Public Loneliness: Yuri Gagarin's Circumlunar Flight

BOOK: Public Loneliness: Yuri Gagarin's Circumlunar Flight


























Copyright © 2014 by Gerald D. Brennan III


All rights reserved under International and
Pan-American Copyright Convention


Published in the United States by Tortoise
Books. (




This book is a work of fiction. All characters,
scenes and situations are either products of the author’s imagination or are
used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons,
living or dead, is coincidental.


“Meeting of Yuri
Gagarin in Vnukovo airport, 1961.” Photo credit ITAR/TASS. Used with permission
per license agreement.


“Yuri Gagarin,
1965.” Photo credit ITAR/TASS. Used with permission per license agreement.


Yuri Gagarin statue photograph Copyright
2014 by Viacheslav Lopatin. Used with permission per standard Shutterstock
license agreement.


Lyrics from Vladimir Vysotsky’s “I
Have Two Selves In Me”
© 1969 by
Vladimir Vysotsky
. Courtesy of
“Vladimir Vysotsky: The Official Site.” ( Translated
by Alec Vagapov.


Cover Artwork Copyright
2014 by Gerald
D. Brennan III


Books Logo Copyright ©2012 by Tortoise Books. Original artwork by Rachele




I wake up.

I’m lying on my back in the moon

I am alone in the 7K-L1, stacked
atop a Proton rocket at the firing range at Tyura-Tam.

It is finally the day.

I boarded the ship two hours ago.
I had to crawl on a board, an actual wooden board, from the gantry through the access
point in the launch shroud. (This mission has been planned in such haste that
there’s been little time to develop all the little extras, like a proper metal
access ramp.) Then I had to drop through the moon ship’s top hatch legs first,
holding on to an actual rope rope while the technicians watched warily. Once I
got settled and strapped in, we ran through communications checks with the
ultra-high frequency antennas, but while monitoring the other systems someone
saw a low pressure reading in the liquid oxygen tank on the Block-D stage. They
told me to wait while they topped off the tank and monitored the pressure to
make sure it wasn’t a leak. And while they were doing that I had nothing to do
and so I fell asleep. I was alone in the ship without even a porthole—they’re
covered until the shroud is jettisoned after launch—and I fell asleep.

A radio voice in my headset.
Academician Mishin: “Cedar, this is Dawn-1.” (The same call signs I had on
East-1. The ground stations are always Dawn-1, Dawn-2, etc. And every cosmonaut
has a code name. The others chose obvious ones—Falcon, Hawk, Eagle, Golden
Eagle. But I am Cedar.)

“Dawn-1, this is Cedar. I am
feeling good.” It is at least more comfortable this time; I’m in cloth
coveralls, rather than the pressure suit. “I am…well-rested. What is our

“Cedar, it seems to be a faulty
sensor. You are on fifteen-minute readiness.”

“Very good, Dawn-1.”

The mission has been prepared in
utmost secrecy.

Yes, I went through the normal
rituals—the trip to Red Square, to Lenin’s Tomb and the Kremlin Wall—but in the
predawn hours, so as not to be seen. Then back here to spend the night in the
little white cottage with the metal frame bed and the bare wooden floor. The
same place I slept six years and six months ago. The last night before everyone
in the world knew my name. The last normal night of my life.

This time it was decided that
there would be no whispers or rumors. No helpful hints to journalists that they
should be prepared for a major announcement. There was an unmanned circumlunar
test of the 7K-L1/Proton combo six weeks ago, but as far as the outside world
is concerned, this is just another test. A ship with a mannequin stuffed with
radiation sensors broadcasting taped messages. Another Ivan Ivanovich. The decision
was made in a late-night meeting of the State Commission after prodding from on
high; it was followed up with decrees stamped: DO NOT DISPLAY. DISSEMINATION
PER LIST. And the lists have been short.

The announcement will come via
television when I am coming around the moon. And of course then it will be too
late for anyone to do anything about it. They will broadcast my face from the
capsule and live pictures of the moon from my ship and everyone will know that
I was first, that a Soviet man was first. And Yuri Levitan will read it out on
the radio. And the people will cheer, again.

(Surely that’s the best way to do
it. Why announce it ahead of time? At best, everything goes as planned, and
where’s the excitement in that? Or perhaps there is a little bit of drama, some
unexpected deviation from the plan. And while that gets people interested, it
also makes the planners look foolish. But to announce that it is done, that the
planners worked in secrecy and executed everything perfectly and now, right
now, there is a real man, a Soviet citizen, rounding the moon…surely that’s the
best way to do it.)

“Cedar, give us a reading on your
environmental systems.” Mishin says. He is on the radio supervising everything,
just as Korolev was on that famous morning. With Korolev—Sergei Pavlovich—I had
a natural affinity. I was the son he wanted. He was the father I could look up
to. Mishin and I have no such relationship. I am the wayward son; he’s the
father who worries he isn’t getting enough respect. But it is sometimes
convenient to copy the shape of past things, even when the feeling is wrong.

I scan the gauges. “Cabin
pressure – 1 atmosphere. Humidity – 60. Temperature – 20 degrees.”

“Very good. 10-minute readiness.”

There were plans to launch the
Union instead, in April—to send it on its maiden voyage with Komarov at the
helm. Then we would have launched another, so they could rendezvous in space in
advance of the May Day celebrations. Certainly we’ve gotten used to being
first—the first satellite, the first man in space, the first woman, the first
man to walk in space, and so on. And this would have been the first physical
docking of two manned spacecraft. A union of Unions! What’s more, we would have
had a transfer between the two ships, to send two men back in a different craft
than they’d launched in.

But White Tass has been full of
black news. The American Gemini program has been a tremendous success. And
despite recent setbacks, they’re still on track to go to the moon with Apollo.
Such brashness—to say such things in public, then follow through! It’s like
playing against a basketball team that diagrams their plays on a chalkboard for
all to see, but is so powerful that one ends up falling behind regardless. The
only tactic against such an adversary is cunning and guile. You can’t run the
same type of plays—that’s the surest path to defeat. Plus, there were glitches
with the Union that could not be resolved in time. So Komarov’s mission was

It was by no means certain we’d
be able to do something better. Sergei Pavlovich’s death last year was a great
blow. But Mishin is a competent engineer. Whatever his failings as a leader, we
are here, and it is time to do this. Plus, we’re not using Korolev’s boosters
this time around. Before Khrushchev’s fall, Chelomey had secured the necessary
decrees to develop the Proton rocket strapped to my back, and to initiate
development work on a circumlunar flight.

So we have been laying the
groundwork for this for some time. And when news came of the Apollo fire—well,
certainly it was sad, and humbling. There is a level I hope beyond politics or
ideology where we can all mourn such things. For us at Star City—once Kilometer
41, once the Green City—it was particularly sobering. This was, after all, the
first loss of life in a spacecraft—a clear reminder that death haunts this
business, that someday we will lose someone during an actual spaceflight. But
after the initial pang of emotion, there always comes the calculated thought.
And that was: we have some breathing room. They’ve stumbled, and we can pull
back ahead.

And so, the decision: to launch
the circumlunar flight in October 1967, to coincide with both the 10
anniversary of our first satellite and the 50
anniversary of the
October Revolution. A triumph that will call to mind past triumphs, while also
surpassing them.

“Five minute readiness, Cedar.”

“Understood. I am feeling well.”

Switches and gauges. Knobs and
buttons. The little globe under glass. Everything looks fine. Underneath I feel
uncertainty. We have prepared in haste. But everything looks the way it is
supposed to look.

“One minute readiness, Cedar.”

This is what I want to hear. I
smile, though I don’t know if the camera can see it. “I am ready.”

I have been waiting for this day
for two thirds of a decade. Waiting for this moment. There is no countdown for
our launches. The final seconds are falling away without a sound.

Then, from Mishin: “Feed one.”
Starting telemetry. Graph paper rolling underneath pens drawing peaks and
valleys. “Key in launch position. Vent.” The launch commands are enabled. The
moon ship is ready. “Feed two.” Backup telemetry.

And at last: “Launch.”

Beneath me pumps are opening. The
rocket is waking up. Nitrogen tetroxide and heptyl igniting on contact. Toxic
dragon chemicals. Brownish-yellow clouds I cannot see. And fire. (My life has
been forged by fire—a childhood in the Great Patriotic War, a youth at the
foundry at Lyubertsy, an adulthood perched at the end of various jet engines.
Then with East-1, you might say I was born again of fire. And now this.)

I feel a rumble rising through my
back, and the hairs on my arm have gone to gooseflesh, and I feel the rocket
starting to rise, and over the noise I hear the radio voice: “Liftoff.” And I’m
being pressed down into the launch couch, but I find myself shouting: “Here we
go again!”

The rocket pushes relentlessly.
Soon my chest is tight. But I am mindful of the controllers and I want to
reassure them. “I am fine, I am in excellent spirits, the rocket is working
perfectly.” I feel like I’m repeating myself from last time. But it is just as
well. Radio dialogue is boring. We speak in short sentences and convey only the
necessary information. Maybe a few banalities. We can talk at length later. At any
rate I’m too excited to be profound.

There is a jolt as the second
stage ignites. Then the pyrotechnic bolts fire and the first stage falls away.
My eyes scan the mission clock. Just over two minutes have elapsed. I’ve been
worried about Chelomey’s rocket, but it is doing everything it’s supposed to
do. And Glushko’s engines are working perfectly. So everything is as expected.
“Staging complete,” I call out.

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