Astronauts and cosmonauts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The astronauts and cosmonauts were a select group of men and women trained by the United States and the Soviet Union to travel in outer space.


The space race was the product of the worldwide struggle between the communist and industrial-democratic nations known as the Cold War. This conflict began at the end of World War II when the antifascist alliance, led by Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union, began to unravel.

Science occupied an important position in the competing philosophies of democratic capitalism and socialist communism. In the Enlightenment model that underlies American and Western European democracy, science unlocked the natural laws of nature, and through the use of human reason these universal truths could be used for the betterment of the human community. Enlightenment intellectuals believed in human equality before God, but also believed in individual inequalities in intelligence, self-discipline, and drive. This would lead to a natural aristocracy based upon merit and achievement, who would create an environment in which natural law would be used for the welfare of the entire community.

Socialist philosophers believed that the workers and the peasants had the natural right to control the means of production. In this paradigm, the proper application of science and technology would create a system that would establish an egalitarian society governed by the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” These two different worldviews had a profound impact on the development of the astronaut and cosmonaut programs. The successes and failures of the two programs would be used as examples of the strengths or weaknesses of the two competing ideologies. This was especially true in the competition for the hearts and minds of the Third World nations that were the main targets of this struggle.

The Original Soviet Voyagers

The success of Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, generated momentum within the Soviet government to initiate a program designed to send a human into space. Initially, twenty candidates were chosen to be the first cosmonauts. A special facility outside of Moscow, designated “Star Town,” was constructed to carry out the necessary training. By 1960, the original twenty had been reduced to twelve, and it was from this select group that the first voyagers were chosen.

The Soviets developed a strict set of standards that each potential cosmonaut had to meet. Since the original space capsules were small, these first pilots could be no taller than 5 feet, 11 inches. The stress and strain of the rigorous training and missions necessitated that the cosmonauts be both emotionally and physically fit. The unknown aspects of spaceflight required pilots who were able to act decisively under great stress and who possessed the confidence in their own abilities to handle any problems that they might encounter. The Russians looked to their military establishment for their space program because the cosmonauts would have to be able to take great risks, yet at the same time be completely obedient to their supervisors. The Soviets wanted individuals who were intelligent in the areas of science and technology, but who were not deeply philosophical. The leadership of the Soviet Union did not welcome questions about the logic and ethics of a program that would expend billions of dollars in a race that would turn the cosmos into another Cold War battlefield.

The cosmonauts also had to reflect the ideology of socialist heroes in the struggle between the philosophies of communism and democratic capitalism. It was important that they be physically attractive, so as to optimize their impact as traditional heroes. More importantly, they had to possess the politically correct characteristics of the new Soviet citizen. The vast majority of the candidates were the children of factory workers or peasants. Their ethnicity was “pure” Russian, which reflected the centuries-old belief that the Russians were the natural leaders of the Slavic peoples. The communal nature of socialist ideology was always reflected in the cosmonauts’ statements concerning the importance of their voyages to the welfare of all Earth’s people.

Russia’s first cosmonaut embodied all these important characteristics. Yuri Gagarin was a man of the common people, and his proletarian background was made to order for his great communist achievement. He spent the first years of his young adult life working in a Russian factory, and through hard work and determination he not only became a member of the Russian military but also attained the high status of a test pilot in the Soviet air force. The Russian government and propaganda machine focused upon his peasant heritage as an example of how the communist system, supported by a strong scientific and technological community, could transform a man of the working class into the first voyager into space. His successful flight in Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961, provided Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev with a powerful propaganda weapon in his struggle against the West. This socialist egalitarianism crossed gender lines on June 16, 1963, when Valentina Tereshkova completed forty-eight orbits in Vostok 6 to become the first woman in space. The world communist community declared that it was now perfectly clear that the socialist model was the philosophy that created true equality between men and women.

Tereshkova is a significant example of how politics and ideology played an important role in the Soviet space program. She was primarily chosen because of her proletarian heritage; in fact, Khrushchev was so intent on making an ideological statement that she was selected over a number of better-qualified women. Tereshkova’s flight was extremely taxing and she suffered from the effects of space sickness, which so physically drained her that on one occasion she fell into a deep sleep and the Russian ground control had serious concerns about her health.

Khrushchev’s propaganda about gender equality played far better outside the Soviet Union than it did domestically. There were numerous articles in the U.S. press about the impact of the flight on the movement for universal women’s rights. Ironically, the leaders of the Russian space program used Tereshkova’s weakened physical reaction as proof that women did not belong in space.

Eventually, Tereshkova’s life took on the aspects of a soap opera. Her wedding to fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nekoloyev was broadcast throughout the Soviet Union. Their first child, a baby girl, was subjected to a series of biological examinations to see if Tereshkova’s exposure to cosmic rays had affected her daughter’s health. The pressures of a life in the spotlight eventually took its toll on her marriage and she divorced in June, 1964.

The original Russian cosmonaut program also had some important problems that reflected the dark side of the personalities of these unique individuals. The fearless aggressiveness so characteristic of these exceptional people at times erupted into antisocial behavior that on several occasions ended in death. The problem of alcoholism that has damaged large segments of Soviet society also took its toll on the first cosmonauts. Grigori Nelyubov was a superior candidate who was widely respected for his great skill and coolness under stress. One evening, when he was returning from a weekend leave, he had an altercation with local authorities that ended in a physical confrontation. As a result, he was dismissed from the cosmonaut program. Nelyubov became deeply depressed, developed a severe drinking problem, and eventually took his own life. The Soviet government was successful in its initial attempts to cover up such stories. Nelyubov became a nonperson, with all traces of his connection to the cosmonaut program erased from the official records. The Soviet propaganda machine could not allow the world to know that these serious problems existed in the socialist paradise.

The Original U.S. Astronauts

The United States decided to pursue a crewed spaceflight program in 1958 as a result of the impact of Sputnik on the U.S. political scene. The Eisenhower administration viewed the Soviet space program as another political threat to the strategic balance of the Cold War. The containment policy adopted by the United States during the Truman administration was based upon two important concepts: first, the Soviet empire had to be contained within the original East-West borders as defined in Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech, and second, that inherent philosophical weaknesses in the communist model would result in the downfall of the Soviet empire. George F. Kennan, who developed the policy, believed that one of its most important aspects would be how it enabled the West to win the struggle for the allegiance of developing nations. By 1958, it was evident to everyone in the United States that Sputnik had created the impression that the science of the new socialist order could produce profound technological achievements. If containment was to be successful, the United States would have to surpass the Soviets in the race for space.

When the Kennedy administration took office in January, 1961, the astronaut program was placed on hold because of the more pressing problems concerning the Cuban Revolution. The military disaster of the Bay of Pigs left the new president looking for a way to recover the confidence of the American people. This fact, coupled with the continued success of the Soviet space program, moved Kennedy to reinstate the astronaut program. The new program was placed before the American people in Kennedy’s famous speech challenging the country to land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.

Immediately, the nation was awash in articles describing the men who would be the first voyagers into outer space. These space travelers would epitomize the outstanding characteristics of democratic Enlightenment thought. The astronauts were perfect examples of a space-age “aristocracy of merit.” They were required to hold at least a bachelor of science degree in engineering or related technology. Like the cosmonauts, every candidate had to be in excellent physical condition and possess the emotional strength to handle the hazards of spaceflight. The astronauts were required to have at least 1,500 hours of flight time and also to cut a handsome figure for media purposes. Unlike the Soviet cosmonauts, however, the United States astronaut program did not include women.

The United States was looking for national heroes who would reflect the strength of its political system. To the American public, the original seven astronauts were portrayed as the ultimate Cold Warriors. They were soldiers who risked their lives every day to make sure the United States would not fall behind the Soviet Union in the race to control outer space. In reality, these men were more like ancient Greek heroes who performed great acts of bravery but who also lived lives of physical and material excess. The one man who never strayed was John Glenn. He not only remained focused on his assignment, but on a few notable occasions, he also castigated fellow astronauts for their lack of restraint. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the U.S. press did not pursue this type of sensational story, and the exploits of the original astronauts went unreported.

The United States began its crewed presence in outer space on May 5, 1961, when Alan Shepard took the Mercury capsule Liberty Bell 7 for a fifteen-minute flight. The mission was a success in every possible way and was a major turning point in the U.S. space program. Technologically, it confirmed that a pilot could control a space capsule in both a state of weightlessness and at significant g forces. When Shepard returned, it also became evident that astronauts could travel in space and not experience any negative physical or emotional problems. The flight of Liberty Bell 7 also had an important political impact. Domestically, it helped return a sense of optimism about the ability of the United States to compete in space with the Soviets. Internationally, the flight helped to emphasize the openness of the U.S. system. Unlike the Soviet launches, every minute of the flight of Liberty Bell 7 was broadcast to the entire world. Many of the news stories in the international press praised the United States for allowing this event to be covered uncensored by the government.

On February 20, 1962, U.S. astronauts obtained full status with the Soviets when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth in his ship Friendship 7. This was the flight that showed the important difference between the two programs. During the course of his trip into space, Glenn was confronted with two potentially deadly problems, and on both occasions the U.S. decision to allow the pilot some control of the craft allowed him to avoid disaster. Early in the flight, the automatic stabilization system malfunctioned and the capsule began to drift off course, but because Glenn was able manually to maneuver the craft, he eventually brought it under control. Most important, when the capsule’s heat shield malfunctioned upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, Glenn once again was able to take steps to help his situation. These two incidents exemplified the American ideal of an “aristocracy of merit” that possessed the “right stuff” to overcome possible disaster. This differed substantially from the original Soviet system, in which the cosmonaut essentially “went along for the ride.”

The Race to the Moon

The quest of the United States to land a man on the Moon required an expansion of the astronaut program in both the number of personnel and the technological skill required for this next phase of the space race. The Gemini Program was given the mission to perfect the concept of a multicrewed mission and to develop the necessary skills to successfully dock with another craft. A successful Moon mission would require three astronauts, two of whom would actually land on the Moon’s surface. These two men would have to separate a smaller craft from the mother ship, land, then take off from the Moon to dock once again with the original spacecraft. The successful completion of these tasks set the stage for the Apollo Program.

The Russian cosmonauts were trying to expand their presence in space by flying missions in the Voskhod Program, which was the Russian attempt to compete with the multicrewed missions of the United States. Unfortunately, the Voskhod was just a retooled version of the one-seat Vostok capsule, and it foreshadowed the decline of the Soviet space program. Despite these problems, cosmonauts continued to make important accomplishments in the field of space science. The most significant event of the Voskhod Program occurred on March 19, 1965, when Alexei Leonov became the first man to walk in space.

The Apollo astronauts perfected the three-man mission that put an astronaut on the Moon. The spacecraft itself was the most advanced ship to date and required technological capabilities well beyond those of either Mercury or Gemini. The worst accident in the history of the Moon program occurred on January 27, 1967, when the Apollo capsule containing Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee filled with pure oxygen and exploded, killing all three men. U.S. astronauts finally reached the Moon on July 24, 1969, when Neil Armstrong spoke those famous words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The Moon landing also played an important role in the Cold War. By 1969, the United States found itself deep in the quagmire of Vietnam, and U.S. armed forces were suffering about five hundred casualties a week. At a time when the American people were beginning to question their country’s ability to successfully carry on the war, the landing on the Moon was looked upon by the Nixon Administration as confirmation of the power of the United States. Thus it is evident that, from the very beginning of the space race, the astronauts and cosmonauts were considered soldiers in the Cold War.

Shuttles and Space Stations

The problems of the Vietnam War created a sense of despair and a loss of confidence among the American electorate, while pressing problems of race relations, poverty, and rising inflation helped extinguish the enthusiasm for further space exploration. In the Soviet Union, the communist system could no longer produce the resources needed to successfully place a cosmonaut on the Moon. Both nations decided to reorient their focus to develop programs that would continue to expand humankind’s knowledge of the cosmos, while at the same time working within their drastically reduced budgets.

The United States developed a program that would create a series of reusable shuttle craft that would be launched into Earth orbit to perform duties ranging from scientific experiments to the repairs of sophisticated space telescopes. The next generation of astronauts shifted from explorers to experimental scientists. This new orientation opened the way for the first women astronauts, whose scientific and technological skills were needed for successful shuttle missions. The astrophysicist Sally K. Ride, who in 1983 became the first American woman to travel into space, exemplified the educational background of these new astronauts.

The Soviets decided to concentrate on the development of large space stations that would be used as laboratories for the development of the next generation of space scientists. Once again, the new generation of cosmonauts were oriented toward academic research and created an impressive schedule of experiments, ranging from space-based communication systems to solar research. Unfortunately, the collapse of the Soviet Union drastically reduced Soviet expenditures and the space station program was devastated by this lack of funding.

Beginning in the 1990’s, the United States carried out a series of varyingly successful robotic missions to Mars that have rejuvenated interest in space exploration. A new international program consisting of members from various European, Asian, African, and Western Hemisphere states could form the foundation of humanity’s next step into the universe.

  • Burrows, William E. This New Ocean. New York: Modern Library, 1999. A comprehensive one-volume history of spaceflight providing a detailed, chronological account of the age of space exploration.
  • Harford, James. Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997. A unique and interesting look inside the Soviet space establishment as seen through the life of Russia’s most important space scientist.
  • Heppenheimer, T. A. Countdown: A History of Space Flight. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997. An excellent one-volume history of spaceflight describing the economic, social, and political impact of the Space Age.
  • McDougal, Walter A. The Heavens and Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985. An outstanding political history of the space race detailing the important linkage between the events of the Cold War and the U.S. and Soviet space programs.

Apollo Program

Neil Armstrong

Crewed spaceflight

Yuri Gagarin

Gemini Program

John Glenn

Mercury project

Russian space program

National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Alan Shepard

Space shuttle


Valentina Tereshkova

Uncrewed spaceflight

The Apollo-Soyuz Test Mission in July, 1975, was the first joint space project between the United States and the Soviet Union. The meeting of astronauts and cosmonauts in outer space marked the beginning of an era of cooperation rather than competition between the two countries.

(NASA CORE/Lorain Valley JVS)
Categories: History