Yuri Gagarin, the first man to orbit the Earth, greeting Gherman Titov, the second, after Titov’s flight on Vostok 2, August 1961
Thinking today of Soviet fighter pilot and cosmonaut Valentin Vasiliyevich Bondarenko (February 16, 1937 – March 23, 1961), one of the first men to give his life in the name of space exploration. He was killed 57 years ago in an accidental fire during a 15-day endurance experiment.
Valentin was hardly 24 years old when he died, the youngest man in the first cosmonaut group, and still the youngest person ever to be selected as a cosmonaut or astronaut. His fellow cosmonauts called him Valentin Junior or “zvonochek” (Tinkerbell). He was a son, brother, husband, and father. His little boy, Sasha, would grow up to become a pilot like his lost father. Valentin loved sports, especially soccer, and was unbeatable at table tennis. He had a lovely singing voice and was embarrassed at excessive attention. He once saved a little boy from a 5-story fall by climbing up the side of the building on a drainpipe and carrying him to safety. He was training for a manned spaceflight at the time of his death, and was killed just 19 days before Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.
The Soviet Union lied about his death for decades. The cover-up lasted until 1986, when Valentin was finally recognized by the government for which he gave his life, and the world became aware of one of the first casualties of the space age. In 1991, a crater on the far side of the moon was named Bondarenko in his honor.
5/4/62: “Astronauts Alan Shepard (left) and John Glenn (center) seem to be equally puzzled with Soviet Cosmonaut Gherman Titov as to how photographers want them to pose during a picture taking session at a reception at the Soviet embassy. Other guests included numerous Washington officials, ambassadors and newsmen.”
August 7, 1961
Gherman Stepanovich Titov
in the cabin of the plane after the successful completion Vostok 2.
“Sometimes people are saying that God is out there. I was looking around attentively all day but I didn’t find anybody there. I saw neither angels nor God.“
Gherman Titov (1962)
Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin. Two amazing cosmonauts with a lot of firsts in the Soviet Space Program- and we’re talking major accomplishments like the first man in space, first man to command a multi-man space crew, first man to go to space twice…..
They were also such good friends that both tried to keep the other from taking part in a doomed-from-the-start space flight- Komarov wouldn’t refuse to fly because that meant Gagarin would be chosen, and Gagarin showed up on launch day demanding to take Komarov’s place. Sad spoiler alert: the decision did end up costing Komarov his life (and adding another sad first to his record- first man to die in a space flight).
A portrait of Yuri Gagarin watches over the construction of a test version of the Soviet Union’s Buran space shuttle, 1980s.