Here’s the Russian Ritual That Ensures a Safe Space Flight

5 minute read

If you’re going to travel into space, the only way these days is courtesy of the Russians. And if you’re going to travel to space courtesy of the Russians, the only way is to stop by and see Yuri Gagarin first. And so the next crew that will travel to the International Space Station did just that on Feb. 26.

It has been a long, long time since anyone has seen Yuri Gagarin in person, though the world saw him all the time in parades and on reviewing stands after he became the first human being in space on April 12, 1961. Gagarin’s story was not, as it turned out, destined to end well. The man who could ride at the top of a 13-story rocket, circle the Earth at 17,500 mph (28,163 k/h) and parachute out of his spacecraft at an altitude of 4.3 mi (7 km) during reentry, would ultimately lose his life in a routine flight of a routine jet, during a routine training run in 1968.

Long before Gagarin died, it had been determined that whenever his end did come, he would be cremated and his ashes interred in the Kremlin wall, along with other notables including Josef Stalin, Maxim Gorky, and Sergei Korolev, the great designer of early Soviet rockets who was once known to the world only as The Great Designer. Not long after Gagarin found his way to the wall, it became customary for crews preparing to leave for space via the Baikonur Cosmodrome—no matter their nationality—to stop by before they go and lay a flower each under both Gagarin’s and Korolev’s plaques.

Watch Live: Astronauts Return to Earth After a Year in Space

On Friday it was the turn of cosmonauts Aleksey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka and NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams, who will lift-off aboard a Soyuz rocket on March 18 for a six month stay aboard the International Space Station. It was windy, gray and very cold when the astronauts’ buss pulled into Red Square in mid-afternoon and both the prime crew and their three back-ups—along with officials from NASA and Roscomos, the Russian space agency—piled out.

A crowd gathered—a small one; and some phone cameras flashed—a few. The horde of official photographers, however, outnumbered the tourists and the locals, whose attention was drawn more by the Christmas fair and carousel still operating in the square. Also competing for attention on the opposite side of the cobblestone plaza was the sprawling and elegant GUM department store, which, in Soviet times, was the sprawling and dreary GUM department store. (The GUM acronym stands for Glávnyj Universálnij Magazin, or, in the Soviets’ prosaic phrasing, “main universal store.”)

But never mind the faint attention of the passersby. Gagarin, who stood just 5-foot-2 (1.57 m), remains a towering figure in Russia, his face on statues, commemorative coins, wall murals and mosaics—a tribute as much to the man himself as to the space program that, in 1961, could do nothing wrong—and respects are paid according to tradition.

There are no words in the pre-flight flower-laying ritual. Each member of the prime crew gets a single red carnation and steps forward at the wall plaques. Each member pauses a quiet moment there—thinking whatever thoughts nationality and history and personal sentiment inspire. Then the back-up crew follows—since whatever protective magic the little ceremony summons will be needed if any one of them must step in and fly at the last moment.

The wall ritual is of a piece with the one that will take place later at Baikonur, when the crews walk the row of trees planted by every astronaut or cosmonaut who has ever taken off from the facility before. Gagarin’s tree, as the first and oldest, is also the biggest.

Scott Kelly and Misha Kornienko, who will be returning on March 1 from their year in space, along with cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, observed both traditions before they went aloft, along with one more, originated by Gagarin himself. On his way to the pad on that celebrated day 45 years ago, the first man in space was seized by a need that even cosmonauts can’t ignore, so he hopped out of the van, unzipped his space suit and relieved himself against one tire.

To this day, any astronaut or cosmonaut from any country will do the same thing at the same moment—and that includes the women, if they choose, who will take care to bring a small squeeze vial of their own urine with them for the occasion. Space flight has always been a thing of narrow margins. If a little ritual can help you widen one even a little—if only by making you feel you’ve checked every possible box—you’d be a fool not to observe it.

TIME has been following the year-long mission of cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko and American astronaut Scott Kelly, in a video series that can be viewed here. A YEAR IN SPACE, a documentary film by TIME and PBS, premieres Wednesday, March 2 at 8 p.m. E.T. on PBS.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Jeffrey Kluger/Moscow at