22: Korolev dark humour

I had been looking forward to this spread. Some years ago, our writer-collaborator and historic adviser Piers Bizony had been showing me the research he was doing for a large illustrated book on the history of the space age Space 50. My eye was immediately caught by some dramatic photographs of Soyuz TMA2 rockets being transported to the launch pad. The TMA series, is, I was later to learn, the direct descendent of the R7 that launched Yuri into space, so it was easy to get a good impression of how Vostok might have appeared on that historic morning.
The second key element in this scene came from another book by Piers, Starman, the True Story Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin, that formed the starting point for Yuri’s Day. I was very struck by this account by Gagarin’s ‘understudy’ on that morning, Cosmonaut Gherman Titov:

“The rocket was the Chief Designer’s baby, if you like. That’s why he walked along with it all the way, like a pedestrian. These transports to the pad are very slow. At a time like that, speed is always associated with problems. Vostok rockets are quite delicate as well as powerful — especially that first one.”

The image of a lonely Korolev, pacing alongside his giant baby, was irresistible. The final piece came from a remark attributed to Korolev, that I felt gave a delightful glimpse into the man’s character, and his dark sense of humour. It impressed me that it wasn’t the being shot that worried him, so much as remaining a secret, and being ‘buried without an obituary’.

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