Yuri Gagarin was the first human being to journey into outer space. Why him? What made him stand out? Was he the brightest, the calmest person ever to walk the face of the earth, the best candidate?


He was short.

Yuri Gagarin was a small guy, only 5 feet 2 inches tall. Being small was the most important requirement for all cosmonauts because the Russian space program designed the Vostok I capsule in advance before recruiting cosmonauts. They needed just somebody to fit in and willing to follow orders.

While I don’t take anything anyway from Gagarin’s courage or bravado, that’s not the reason why he was the first man in orbit. Let’s not forget: In reality, he was human cargo. Beyond surviving the flight, he had no tasks during the flight. The controls of the Vostok I were locked; the capsule was maneuvered entirely from the ground. As Gagarin himself put it, “I’m not sure if I was the first man in space or the last dog.”

Compare that to the “Right Stuff” program.

John Glenn was almost 6 feet tall. The astronauts were no apparatchiks, they were as individual as you expect Americans to be. The capsules were designed for their needs, not the other way around. They had a job to do, complicated tasks during their mission. They were responsible for the success of their mission.

These specific differences between two space programs made it more likely for NASA to surpass the Russian space program in a short time.

Are you hiring cosmonauts or astronauts?

Are you trying to defend the Status Quo, defend your lead by protecting your advantages? Hire cosmonauts. They are born to fit in, to be nice, to make sure everybody is happy.

Are you trying to change the world, cope with revolutionary changes, get ahead of others? Hire astronauts. They might disobey you, they might be annoying, they might get on your last nerve. But, they’ll get the job done.

My heart is clearly on the side of astronauts but I can see the problem with having just astronauts on your staff. Cosmonauts are still important and we should never diminish their importance.

Times have changed, even for astronauts.

The space program has changed over time. It’s not about competition anymore, it’s about collaboration. Whatever bravado was once tolerated in the “Right Stuff” days, in an era of multi-national, long-duration missions this attitude is considered the wrong stuff. Nobody needs swagger and egos when you have to live with other for months or, in the future, years.