The first cosmonauts

While the USAF was conducting research into high-speed and extreme-altitude flight in the 1950s, creating baseline data for future manned flights into space, a comparable programme of biomedical research supporting strategic and military goals (but with potential for space exploration) was taking place in the Soviet Union. For the Soviets, the choice of exactly who would fly the first pioneering mission in space was not dissimilar to that faced by their American counterparts, coming down to aviators, submariners, polar explorers, parachutists or mountaineers. Eventually, and for essentially the same reasons as the Americans (including military security clearance), the selection of the first Soviet cosmonauts would fall to jet pilots. One additional qualification specified was a proficiency in parachuting, a requirement for the Vostok programme since the cosmonauts would eject from their spacecraft as it descended under parachute to Earth at the end of the mission.

Selection criteria were also similar to those of the American Mercury astronauts, although the basic requirements were lower for the Soviets. Candidates had to be qualified to jet pilot third class (basic operational flying criteria in the Soviet Union) and aged under 30, with height (170 cm) and weight (70 kg) defined by the limitations of the spacecraft and launch vehicle. Their flying experience was much less than that required of the American candidates, and was set between 200 and 1,000 hours flying time, not necessarily all in jets (as opposed to 1,500 hours in high-performance jets for the Americans). One significant factor in these parameters was that Soviet rocketry at that time focused more on automated systems than those of the Americans. When asked about the number of candidates required, Sergey Korolyov suggested that three times that of the Americans would be required, indicating a group of around twenty to twenty-four. When the first medical screening produced insufficient numbers of qualified candidates, the age and height restrictions were relaxed even more to include a number of older, more experienced pilots with greater flying skills (though still not test piloting skills), as well as engineering experience. The first group of Soviet cosmonauts - all pilots - was selected on 20 February 1960, almost a year after the American Mercury astronauts.9

Again, technical parameters, engineering test objectives and the unknown factors of human space flight were paramount in defining who would be the "first cosmonauts'' and, as with the Americans, these set the criteria for future Air Force pilot selections for many years (although some Air Force groups did include a number of candidates with other specialities as well as flying experience, as indeed did the later NASA pilot selections of the 1960s).

Pilot-astronauts not scientist-astronauts

The reasoning behind not selecting scientists for the first trips into space was straightforward. It was clear that the number of unknowns were far greater on these pioneering missions, and while there might be a whole universe waiting for dedicated scientific research, it first had to be proven that man could indeed leave Earth, survive in space, and make it back in one piece. It had been demonstrated many times while testing new aircraft that one tiny error or a minute failure in the hardware could result in a catastrophic incident and even the death of the occupant. Several times while rocket research was still in its infancy in the 1950s, a successful ignition or launch of an unmanned vehicle was suddenly followed by a massive explosion, or the complete break-up of the booster and payload. Test pilots accepted the risks and trained hard to overcome any such failures. Astronaut Virgil (Gus) Grissom is often quoted as saying that space was a risky business, but that the exploration was worth the risk, even if this meant the death of some of the explorers. His words became even more poignant following his death in a launch pad fire during training in January 1967.

With the early programmes focused on engineering tests, development and evaluation, any science on manned spacecraft would have to take a back seat to safety and mission success. Although some science would eventually be conducted on these early missions, the inclusion of a science-trained crew member would have to wait until enough operational experience had been built up, space flight had been proven to be survivable, and larger and more versatile vehicles with more complex objectives became available.


In late October 1958, an American Special Committee on Space Technology made several recommendations to the newly-created NASA regarding a civilian space programme.10 These included the observation: "The major objectives of a civil space research program are scientific research in the physical and life sciences, advancement of space flight technology, development of manned space flight capability and exploitation of space flight for human benefits. Inherent in the achievement of these objectives is the development and unification of new scientific concepts of unforeseeable broad impact.'' In reviewing the prospects for manned space flight, the document added: "Instruments for the collection and transmission of data on the space environment have been designed and put into orbit about the Earth. However, man has the capability of correlating disparate events and unexpected observations, a capacity for overall evaluation of situations, and the background knowledge and experience to apply judgement that cannot be provided by instruments; and in many other ways the intellectual functions of man are a necessary complement to the observing and recording functions of complicated instrument systems. Furthermore, man is capable of voice communications for sending detailed descriptions and receiving information whereby the concerted judgment of others may be brought to bear on unforeseen problems that may arise during flight.''

The 1958 document also included this comment: "Although it is believed that a manned satellite is not necessary for the collection of environmental data in the vicinity of the Earth, exploration of the solar system in a sophisticated way will require a human crew.''

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