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Getting Ready For Lift Off

In the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the first man in space the Science Museum’s Yuri Gagarin (drama character) has kindly agreed to blog about how he was selected and trained for his mission to space.

In the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the first man in space our very own version of Yuri Gagarin has blogged about how he was selected and trained for his mission.

Yuri Gagarin (c) RIA Novosti

Now, you’ve probably read books or seen films about the American space programme. You’ll know that their plans were announced in the press and ambitious military pilots tried desperately hard to get selected. That is the American way – but in the Soviet Union things are different.

One day, a mysterious group of people arrived at my air base. They interviewed pilots and then a few weeks later they returned and spoke to a smaller number of us. More probing questions but still we did not know what they wanted us for. Until the question–

‘Lieutenant Gagarin, how would you like to do something very different – a whole new type of flying?’

Now I knew! They wanted me to transfer to helicopters.

‘With respect comrade, I am a fighter pilot and would rather continue to fly fast jets.

‘We’re not talking about helicopters. Listen, how would you feel about flying in space?’

‘Oh . . . yes. Yes Comrade!’

So began my training – although sometimes torture might be a better word. The medical tests – x-rays, lights shone into the eyes, hammers to test reflex, probes in the ears, twisting, stretching…

Then there was the isolation chamber – a steel box with no windows, no clock, no books, no music, no night and day, nothing but work – and boredom. Our tormentors would change the temperature and pressure without warning or suddenly turn the lights on or off. Try ten days of that.

Oh, and the ‘maths’ tests. We would be given difficult maths problems to work out and as we struggled with the problems, a comforting calm and friendly voice whispered the answers into our headphones. The wrong answers of course.

And the centrifuge… A great spinning arm, with us on the end. As the arm went faster, we would be squashed further into our seats 2, 3, 4, –12 times normal gravity. Breathing hard, face twisted, eyes pulled open, heart pounding and blood as heavy as mercury. We knew that we had to endure all this with no complaint but a smile, if we were to get to space.

But it wasn’t all bad. At the end of all this we would be cosmonauts – space travellers. You see, our name for someone who goes into space is much better than the name that the Americans decided to use. Astronaut means star traveller and that’s nonsense. No one has ever travelled to a star and they never can.

Yuri will be back on 12 April to talk us through his incredible journey. You can also meet him in the Museum.