Sixty years on, the pioneering achievements of Gagarin and his generation of cosmonauts are still breathtaking, as Stephen Walker demonstrates in his scintillating account of the race between the Russians and Americans to achieve manned space flight. Drawing on views from both sides, as well as secret documents buried in Russian state archives and interviews with surviving participants in the cosmonaut programme, Walker, an accomplished documentary maker, shows how much nearly went wrong and how much of a gamble it all was.
Walker is primarily a film-maker, and Beyondstarted life as notes for an eventually abandoned 2012 documentary. In addition to its reliably cinematic qualities — the inbuilt inflection points of climax and disaster, and the spectacle of space with its vistas of ecstasy and terror — Walker develops a colourful sense of the political theatre of space exploration, detecting in and around Gagarin’s story the elements of a well-balanced drama.
It took eight years and $20 billion, but it worked. The Americans lost all the heats in the space race, but triumphed in the final. Apollo 11 turned Gagarin into little more than the answer to a quiz question: who was the first man in space? This book ends that. It is high-definition history: tight, thrilling and beautifully researched.