Science Talk

First in Space: New Yuri Gagarin Biography Shares Hidden Side of Cosmonaut

It’s been 60 years, to the day, since Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human to travel to space in a tiny capsule attached to an R-7 ballistic missile, a powerful rocket originally designed to carry a three- to five-megaton nuclear warhead. In this new episode marking the 60th anniversary of this historic space flight—the first of its kind— Scientific American talks to Stephen Walker, an award-winning filmmaker, director and book author, about the daring launch that changed the course of human history and charted a map to the skies and beyond.

Walker discusses his new book  Beyond: The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space , out today, and how Gagarin’s journey—an enormous mission that was fraught with danger and planned in complete secrecy—happened on the heels of a cold war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and sparked a relentless space race between a rising superpower and an ailing one, respectively.

Walker, whose films have won an Emmy and a BAFTA, revisits the complex politics and pioneering science of this era from a fresh perspective. He talks about his hunt for eyewitnesses, decades after the event; how he uncovered never-before-seen footage of the space mission; and, most importantly, how he still managed to put the human story at the heart of a tale at the intersection of political rivalry, cutting-edge technology, and humankind’s ambition to conquer space and explore new frontiers.

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