This is a riveting biography of the first astronaut, Soviet Lt. Yuri Gagarin, to orbit the Earth in 1961. The author has an exceptional ability to portray events, many of which are not well known. For example, Chief designer Sergei Korolev couldn’t sleep the night before the mission as he knew of the many weak and potentially fatal aspects of the spacecraft and its booster.

Category: Nonfiction
Reviewed by: Ted Spitzmiller
Title: Beyond: The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space
Author: Stephen Walker
NSS Amazon link for this book
Format: Hardcover/paperback/Kindle
Pages: 512
Publisher: Harper
Date: April 2021
Retail Price: $29.99/$14.94/$14.99
ISBN: 978-0062978158

The prologue sets the stage for this riveting biography of the first astronaut, Soviet Lt. Yuri Gagarin, to orbit the Earth in 1961. It gets him inserted in the spacecraft, awaiting the final minutes of the countdown. The author, Stephen Walker, then takes the reader on an unconventional journey as he recounts the recovery of two dogs on an aborted Soviet flight four months earlier. It’s another 300 pages before the countdown reaches zero of Gagarin’s momentous voyage. What made this review particularly meaningful is that I began reading Beyond just a few days after the 60th anniversary of that flight.

The author works through several aspects of this momentous journey, both technical and political. Walker has an exceptional ability to portray events, many of which are not well known. But to tell Gagarin’s story also requires including notable portions of America’s first manned space flight program—Project Mercury. That the Cold War had migrated into a space race competition between the two countries is a given. As the book unfolds, the similarity and differences between the two programs provide interesting comparisons.

Of course, there could be no comprehensive summary of Gagarin’s epic excursion without a clear and concise history of the opening years of the space race. The Soviet “Chief Designer” Sergei Korolev, the key player in the Soviet program, is not introduced by name until well into the text. A review of his life and accomplishments, and his relationship with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, is explored with exceptional insight and clarity—especially the influence of the Soviet space program on the inscrutable Khrushchev.

Differences in the openness of the U.S. program, as opposed to the Soviet obsession with secrecy, will give the reader insight into the mindset of a closed society. Occasional excerpts from the secret diary of the cosmonaut’s Chief of Training, Nikolai Kamanin, play an essential role in telling the story.

The military and political implications of the first Soviet Earth satellite, Sputnik, are accurately presented along with the emotions of that era. A review of these initial Soviet satellites effectively characterizes the perceived distant second place of America’s effort compared to the Soviets. Walker does an excellent job of quickly reviewing the capabilities of each country and the reason for the differences—the size of the Soviet rockets primarily.

I did take a few exceptions to some of the author’s observations. For example, he characterizes the rocket engines of the Soviet R-7 ICBM as “the most complex and advanced power units yet invented.” The R-7 required twenty 50,000 lb. thrust chambers on its five segments (four per segment) because of the Soviet’s inability to achieve higher thrust engines reliably. The U.S. Atlas ICBM was using 150,000 lb. thrust engines during the same period, although the specific impulse of the U.S. engine was 3-percent less.

The acrimonious debate over the need to repeat the Mercury Redstone flight MR-2 of Ham the chimp on January 31, 1961, is covered in detail. At the insistence of Wernher von Braun, it was the duplication of this mission on March 24th that allowed the Soviets to rocket the first man into space three weeks later. Otherwise, U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard would have stolen some of the mystique—even though his would have been a sub-orbital jaunt of only 350 miles, not 25,000 miles.

The author skillfully analyzes the doubts about a successful human space flight held by several key individuals on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He notes the Soviets were far more willing to risk flying spacecraft that had not been fully tested because they had the element of secrecy to hide a catastrophic failure. The Americans operating in the open would risk world criticism. But the Russians felt pressure from the Americans to place the first human in space.

Of the many interesting facts revealed, Gagarin had only had 230 flight hours as a pilot when he was selected—the least hours of the Mercury astronauts was Scott Carpenter at 2,800. But the Soviets, at this point, considered the occupant of the spacecraft as simply a passenger. Of course, the courage and commitment of these young men was irrespective of their airborne experience.

The author handles several minor (but interesting) considerations, such as labeling the prosthetic astronaut in the last unmanned test as a “dummy.” Details such as using a horse-drawn sled to take the recovery team to “his” landing site are priceless.

The final cosmonaut orientation took place only a few weeks before the historic human voyage. It was the first time they had been briefed on many aspects of the mission to include the launch facilities. A meeting of the mission architects, less than three weeks before the launch date, reveals that several components of the spacecraft and its booster had potentially fatal problems that would probably not be resolved before Gagarin’s flight.

The meetings of two Soviet commissions to approve a manned space mission are themselves a worthy read. The decision as to who will make the momentous journey was put off to the last few days as those involved in such a fateful and historic judgment weighed the merits of the three final contenders out of the 20 candidates in training.

The author reveals several aspects of the two Soviet finalists (Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov) that will alert the reader to the Soviet’s overriding concern about promoting Communism. The cosmonaut’s personal characteristics must conform to the perfection of the Soviet state.

The details of the six cosmonaut finalists relaxing on the evening before the fight is impressive, as is the letter Gagarin wrote to his wife, to be delivered only if he does not survive. The chief designer couldn’t sleep the night before the mission as he knew of the many weak aspects of the spacecraft and its booster.

That part of the book that characterizes the final minutes of the historic countdown is nicely scripted to include the thoughts, actions, and reminiscences of many of the launch crew and Gagarin.  Walker’s research has revealed numerous aspects of the flight hidden by the unfounded paranoia that the Soviet leadership had created and imposed on its citizens.

The author does a nice job of taking us around the world with Gagarin following the launch. He carefully defines some potential problems that fortunately never came to pass during this single orbit of the Earth. His ability to convey the reentry and the thoughts and reactions of Gagarin when the two components of the spaceship failed to separate properly will leave an impression on the reader. The details of the parachute descent are extraordinary.

The impact of Gagarin’s new celebrity status is examined, an aspect that would ultimately have a damaging effect on the straight-laced young man in the months to come. The influence of his flight on world opinion is well described—it was a difficult and trying time for America. The celebration of Moscow in response to the voyage is wonderfully portrayed. The impression on the Soviet people and the Communist Party is impressive.

The person primarily responsible for the flight (Korolev) received no public recognition because of the secrecy. The mission’s political influence allowed Khrushchev to intimidate President Kennedy during the abortive Cuban invasion only days later.

The book concludes with several sobering aspects. These include the untimely deaths of Korolev and Kennedy, and Khrushchev’s removal from power over the next few years. But the most tragic loss was that of Gagarin during a training flight in a jet aircraft that crashed (under strange circumstances) in 1968 as he worked to get himself back into space—a role the Soviet hierarchy would never have allowed for this hero of the Soviet Union.

The book is a must-read for all space enthusiasts, especially those whose age may have caused them to miss the first decade of the space race.

© 2022 Ted Spitzmiller

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