Looking for a cracker of a non-fiction Christmas read for yourself or that difficult-to-buy-for in-law? We’d heartily recommend this one.

Beyond (HarperCollins, 2021) tells the tale of Yuri Gagarin and the race between the USSR and United States (US) to be first to put a man in space – a feat that was finally achieved in 1961 at the height of the then Cold War between the superpowers.

The story is beautifully told by British author Stephen Walker, who was commissioned to direct a documentary on the subject for Working Title Films in 2012. We can’t see that the documentary was ever produced, but Walker stuck with the topic and completed three research trips to Russia before starting to write the book in 2020.

An early passage gives a sense of how Walker turns all that research into a dense but simply written page turner:

As Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin – just turned twenty-seven, married with a daughter of almost two and a one-month-old baby, ex-foundry student, ex-fighter pilot and loyal Communist – steps out in the glaring sunshine in his orange spacesuit and towards the lift that will take him to the top of the rocket, nobody outside a tightly restricted circle knows what he is about to do. Even his wife, back at their home near Moscow, does not know that her husband has been chosen for this task or that today is the day.

And the rest of the world knows nothing.

Just as fascinating as the Soviet side of the story are the twists and turns within the American space program. Walker cuts between the two and brings the leading characters to life in a way that offers plenty of suspense even if you know the eventual outcome. The book also explains why the US became so committed to being the first country to send a man to the moon, under President Kennedy. It provides a rich insight into a different time in Russia’s history compared to where we are today.

The book can also be seen as a discussion of risk, reward and ethics. This centres on the Americans’ decision to use chimpanzees in test flights versus the Soviets’ use of dogs, and ultimately on when each nation was prepared to put a human in the pointy end of a rocket destined to leave Earth.

Grant Butler


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