The astronauts of planet Earth

In the 50 years since Yuri Gagarin first soared into space, 520 men and women have taken their own space odysseys. They have come from 38 countries, carried on American, Russian and, recently, Chinese vehicles. All have been proud to represent their nations. Now, in a special issue honouring their achievements, FT Weekend Magazine has interviewed an astronaut from 35 of these countries. The project involved 17 writers, 11 languages and a rather flustered mission control – but it resulted in stories as diverse and entertaining as the voyagers themselves. May we present … the astronauts of Planet Earth.

The human history of space began on the morning of April 12 1961. After a breakfast of meat paste and marmalade, squeezed from a tube, a 27-year-old lieutenant in the Soviet air force, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, was helped into a bulky orange flying suit. With his back-up, Gherman Titov, he was driven in a bus to a launch pad on the desolate Tyuratam missile-testing site on the steppes of Kazakhstan. According to Soviet lore, Gagarin then gave a short speech to the crowd of engineers, scientists and mechanics gathered in the early morning sunshine. “Dear friends,” he began. “What can I tell you in these last minutes before the launch? My whole life appears to me as one beautiful moment. All that I previously lived through and did, was lived through and done for the sake of this moment.”

Those words, written for Gagarin, had actually been recorded in Moscow. On the morning of his flight, he simply said goodbye, clanked helmets awkwardly with Titov, and was then taken up and strapped into a small spherical pod attached to a 300-tonne rocket that had been designed to carry nuclear weapons. For the next two hours, as the scientists fussed and took tranquiliser pills, Gagarin became slightly bored and asked for some music to be piped in. He said the first, true human words of a cosmonaut as his Vostok “satellite-ship” began to rise from the earth at 9.06.59am, his heart beating almost three times a second: “Let’s go!”

Dogs, mice, machines, guinea pigs, reptiles, blood samples and a life-size mannequin called Ivan Ivanovich all went into space before Gagarin. But he coloured it for the first time with mankind’s own mixture of imagination and frailty. A hundred seconds into his flight, he made the first space-bound joke. “T plus 100. How do you feel?” asked Sergei Korolev, the chief designer of the Soviet space programme, who was terrified that the rocket was going to malfunction. “I feel fine,” replied Gagarin. “How about you?” A few minutes later, somewhere in orbit, Gagarin lost his pencil. And then, when his spaceship failed to separate properly while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere and began to spin violently, he decided, like people trying to make the best of difficult situations everywhere, not to tell anyone about it. “All goes well,” he radioed.

Blond, working class and chosen, they say, for his smile, Gagarin was the paragon of “New Soviet Man”. Two days after he landed, he was the focus of a vast military parade in Moscow. The precise details of his flight were kept secret until 1991. But there was something about the tiny spaceman – Gagarin was 5ft 2in tall – that transcended the propaganda.

On a visit to Britain in July, thousands of people turned out in the rain to see him welcomed by the Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers in Manchester, which made Gagarin, a former moulder, Honorary Member No.1, and pronounced him “one of us”. His humanness also contributed to his death. Barred from further spaceflights because of the risk, Gagarin’s minders tried to prevent the young pilot from flying wherever possible. But on March 27 1968, after three months on the ground, Gagarin took off in a MiG-15 in bad weather with his trainer, Vladimir Seregin. The wreckage of their jet was discovered in woods north east of Moscow a few hours later. Gagarin’s remains were identified by a mole on his neck.

To mark 50 years since that bright morning in Kazakhstan – and to commemorate the hectic chapter of extra-terrestrial humanity that began with Gagarin – FT Weekend Magazine decided to interview an astronaut from every country that has sent one of its citizens to space. Until this decade, only the USSR (later Russia) and the US had the ability to put humans into orbit, and between them they have now carried people from 37 different nations into space. In 2003, they were joined by China and its first “taikonaut”, Yang Liwei.

Beginning in late January, a team of 17 FT writers tracked down and interviewed a total of 35 spacemen and women from across the planet, from Brazil to South Korea, Canada to Iran, Star City to Surbiton. We were unable to talk to three: the Chinese space programme declined to take part in the project; Israel’s only astronaut Ilan Ramon died in 2003; and we failed in our attempts to contact General Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, of Cuba. The rest, however, gave us their time. We asked them how they got into space, what they did there and how their lives on Earth were changed afterwards. We had no other agenda but to hear about their flights and their experiments, the things they saw and felt and did. Taken together, we hoped that their experiences would form a collective description of humanity’s encounter with the vacuum that surrounds us. This is the result.

Assembling the interviews, it became clear that, even allowing for their obvious differences – in age, sex, creed and background – a few general observations can be made. The first thing to say is that these are alpha people. All of the men and women featured in these pages were selected from hundreds, if not thousands, of candidates. Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, who became the first Malaysian in space in 2007 was chosen from a field of 11,425 applicants. Claude Nicollier, a Swiss astronaut who has gone into space four times, twice to repair the Hubble space telescope, is a qualified commercial airline pilot, test pilot and fighter pilot, with a master’s degree in astrophysics.

They are fantastic specimens – physically fit, mentally stable, flying universities in some cases – and yet much of what they do is rigidly orchestrated. Gagarin’s flight in 1961 was entirely controlled from the ground. Early Nasa astronauts were known as “spam in a can”. Rakesh Sharma, a test pilot who went into space for India in 1984, says he was “ballast”, while Reinhold Ewald, of Germany, says the hardest thing about flying to the Mir space station was watching the clock tick by for two days feeling like “a brick in a wall”. Even now, life on the International Space Station is permanently ordered by timelines and tasklists, spring cleaning and enforced exercise. Almost all of the astronauts we spoke to said they would like to return to space with less to do.

And for many of them, their lives have remained defined by their spaceflights long after they returned to earth. Twenty-three countries boast a single astronaut, who has flown on a people’s behalf. The majority of these flew in the 1980s and 1990s, either as part of the Soviet Intercosmos programme, designed to spread goodwill and scientific co-operation among communist allies, or on the US space shuttle, for similar, if opposing, reasons. In total, 23 of our astronauts flew with the Russians, and 14 were trained and flown by Nasa.

They have flown for diplomacy (Saudi Arabia), to cheer up a country at war (Afghanistan) and to clear a debt (Slovakia). In almost every case, these men and women have had a real and imagined obligation to be symbols of their country, to share their experiences as widely as possible, to not let anybody down.

It is a strain. Dirk Frimout, of Belgium, still gets stopped in the street, 19 years after his flight. “You no longer belong to yourself,” says Toktar Aubakirov of Kazakhstan. “It’s a bit like the Queen of England.” After the nine years of public appearances that followed her flight in 1991, Britain’s first astronaut, Helen Sharman, will not say how she has spent the past decade.

Despite all the forces constraining them, however, what comes through in the words and portraits of these astronauts are the insights, feelings and recollections that only humans can make. One of the reasons that Gagarin’s flight was controlled remotely was because Soviet psychologists thought he might go mad at the sight of the earth. In fact, it turns out, in space we are ourselves. “I see the clouds. The landing site ... It’s beautiful. What beauty!” is what Gagarin said as he rose. In our interviews we came across comedy (in the Polish astronaut, trying to steer by the lights of downtown Tokyo); humility (in the heroism of Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13); and the sublime (in the French astronaut, Claudie Haigneré’s, description of sunsets and sunrises, set to music).

But if there is a lasting note from this collection, it is one of uncertainty. Not so much because of what these astronauts say or did, but because of the state of the human project in space as it stands now. The dreams of human colonies on the moon – this newspaper talked about goods being “Made in Space” as late as the 1990s – have not come to pass. Of the 23 countries with a single astronaut, only a few plan to send any more. Many of the men and women who flew are now in their sixties and seventies, happy to tell their stories, but keen to be replaced. In the US, the retirement of the space shuttle later this year will mean that Nasa no longer has its own means of putting humans into orbit for the first time since the end of the Apollo programme. The 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight is a moment of celebration, but 50 years has also been enough to drain space of its utopias. “You could say that we didn’t find gold in space,” says Wubbo Ockels, from the Netherlands. One of the questions posed by this collection is whether the most daring, protean figures in our society are on the verge of passing into history.

Finally, a note on our selection: the generally recognised definition of an astronaut is that of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), which says it applies to those who have travelled more than 100km from the surface of the Earth. We have exercised some leniency however. FAI rules deem a flight “incomplete” if an astronaut leaves their spacecraft (as Gagarin did in 1961) or if an astronaut dies on their mission (as Ilan Ramon did in 2003). In terms of countries represented, we have not included nations whose citizens only flew when they were part of the USSR, or Nasa astronauts who were only eligible to fly because they have dual US nationality. Even here, though, we have made one exception, including Kazakhstan, because that is where it all began. Now. Ignition on. “Let’s go!”

Read the interviews, and more, on FT Magazine

Reporting team

Abeer Allam, Saudi Arabia

Ben Bland, Vietnam

Chris Bryant, Austria

Sholto Byrnes, Malaysia

Maria Caspani, UK

Jan Cienski, Poland

April Dembosky, US

Isabel Gorst, Russia

Kathrin Hille, China

Sam Knight, UK

Simon Kuper, France

Roman Olearchyk, Ukraine

Heba Saleh, Egypt

Daniel Schäfer, Germany

Jung-a Song, South Korea

Theodor Troev, Bulgaria

Hal Weitzman, US

Special thanks to Sam Knight and Maria Caspani, who researched and organised the project, and to Emma Bowkett, who commissioned the photography

The article on the list of astronauts is subject to a correction and has been amended.

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