First cosmonaut team marks half a century

This month marks 50 years since the Soviet Union picked the team that were to become the first humans in space. Thousands of military pilots were screened to find the 20 men best equipped to make the historic journey.

The historic moment when Aleksey Leonov became the first human to walk in space marked a time of groundbreaking achievements for the Soviet Union and mankind in general.

A remarkable feat, and it took remarkable men to do it. Half a century ago they were brought together, unaware they were about to embark on a space odyssey.

“About 3,000 pilots aged up to 30 years were invited, those who had experience operating the most advanced aircraft and who knew how to address difficult climatic conditions,” Aleksey Leonov recalls. “Officially we were being screened as test pilots, although a similar group next door was facing much milder requirements. We even thought that we were being picked on. It never occurred to us that we’d be the first members of the cosmonaut corps.”

It was a position that would see some of them entering the history books as pioneers of space travel.

Viktor Gorbatko was also amongst those selected and remembers clearly the amazing experiences which were to follow from being part of the team.

“The greatest impressions were certainly from the first flight,” he says. “It was very emotional. I saw the sunset, I saw how fragments split from our spaceship, I saw the stars, the sunrise, the horizon, the Earth itself – just everything. It was the greatest joy I have ever had.”

There was a competitive spirit on the team who became close friends, and who shared many memories of the exciting time they spent together, training and flying.

“We competed in everything: flights, tennis, billiards,” Viktor Gorbatko says. “Once, when some of us were playing billiards, Yury Gagarin who was also present said: ‘While you are trying out to find out who is the best, the other guys are flying’. But we always remained friends.”

Heading into completely unknown territory held its risks. Leonov remembers all too well some of the problems they encountered, and whilst his first spacewalk was a success, it could have all been very different.

“Ten minutes into my spacewalk I felt it [the suit] deform and bulge like a balloon. I was dangling in the suit and I couldn’t complete my tasks because my hands were all inflated,” Aleksey Leonov says. “It had to be a split second decision so I decided to reduce the pressure in the suit. That means exposing yourself to a vacuum and going to a point where nitrogen boils your blood. But if I started thinking whether I would manage it or not – I would have failed.”