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Tears for a cosmonaut

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Procession in Moscow honoring Gierman Stepanovich Titov on Monday  

MOSCOW (CNN) -- Half a world away from here, in the land down under, hundreds of Olympic athletes are beating their brains (and their bodies) out for the ultimate bragging right: to say they are Number One -- the Gold Medal Winner -- Top of the Global Heap. And even though the difference between gold and silver is frequently measured in thousandths of seconds, fractions of centimeters or just a few kilograms, it seems second is always a long way from first.

The same goes for spacefarers. Quick: Can you name the second American to fly in space on a ballistic trajectory? (Gus Grissom). What about the silver-medalist American to orbit the Earth? (Scott Carpenter). How about the red-ribbon duo to walk on the moon? (Pete Conrad and Alan Bean). Or the second crew to strap themselves onto a space shuttle? (Joe Engle and Dick Truly).

It's an illustrious group -- and yet I suspect all but the most avid of space geeks among you might have scored less than a hundred on that pop-quiz.

Which brings me to Gierman Stepanovich Titov. Today, on my first full day of a weeklong assignment to Moscow, they buried Titov with all the pomp, pageantry, goose-stepping and grief that would befit a Great Hero of the Motherland. As you clearly have guessed by now, Titov was the second citizen of the Soviet Union to fly in space (Vostok 2 on August 6, 1961).

He died of a heart attack in his home sauna last Wednesday -- just nine days after celebrating his 65th birthday. Titov was one of the Vostok 6, if you will. His comrades included Andrian Nickolaev, Pavel Popovich, Valery Bykovski, Valentia Tereshkova and -- of course -- the first man to cross the threshold of the final frontier: Yuri Gagarin

Because of whom they worked for, they were not made into stars like their Mercury 7 counterparts in the Land of the Free. Life magazine didn't pay for living room access to their families during launches. They didn't get any free Corvettes. And Tom Wolfe never wrote any sort of stuff about them. In fact, they conducted their heroics under a tight veil of secrecy. The world only heard about their successes after they were signed, sealed and certified as such by the Politburo.

Titov  

And aside from Gagarin and Tereshkova (the first woman in space -- by several furlongs), the great Soviet Propaganda Machine never turned them into communist icons.

The story here is that Titov was the favored candidate inside the Soviet space program to be the first to fly. But when it came time to make the choice, the Kremlin opted for Gagarin because of his humble "peasant" roots -- making him a better specimen of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. In short, it was spin -- and not the sort pilots try to avoid -- that put Gagarin in Vostok Numero Uno.

The wake was held at a military museum in Moscow. A brilliant, cloudless, cobalt blue sky served as the incongruous backdrop for the dirges and the tears. Cosmonauts, ground controllers and engineers -- past and present -- were all here to pay their respects. Andrian Nickolaev (who proceeded Titov in Vostok 3) stood ashen before the open casket, tears streaming down his face. There was a lot of talk about heroism, triumph and days of glory -- and then the cortege lumbered past, carrying a gaudy display of flowers and, on small red pillows, each of two-dozen medals Titov wore with his full dress uniform.

It's only been a few years since the rest of the world fully understood what happened during those Vostok flights. Titov logged 17 orbits during a 24-hour mission. He carried a movie camera with 10 minutes of film to shoot the world as it passed beneath him -- while TV and film cameras looked back on him. As it turns out, those cameras may not have recorded such a pretty picture -- Titov later admitted he endured a sustained bout of nausea, making him the first to go on record with a malady now known as Space Adaptation Sickness. Of course, none of this was told to the world at the time.

Also omitted from the propaganda pitch: that Titov, like all of his Vostok comrades, did not actually land inside his spacecraft. After re-entering the atmosphere, they all ejected from their capsules, floating to Earth under their own parachutes. This was a ticklish subject for the Soviets. The official repository of aviation records -- the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) -- does not officially recognize aviation feats unless the pilot completes the benchmark mission inside his/her air/spacecraft. When asked about landing specifics, the early cosmonauts were ordered to be vague.

Titov died a card-carrying member of the Communist Party (Party leader Gennady Zyuganov was in attendance at the wake). He probably thought the Soviet Union treated him well. Perhaps he was nostalgic for those heady days of risk and reward. If so, he was not alone. The tears here today were for a faded era -- as well as a dead hero of that time.

It seems second place is no place to be for nations as well.

Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien is a regular columist for CNN.com.



RELATED STORIES:
Glenn final winner of space race
October 27, 1998
Apollo-Soyuz: a giant leap in cooperation
July 17, 2000
Interview: Gierman Titov

RELATED SITES:
Radio observations of Vostok 5 and 6
Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI)

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