Soviets secretly selected first cosmonauts 60 years ago today

From the space history time capsule, Soviets secretly selected their first cosmonauts 60 years ago.

The Soviet Union fielded 154 candidates from the Soviet Air Force, narrowing down the pool to 29 candidates after medical tests at the Central Military Scientific Aviation Hospital in Moscow, and selecting the top 20 candidates as cosmonauts.

Ultimately, 12 cosmonauts went on to complete space flights. Cosmonaut Boris Valentinovich Volynov, now 85, is the only surviving member of the group as of February 2020.

NASA highlights the contrast between the very public American routine versus the Soviet process:

In sharp contrast to the very public announcement of the Mercury astronauts’ selection, the Soviets chose to keep their selection on Feb. 25, 1960, secret. They would not identify any cosmonauts until they safely reached orbit, and the names of the unflown cosmonauts remained unknown until the advent of Glasnost in the 1980s. As such, no photograph of the entire group is known to exist. The best known picture shows 16 of the team, taken in May 1961 during a group holiday at the Black Sea resort of Sochi about one month after Gagarin’s historic flight. Kartashov and Varlamov had already left the team for medical reasons, Bondarenko had died in a training accident in March 1961, and Komarov was not on the trip.

Cosmonaut Volynov, the only surviving member of the original space flight team, faced his own near death situation in 1969.

From Wired in 2009:

To say that Volynov experienced one of the roughest re-entries in the history of space flight (at least by anyone who lived to tell the tale) is to say the least. Soyuz 5‘s service module failed to detach at retrofire, causing the vehicle to assume an aerodynamic position that left the heat shield pointed the wrong way as it re-entered the atmosphere. The only thing standing between Volynov and a fiery death was the command module’s thin hatch cover.

Top Image: NASA: “The Vanguard Six cosmonauts examining the Vostok booster at Baikonur;
a Vostok spacecraft is in the background at right.”

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