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Welcome comrade, to the authoritarian world of pre-war Soviet Union…

Lenningrad, 1933 a young aeronautical engineer Sergei Korolev works in a rocket lab. 4 years later, his childhood dream is to be put on hold as Stalin begins his great ‘purge’.

A gulag re-education camp in deepest Siberia… an odd place to start a graphic novel that celebrates a man who will later put Yuri Gagarin, the world’s first spaceman into orbit. Prisoner NI442 is stuck in a special hell for scientists, engineers and intellectuals. His extraordinary story is just beginning…

This book may be about Yuri Gagarin and mankind’s first journey into space, but none of that would have been possible without the extraordinary figure of Korolev, the engineer who brought the whole system into being.

I find it very hard to express what I feel about Korolev. The only way to do it really, is to tell his story. It is a tale so staggering it is hard to comprehend. It is not just the personal hardships and triumphs he saw, it is the way he took perhaps the greatest gamble in the history of mankind – to play along with the development of the Cold War, and nuclear missiles, in order to fulfil the dream of his generation of aerospace engineers: manned spaceflight.

Human destiny was at a crossroads: Global annihilation through nuclear war, or the dazzling possibility of a future in space. Korolev stood at that crossroads he had himself helped to build, and tossed a coin – making sure it landed his way. I can think of no-one else who played such a game with history. Heads or tails: Planet Earth, or the stars.

Some people don’t like books and movies with narrators. I do, especially at the beginning. I imagine the words printed in the black shape of Korolev’s outline being spoken in a rich, dark voice, perhaps with a hint of echo, perhaps with the wind sighing among the girders of the rocket gantry.

I made the girder a little abstract in a ‘tip of the hat’ to the drawings and posters of the Russian constructivist architects of the 1920’s, whose work the real gantry resembles. I made Korolev a dark shadow, because during the Cold War he was a state secret – and because we haven’t got to know him yet. I made the ground very far away because heights scare me. This was a man who faced down terrors in pursuit of his dreams.

The train is tiny, which enables me to leave out a few details. Even so, I spent a long time studying pictures and diagrams. I know what train lovers can be like – I am one. I hope I got it more or less right.

Welcome to Baikonur. Welcome, to the most extraordinary story ever told.

The Baikonur launch site in Khazakstan was top secret. Even its name and location were deceptive. It is actually located at a place called Tyuratam, several miles away front the town of Baikonur - a confusion that persists to this day. This photo, taken by an American U2 spy plane, clearly shows the long shadow of a rocket on its gantry, and the huge flame-pit for the exhaust gases released at launch.