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The secret behind the Russian cosmonaut training program

Sunday, August 15, 2021 16:30 PM (GMT+7)

While the faces of Nasa’s Mercury Seven astronauts flooded the global press, the Russian cosmonauts trained in secrecy, unbeknownst to the public.

The first group of potential astronauts is reduced to just 20, including Yuri Gagarin, second from left.

On April 13, 1961, special correspondent Georgi Ostroumov of the Soviet newspaper Izvestia met the first man in space. The day after returning to Earth, “space pilot” Yuri Gagarin was, in Ostroumov’s account, “excited, healthy, and fit… a wonderful smile spread across his face. “

“Sometimes dimples appear on his cheeks,” Ostroumov wrote. “He appreciated everyone’s curiosity when he asked in detail about what he saw and experienced during the hour and a half he spent on Earth.”

In the pamphlet published to commemorate the flight, “Soviets in Space”, the interview with Gagarin spanned several pages.

The astronaut described the experience: “The horizon is unusually beautiful and extremely unique.” He also praised the Soviet Union: “I dedicate my journey to… all of our people who marched to the front lines of humanity and built a new society.”

In a political system where the press tends to propagate rather than portray facts, it is easy to assume that Gagarin’s words are fabricated. But while they may have been tweaked by the censors, it’s likely they’re still the cosmonaut’s true words.

A fighter pilot who grew up in a small Russian village, Gagarin is a beloved family man. Indeed, he is handsome, charming and especially has a party card, showing his loyalty to the communist party.

While the dramatics of the early stages of Nasa’s manned space program were well known to the public, it was not until recently that the full story of how the Soviets recruited and trained their cosmonauts became known. known.

After qualifying as a fighter pilot, Gagarin was assigned to a remote airfield near the border with Norway, and flew MiG-15s on the Western Front during the War. Cold.

At the end of the summer of 1959, two doctors arrived at the airbase, conducting interviews to pre-select a group of pilots.

After starting with a list of about 3,500 potential candidates, the doctors narrowed their search to about 300 pilots across western Russia.

“The interviewees had no idea why they were being interviewed,” said Stephen Walker, author of “Beyond”[Ngoại vi], spent years rummaging through Russian archives to piece together the full story of Gagarin’s mission.

The interview has quite intimate content such as asking about career, aspirations and family. Some people were invited to come back for a second interview. Although the doctors revealed that they were looking for candidates for a new flying device, they never revealed their true intentions.

“They’re looking for military pilots who accept the possibility that they’re willing to die for their country, which is really what you have to deal with, because the odds of coming back alive aren’t necessarily high,” Walker said.

While Nasa recruited military test pilots to serve as cosmonauts for the first time flying in the Mercury complex spacecraft, the Soviet Vostok’s cockpit was designed with remote control from the ground. Except in the event of an emergency, the pilot doesn’t do much to operate the flight.

“They’re not looking for people with that much experience,” Walker said. “What they were looking for was simply a human version of a dog – someone who could sit there and endure the mission, respond to the acceleration, and come back safely.”

And just like the cosmonaut dogs that Russian rocket scientists launched into space more than a decade ago, astronauts must be physically fit, obedient, and small enough to fit in the capsule. narrow driving.

In the end, 134 people selected – all young pilots, less than 1m68 tall – were given the opportunity to “volunteer” for a new and extremely secret mission.

Some were told the mission was to train to fly the spacecraft, others believed it was a new version of the helicopter.

None of the pilots were allowed to discuss work with colleagues or consult with family.

Meanwhile, in April 1959, the United States announced the names of the first seven astronauts to fly Mercury. Candidates must undergo a series of grueling physical exercises, medical and psychological tests – all written in the book by Tom Wolfe (followed by a movie and TV series). ) called The Right Stuff.

When asked during the press conference which exercise they disliked the most, astronaut John Glenn said: “It’s very difficult to choose which exercise to watch because if you find out how many holes, holes in the human body. and how deep you can go in each of those holes or niches… then tell me, which hole makes you most hesitant to go in.”

But with many questions remaining about how humans can adapt to the extremes of space flight – such as acceleration, zero gravity and solitude – the rationale is imperative. considered when choosing a person, that is the person chosen must have the best physical and most stable mentality.

The person in charge of the examination of candidates for the post of Soviet cosmonauts was Vladimir Yazdovsky, professor at the Moscow Academy of Aviation and Space Medicine.

Before that, he was the supervisor of the program to send astronaut dogs into space. Colleagues describe (in private) that he is arrogant and harsh.

“He’s kind of like a horrible James Bond character,” Walker said, “and he’s incredibly cruel to these people.”

In most cases, the Soviet exercise was longer, more difficult, and more intense than that of the American cosmonauts.

Within a month, the candidates had to experience pressure in holes and holes in their bodies, endurance tests in every part of their bodies, and being provoked to become easily agitated.

They were put in a room with a temperature as high as 70 degrees Celsius, or the room was gradually depleted of oxygen and forced to sit in a chair that caused the shaking simulation like when launching a ship. Some candidates fall, others give up.

The secret behind the Russian cosmonaut training program - 3

This extremely austere training program places less emphasis on ship piloting skills than Nasa

During the process, attendees were prohibited from telling family and friends what they were up to. Even in the month of admission, some people still don’t know what they’re applying for.

In the end 20 of those young people passed their training at an astronaut training center.

This place was later renamed Star City, but at first it was just a place of a few military tents in a forest near Moscow.

No one held a press conference or announced anything. Officially, the Soviet spaceflight program did not exist on paper.

“If they leave the base, they’re told not to tell anyone what they’re doing, why they’re there, if someone asks, they’ll say they’re part of the athletic training team,” Walker described. . “Everything is controlled, everything is secret. Everything is hidden behind closed doors.”

The training program itself is similar to the US program, but has less content related to spacecraft control.

Like astronaut dogs, these people were rotated at increasing speeds on a centrifugal rotator, locked in a sealed, soundproofed cockpit for several days and subjected to constant physical and mental health checks. .

Another typical difference from the US space program is the amount of skydiving training that Russian cosmonauts have to do. That’s because they needed to escape the spacecraft during a rapid fall to the ground to avoid serious injury from the impact. The fact that the cabin and pilot would land separately is another secret that was not revealed until many years later.

With more and more people falling, the first group of six astronauts was selected for the first flight.

When Nasa publicly announced its hope to launch people into space for the first time in 1961, Soviet space program leader Sergei Korolev knew he had a chance in a limited amount of time.

The secret behind the Russian cosmonaut training program - 4

Russian cosmonauts go through the same journey as many American cosmonauts, for example training in zero gravity.

On April 5, 1961, the astronauts arrived at the so-called Baikonur spacecraft launch site in the Kazakh desert, where Korolev’s massive R7 rocket was ready.

Until then, still none of them know who will be the first to fly into space. Finally, just days before the launch, Gagarin was allowed to fly.

Until it was officially announced that Gagarin was in Earth’s orbit, no one but those closest to the space program knew his name.

According to Ostroumov, a special correspondent for the Izvestia newspaper, on the morning of April 12, Gagarin “wagged for the last time to friends and comrades below. [tên lửa] when he entered the spaceship, a few seconds later the command was given… the giant ship rose from the fiery cloud to the stars.”

He returns to Earth and becomes the Soviet son that pops up all over the posters – Russian-style astronaut.


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