only right answer is yes. As Doran and Bizony tell it, the testers “were seduced with great care by their recruiters into a feeling of privilege and self-worth, but in truth their status was barely better than that of disposable laboratory rats. When they received injuries – and they did receive injuries – there were no special arrangements to compensate them or their families because the authorities were unwilling to acknowledge any of their work in public.”

When Gagarin made his historic flight, his family didn’t find out until neighbors heard about it on the radio. From that moment onward, he unofficially became an international ambassador for the Soviets, but they never allowed him to fly again, unwilling to risk the safety of their “Hero of the Soviet Union.” Though Khrushchev loved him, his successor Brezhnev was not a fan, and this became a problem in Gagarin’s life. He rose in the administrative ranks but didn’t feel he had any true control. The incident that Krulwich highlighted is the pinnacle of that truth. Gagarin and others knew the flight was doomed, but despite Gargain’s position, he was unable to convince the Politburo to cancel the launch; his close friend died aboard the Souyez I. From the time of his flight to his untimely death in a plane crash at the age of 34, he was constrained by the machinery (no pun intended) of the Soviet totalitarian regime.

My quibbles with the book are minor. Overall, it is one that I can recommend to people interested in the history of the space race or Soviet politics. Even if I didn’t always feel that the writing was up to snuff, I was placated by depth of research the authors’ conducted. Their interviewees included Gagarin’s siblings; his personal driver as assigned to him when he planted his feet back on terra firma; fellow cosmonauts (including Gherman Titov, who became the second human to orbit the planet and Alexei Leonov, the first human to conduct a space walk); and the cosmonauts’ academic trainer Sergei Belotserkovsky. They had access to the diaries of Nikolai Kaminin, the Head of Cosmonaut Training and through secondary interviews with the era’s Soviet space programme technical administrators, they also managed to paint a picture of the Chief Designer, Sergei Korolev, the father of modern astronautics.

In the books’ afterward, Doran and Bizony speak to what makes Starman work, stating “Our narrative is a record gleaned almost entirely from those who were at the scene: a firsthand account from men and women … whose voices had been for so long silenced by a fear of a visit [from the KGB]. We were fortunate to be in Russia at a time of unprecedented freedom, largely because the old security apparatus collapsed in disarray upon dissolution of the USSR. … Freedom of speech really did emerge, at least for a while. People who had worked on top secret Soviet projects could speak openly for the first time. Prior to this book, all previous publications on Gagarin were KGB-sanctioned. … The KGB media minders were unimaginative and obsessed with secrecy. They failed understand that what makes us human makes us great…. To the cosmonauts, engineers, KGB agents and family members and everyone else who spoke with us during that short window of expressive freedom, we offer our thanks."

As a side note unrelated to the book and its authors, there is a film available called First Orbit that combines archival flight audio from Gagarin’s trip with footage filmed aboard the International Space Station, while it travelled a similar orbit to the one that Gagarin took fifty years prior, on April 12, 1961. It was pretty thrilling to watch, especially after having read Starman. ( )
3 vote mpho3 | Jan 15, 2012 |
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Jamie Doranprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bizony, Piersmain authorall editionsconfirmed
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Starman tells for the first time Gagarin's personal odyssey from peasant to international icon, his subsequent decline as his personal life began to disintegrate under the pressures of fame, and his final disillusionment with the Russian state.

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