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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Human Side of the Space Race

Could it really be that Yury Gagarin, a simple farm boy, became "the one" by humbly slipping off his boots before climbing into a prototype of the Vostok capsule almost 40 years ago?

This is one of many curious threads pulled neatly together to form "Starman," a shining tale of how Gagarin made his epic flight into space on April 12, 1961 and became modern history's most celebrated traveller.

Documentary filmmaker Jamie Doran teamed up with space author Piers Bizony to compile a written account from an unused mass of unique material gathered for a film about the legend of Gagarin and the Soviet space program.

Wrapping in many interviews with key figures who have rarely or never spoken to journalists on the subject before, the authors take us from Gagarin's childhood days during the war, when he sabotaged the tank engines of Nazi invaders, to his selection for the secretive cosmonaut corps in 1959, the 108-minute journey around the earth, his fall from political grace and tragic death at age 34.

Poignant reminiscences from the cosmonaut's family, personal driver, trainers and KGB minders bring the reader close to Gagarin both as an individual and a main player in the politics of the space race. And while retaining a light, flowing narrative, the authors do not skimp on technical aspects, even managing, in 234 pages, to make a modest cosmonautics expert of the lay reader.

This is not a tale of a genius, of the one and only man who could have made the first flight into space. Instead, it is an account of a quest to excel, and how that quest was both propelled and perverted by the agenda of the times.

While it becomes clear that Gagarin's selection was due to a combination of factors -- his working class background, charisma, right stature for the design of the capsule -- we learn of the intense competition that might have launched another man, the more refined and reserved German Titov, to stardom.

Many took part in the final choice. Sergei Korolyov, the hush-hush chief designer and father of the Soviet rocket program; the ultra-severe head of cosmonaut training, General Nikolai Kamanin; and, of course, Gagarin's warmest patron, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev.

Perhaps, as Khrushchev's speech writer and senior aide Fyodor Burlatsky says, "It wasn't just Khrushchev who chose Gagarin. It was fate."

One of the book's many entertaining anecdotes tells of how, on the eve of the flight, neither Gagarin nor Titov got much rest. Both suspected, correctly, that the program doctors would secretly monitor how soundly each slept. So they barely slept a wink all night with the strain of simulating a deep and untroubled slumber.

The rest, as they say, is history. Floating down by parachute into a Russian field, the first man in space had become a suitable guest for kings, queens and presidents around the globe.

But the wild idolization that swamped this "fit and handsome young man, who also happened to be the most famous and desired star in the world" also invited his downfall. While few people would dispute that Gagarin earned his hero status many times over, he was no angel. The book documents drunken escapades and dalliances with young ladies eager to make the acquaintance of the First Cosmonaut, such as Gagarin's fabled leap from a nurse's balcony when his suspicious wife barged into the room at Khrushchev's Crimean dacha.

The hectic life of tours and state visits took a heavy toll, with as many as 15 public appearances a day. The relentless toasts honed the gregarious Gagarin's partying spirit, and with it, his partiality to alcohol.

Despite his country upbringing, Gagarin showed such diplomatic aplomb during his tours that he made many enemies by behaving with more charm and wisdom than the official Soviet heads of foreign delegations. "Superiors never forgive you for things like that," recalled his academic tutor and close acquaintance Sergei Belotserkovsky.

As much as the intense East-West rivalry in space exploration, the book explores how the Soviet hierarchy was ridden with intrigue and personal enmity.

A major blow was Khrushchev's deposition by Leonid Brezhnev in 1964, whereafter Gagarin represented an unwelcome reminder to the new Soviet leader of his predecessor's accomplishments in space.

But while the hands pulling the strings changed, the space race between America and the Soviet Union remained an expensive yet preferable alternative to trading missiles with each other.

The race had a game-like quality to it, but with tragic consequences. In 1972 a three-man American crew died in a faulty capsule during a practice launch. Five years before, Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov knowingly agreed to fly to his death aboard another trouble-ridden capsule that was prematurely launched in time to mark the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. One version has it that Komarov made the flight to prevent his back-up, Gagarin, from flying and dying in his place.

Gagarin fought hard to be considered for further space flights, but Komarov's death heightened concerns that he was too precious a trophy to risk losing. This, together with clashes with authorities over the circumstances of Komarov's accident, nailed the lid on his hopes to take part in a planned lunar mission.

After he was grounded, Gagarin diverted himself with more partying, prompting Kamanin to note in his diary that "Since Komarov's death, Gagarin has been dismissed from all space flights. He has undergone a new, more stormy process of personality disintegration."

Closing with Gagarin's own death on March 27, 1968 during a training flight aboard a fighter plane, the authors note but do not wallow in the many wild theories of assassination that still abound. Instead, they support the likelihood that a passing super-sonic jet inadvertently caused the crash of Gagarin's aircraft, and that a huge cover-up of flight control negligence was hurriedly ordered.

"Starman" skillfully achieves two distinct objectives: The uncovering of much of the mystery around one of mankind's finest periods, and a full and respectful acknowledgment that its many great heroes, both sung and unsung, were, first and foremost, human beings.

"Starman: The Truth behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin." Bloomsbury. 248 pages. pounds 17.99 ($29.50).