Nicolás Águila: A 55 AÑOS DEL VUELO DE GAGARIN, EL PRIMER COSMONAUTA SOVIÉTICO QUE LOGRÓ REGRESAR VIVO DE SU VUELO AL COSMO
La gloria efímera de Yuri Gagarin*
Yuri Gagarin fue el primer hombre que vio el planeta desde el cosmos un miércoles 12 de abril de 1961. Solo que, a mis nueve años, la hazaña de Gagarin en la nave Vostok 1 me dejaba indiferente. Y no por falta de adoctrinamiento. La maestra de cuarto grado vibraba de entusiasmo militante cuando nos hablaba del primer cosmonauta soviético. Según su materialismo de cursillo de verano, ya se disponía de una prueba irrefutable de que en el cielo no había angelitos ni arcángeles. Papá Dios y su corte celestial eran solo cuentos y boberías oscurantistas.
“Ese cosmonauta es muy cosmunista”, rezongaba mi abuela tan religiosa, pronunciando una ese de más en son de burla. No le había hecho ninguna gracia la frase de Gagarin durante su vuelta orbital circunterrestre: “¡Aquí no veo ningún Dios!”. Una conclusión tan simplona que me recuerda el cuento del guajiro que quiso ver a Cristo por la boca de un güiro y se descalabró en el intento. O sea, una tontería en la que jamás habría caído, ya no digamos un agnóstico que se debate en la duda metódica, ni siquiera un ateo convencido pero con una concepción del mundo mínimamente científica. Por otro lado, de acuerdo con la doctrina cristiana —y hasta donde llega mi escasa teología— el Sumo Creador es por definición invisible. Luego, si Gagarin no pudo ver a Dios en el cielo, razón de más para que el creyente siguiera creyendo en su existencia incorpórea e intangible.
A pesar de haberse paseado por el cosmos, aquel komsomol de origen campesino demostraba carecer de una sólida cosmovisión. Era buen aviador, eso sí, pero si lo sacaban del ámbito de la aeronáutica se enredaba en el bejuco y solo podía responder con una media sonrisa de cortesía. Lo de él, obviamente, no eran las ciencias ni las complejidades del ser y el pensar. De modo que uno entonces se pregunta: ¿y por qué lo escogieron para esa importante misión que sin duda marcó un hito en la historia de la humanidad? Pues muy sencillo. Entre todos los candidatos finalistas resultó ser el de menos estatura. Medía nada más que 1,57 m (cinco pies y dos pulgadas), así que cabía perfectamente en la pequeña nave espacial, la primitiva y poco espaciosa Vostok 1. El criterio de ‘dar la talla’, al igual que con los jockeys, en este caso se invertía.
En julio de ese mismo año 61, de visita en Cuba, Gagarin habría de repetir las mismas simplezas ante la prensa nacional y extranjera, ya medio alcoholizado de tanto brindar por la cosmonáutica rusa. A Fidel Castro se le caía la baba prosoviética y le ofreció al primer cosmonauta un recibimiento por todo lo alto, dando por hecho que la antigua URSS se le había ido definitivamente por delante a los Estados Unidos en la carrera por la conquista del espacio. En tanto que el régimen cubano le otorgaba la más alta distinción revolucionaria al visitante vip, el pueblo habanero, que aún por esas fechas conservaba algún remanente de espontaneidad, lo homenajeó muy a la cubana arrollando en una conga propia para la ocasión. El estribillo era un pareado muy ocurrente que todavía recuerdo:
"Yuri, Yuri, Yuri, Yuri Gagarín
yo me voy pal cosmos montado en un patín".
Meses después, ebrio de gloria y de vodka, el camarada Gagarin se lanzó de un segundo piso huyendo de su esposa. La mujer lo había sorprendido con una enfermera en un sanatorio de Crimea, donde se desintoxicaba de su alcoholismo crónico, y el aviador saltó al vacío como si tuviera dos alas y una hélice. Se salvó de milagro, pero hubo que practicarle una cirugía estética para quitarle la marca visible de la herida en el arco superciliar izquierdo. Parecía más un boxeador que un famoso cosmonauta.
Siete años más tarde, a los 34 años, no tuvo tanta suerte. Murió el 27 de marzo de 1968 al estrellarse el caza en que hacía un vuelo de rutina. Su Mig 15 cayó en picada y se hundió seis metros en la tierra en una localidad cercana a Moscú. La verdad es que esos aviones rusos no perdonan. A Gagarin no le dio tiempo a saltar en paracaídas, o tal vez fue que no le funcionase el eyector del asiento, quién sabe. Dicen que estaba borracho, pero otros aseguran que cayó en una encerrona del KGB, lo cual probablemente sea una de esas tantas teorías conspiratorias. El caso es que fue una muerte prematura y poco heroica para el primer hombre que navegó por el espacio exterior. Ironías rusas.
*Originalmente publicado en la Revista Hispano Cubana, Nº. 4 (pp. 49-50)
Cinco vías a la nada (Así era la Guerra Fría)
abril 11, 2011
Por Alberto Escolaris
El impacto de poner por primera vez en órbita satélite (octubre 4, 1957), animal (noviembre 3, 1957) y hombre (abril 12, 1961) ocultó el alto riesgo del programa espacial soviético. Para empezar fueron lanzados al espacio (1951-66) más de 20 perros y el primero, la perrita Laika, salió con muerte planificada, pero murió achicharrada apenas 5-7 horas después del lanzamiento por falla del aislante térmico. La cosa sigue con que Yuri Gagarin no habría sido el primer hombre en el espacio, sino el primero en hacer el cuento. El científico espacial alemán Hermann Oberth sospechó enseguida que los cosmonautas soviéticos ensayaban los viajes sin debida seguridad y declaró que al menos cuatro habían perecido en los intentos (1957-59). No obstante, Moscú supo arreglárselas para echar tierra y dar pisón a los infortunios. La muerte (marzo 23, 1961) del cosmonauta Valentin Bondarenko, por ejemplo, vino a divulgarse hacia 1986.
(Laika en el Sputnik 2)
El programa Voskhod adoleció de tantas fallas, que jamás pudo dar paso a cosmonave apta para el viaje a la Luna. Voskhod 2 salió con dos plazas y uno de sus ocupantes, Alexei Leonov, protagonizó la primera caminata espacial (marzo 18, 1965). Lo que no suele decirse es que, al regreso, su traje se infló tanto que no cabía por la escotilla, tuvo que dejar escapar aire para entrar y se salvó de milagro en medio del síndrome de descompresión. Pavel Belyayev debía conducir la nave a Tierra y pidió a Leonov que revisara la altitud. El diseño interior era tan desastroso que la pareja se hallaba siempre en posición incómoda y esta simple acción de Leonov provocó que aterrizaran a más de mil kilómetros del lugar previsto, en zona de los montes Urales adonde no podían descender los helicópteros. Al cabo de dos días fueron rescatados por un equipo de esquiadores.
Hacia 1967 la carrera hacia la Luna se tornó cada vez más apremiante y el Kremlin pensaba celebrar el aniversario 50 de la Revolución de Octubre con un hombre soviético allá arriba. Solo que cuando inspeccionó la nave Soyuz 1, Yuri Gagarin encontró más de 200 fallas estructurales. Así y todo, Brezhnev mandó a Vladimir Komarov en misión que no podía arrojar otro resultado que la Soyuz 1 estrellándose. Al fallar la Soyuz 8, Apollo 11 se había alzado con la victoria (julio 20, 1969). Al Buró Político se le ocurrió entonces subir la parada con vuelos tripulados a Venus y Marte. Como durarían años se concibió desde cultivar alimentos en hidropónicos dentro de la nave hasta pasar un año en Marte. Los cuatro ensayos (1969-72) con el supercohete diseñado a tal efecto terminaron en desastre. Los soviéticos se concentraron entonces en la estación espacial y lograron estabilizarla, luego de arrancar con mala pata: los primeros tres cosmonautas que se bajaron en la estación Saliut 1 perecieron al regreso por fallas en la nave Sojuz 11.
-Foto: La agitpro soviética no solo borraba a los cosmonautas que morían o desaparecían, sino incluso a quienes eran expulsados por indisciplina, como Grigori Grigoyevich Nelyubov (1934 –1966), considerado tercero en escalafón detrás de Gagarin y German Titov, quien fue arrestado (marzo 27, 1963) por borrachera en Chkalovskiy. © NASA
Random house, New York, 1988
Notes labeled "JEO" added to electronic version in 1998
Chapter 10: Dead Cosmonauts
The family of Senior Lieutenant Bondarenko is to be provided with everything necessary, as befits the family of a cosmonaut. --Special Order, signed by Soviet Defense Minister R. D. Malinovskiy, April 16, 1961, classified Top Secret. NOTE: Prior to 1986 no Soviet book or magazine had ever mentioned the existence of a cosmonaut named Valentin Bondarenko.
In 1982, a year after the publication of my first book, Red Star in Orbit. I received a wonderful picture from a colleague [JEO: Arthur Clarke, in fact] who had just visited Moscow. The photo showed cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov, hero of the Soviet Union, holding a copy of my book-- and scowling.
Leonov was frowning at a picture of what I called the "Sochi Six," the Russian equivalent of our "original seven" Mercury astronauts. They were the top of the first class of twenty space pioneers, the best and the boldest of their nation, the ones destined to ride the first manned missions. The picture was taken at the Black Sea resort called Sochi in May 1961, a few weeks after Yuriy Gagarin's history-making flight. Just beneath [page 157] that picture in my book was a copy of the same photograph-- with the figure of one of the heroic six cosmonauts erased. One of the original top cosmonauts had been "unpersoned," and the
two versions of the same 1961 photograph proved it.
Soviet space officials -- including Leonov -- had taken a great deal of trouble to cover up some episode in their space history involving the man whose face had been erased. Now Leonov had good reason to scowl. The deception was revealed, and a ghost had risen from the dead, from official Soviet oblivion.
For decades nobody outside the cosmonaut program knew about Grigoriy Nelyubov. He had been an egotistical young jet pilot. Despite such a character flaw, his academic and flying skills were so impressive that he had been the favorite candidate of several top officials for the honor and glory of humankind's first flight into space. Failing that, he was considered certain to receive one of the next spaceflight assignments following Yuriy Gagarin's pioneering mission in 1961.
But late that year Nelyubov and two other cosmonaut trainees were returning from a weekend pass when they got into some sort of altercation with an army patrol at a train station. Blows may have been exchanged when they were unable to bluff their way through a checkpoint for which they didn't have proper credentials. The three, who may also have been drunk, were subdued and placed under guard in the station duty officer's office.
It was quickly established that they were indeed cosmonauts, as they claimed, and the military security officials were willing to forget the whole thing. One officer, however, insisted that the cosmonauts apologize to the patrol members (suggesting that the cosmonauts had come out ahead in the brawl before
being overwhelmed). Nelyubov's two colleagues readily agreed.
Nelyubov, however, refused to apologize. He was, after all, soon to become his nation's third or fourth man in orbit, and he demanded respect and subservience from his captors.
Lacking this simple gesture of reconciliation, the duty officer filed his report. It quickly reached the cosmonaut corps commander, an old air force veteran named Nikolay Kamanin, who became incensed at his men's all-too-public irresponsibility. In response, Kamanin expelled the three from the cosmonaut corps. Their space careers were aborted; they went back to flying jets in Siberia. [Page 158]
The other cosmonauts were as aghast at the severity of the punishment as they were outraged at Nelyubov's conceited intransigence. He wouldn't be missed, but the other two men (second-string space trainees named Ivan Anikeyev and Valentin Filatyev) had been very popular. "They burned down in concert" was the Russian figure of speech for Nelyubov's taking his well-liked buddies down in flames with him.
Nelyubov was transferred to an interceptor squadron based near Vladivostok, where he bragged to everyone that he had once been a cosmonaut. He was embittered that few believed him. Then he watched his colleagues one by one go into orbit, to fame and glory: first, the rest of his equals among the Sochi
Sinking deeper into depression and alcoholism, he experienced "a crisis of soul," as a Russian journalist tactfully put it. In the predawn hours of February 18, 1966, while drunk, he stepped in front of a train near the Ippolitovka station, northwest of Vladivostok, and was killed. Whether it was intentional or accidental, nobody could tell.
None of this was known when I wrote Red Star in Orbit and published his photograph. For fifteen years, since I first saw his photo, I had sought this man's identity and his fate. The tragic story was finally revealed in April 1986 as a short part of a series of newspaper articles on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Yuriy Gagarin's flight into space.
That incredibly revealing series in Izvestzya was written by Russia's leading space journalist, Yaroslav Golovanov. He had probably researched it years before but had been unable to publish the truth until the policy of glasnost and relentless pressure from Western researchers (myself among them) had made the revelations possible.
The candor of 1986 contrasted sharply with the misrepresentations in interviews a decade earlier, when cosmonauts had rebuffed Western inquiries into the fates of the missing spacemen. Cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov (later to come face to face with the Sochi Six forgeries in my book) had earlier been shown the picture of the "missing cosmonaut" (Nelyubov, it turned [page 158] out) by a Dutch journalist and had given a phony explanation: "In 1962 or 1963--I don't remember exactly--during a [run) in the centrifuge he developed excessive spasm of the stomach. He then disappeared from our ranks." As for my pictures of the young blond pilot who turned out to be Ivan Anikeyev, Nelyubov's partner in disgrace, Leonov had given this description of his fate: "He was removed from the team because of his general physical condition. That was, I think, in 1963." It is virtually impossible to believe that Leonov had so completely forgotten the scandalous expulsion of the arrogant Nelyubov and innocent Anikeyev; rather, he made up an innocuous cover story with the expectation that the facts would never come out to embarrass him.
The Russians had always presented their march to space as a smooth road to glory, the outgrowth of sound planning and monolithic support. The Soviets' traditional practice of boasting, covering up, lying, and retouching aspects of their own history made most Western observers doubt this rosy image. Contradictory information came out in bits and pieces, sometimes suggesting a picture worse than it was. Golovanov's articles in 1986, five years after my Red Star in Orbit came out, were the first tentative attempt to set part of the record of the past straight. And there was such a lot to set straight by then.
Even before the first announced Soviet spaceman blasted off in 1961, rumors reached the West about the existence of secret graves of anonymous dead cosmonauts, killed on unannounced missions. Moscow vigorously denied them all, to no effect. Lists of dozens of dead cosmonauts circulated in the Western press for many years. The Soviets denounced the originators of such material as "enemies."
Then, in 1986, Golovanov revealed in Irvestiya that indeed there had been a cosmonaut fatality back then after all, and it had been kept secret. His article even included the dead cosmonaut's name, Valentin Bondarenko, and the date of his death, March 23, 1961.
"Valentin was the youngest of the first batch of cosmonauts (he was 24 years old)," Golovanov wrote. A small, grainy formal portrait accompanied the article. It showed a very young man attempting to look stern and important. The photograph had been taken only a few days before his death. [Page 160]
Bondarenko had been undergoing routine training in a pressure chamber, which was part of a ten-day isolation exercise. At the very end of the exercise he made a trivial but fatal mistake. "After medical tests," explained Golovanov's article, "Bondarenko removed the sensors attached to him, cleaned the spots where they had been attached with cotton wool soaked in alcohol, and without looking threw away the cotton wool-- which landed on the ring of an electric hot plate. In the oxygen-charged atmosphere the flames immediately filled the small space of the chamber.
Under such a condition of high oxygen concentration, normally nonflammable substances can burn vigorously. The cosmonaut's training suit caught fire. Unaccustomed to the vigor of high-oxygen fires, Bondarenko would only have spread the flames further by attempting to smother them.
When the doctor on duty noticed the conflagration through a porthole, he rushed to the hatch, which he could not open because the internal pressure kept it sealed. Releasing the pressure through bleed valves took at least several minutes. And for ail that time Bondarenko was engulfed in flames.
"When Valentin was dragged out of the pressure chamber," continued Golovanov's account, "he was still conscious and kept repeating,'It was my fault, no one else is to blame....' " He died eight hours later from the shock of the burns.
He was buried in Kharkov, in the Ukraine, where he had grown up and where his parents still lived. He left a young widow, Anya, and a five-year-old son, Aleksandr ("Sasha"). Anya remained at the cosmonaut center in an undisclosed job. When he grew up, young Aleksandr became an air force officer.
Golovanov's candid story, in which he disclosed Bondarenko's death, may have astonished his countrymen, and it briefly made headlines in the Western press; but it was hardly news to informed "space sleuths" in the West. They had been hot on the trail of exactly this incident, and Soviet news censorsknew it. The cause and effect of Western digging into a Soviet catastrophe, followed by Soviet large-scale (but still not full-scale) release of an "official account," are quite clear-cut. The broad outlines of the "Bondarenko tragedy" had already slipped past the Soviet cover-up.
In 1982 a recently emigrated Russian Jew named S. Tiktin discussed Soviet space secrets in a Russian-language monthly [page 161] magazine published by anti-Soviet emigres in West Germany. He mentioned in passing a relevant incident. "Soon after the flight of Gagarin [in 1961] the rumor spread about the loss of cosmonaut Boyko (or Boychenko) from a fire in a pressure chamber," he wrote.
In 1984 St. Martin's Press published a book, entitled "Russian Doctor", by the Russian emigre surgeon Dr. Vladimir Golyakhovsky. He described the death of a cosmonaut trainee in a pressure chamber fire. Half an entire chapter was devoted to the incident -- and with authority -- since, incredibly, Golyakhovsky (a specialized surgeon-traumatologist) had apparently been the emergency room doctor at the prestigious Botkin Hospital when the dying cosmonaut was brought in.
As Golyakhovsky remembered it, a severely burned man identified only as "Sergeyev, a 24-year-old Air Force Lieutenant," was brought in by stretcher. "I couldn't help shuddering," Golyakhovsky recalled. "The whole of him was burnt. The body was totally denuded of skin, the head of hair; there were no eyes in the face. ... It was a total burn of the severest degree. But the patient was alive...."
Golyakhovsky saw the man's mouth moving and bent down to listen. "Too much pain -- do something, please -- to kill the pain" were the tortured words he could make out.
"Sergeyev" was scorched everywhere but the soles of his feet, where his flight boots had offered some protection from the flames. With great dimculty the doctors inserted intravenous lines into his feet (they couldn't find blood vessels anywhere else) and administered painkillers and medication. "Unfortunately, Sergeyev was doomed," Golyakhovsky remembered realizing immediately. "And yet, all of us were eager to do something, anything, to alleviate his terrible suffering." The man lingered for sixteen hours before dying.
Afterward Golyakhovsky reported talking with a small young officer who had waited by the phone in the lobby while the burned man lay dying. The doctor requested and received an account of the original accident. Details included "an altitude chamber... heavily laden with oxygen" and "a small electric stove [with] ... a rag burst[ingl into flame." Golyakhovsky was also told that it had taken half an hour to get the pressure chamber open, with "Sergeyev" on fire until the flames consumed almost all the oxygen inside the room.
Sometime later Golyakhovsky saw a photograph of this [Page 162] deathwatch officer in the newspapers. He had been Yuriy Gagarin, who became the first man in space.