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.