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1961: a space odyssey ~ Yuri Gagarin, the first man to leave and come back to Earth

April 12, 2011

Starman: Yuri Gagarin, Mother Russia and the world’s first space-traveller-hero – after his exploits he did indeed like to come and meet us (in many crowds) because he blew our minds

Back in the day, as far as the United States was concerned and much to its chagrin, those pesky Ruskies managed to beat them to several firsts. Of the two, at the end of WWII the USSR was the first to enter Berlin, it was the first to launch a satellite that left the earth and, yes, it was the first to hold the Olympics (Moscow 1980 beat the Los Angeles event by just four short years). Mind you, what perhaps really stuck in the Yanks’ throats and, thus, so publicly fuelled the flames of the Cold War, is the fact that, 50 years ago this very day, the Soviet Union became the first of the two to put an actual man into space.

That man, of course, was Yuri Gagarin. A name that surely has so fundamentally gone down in the annals of history it’s as instantly recognisable as those of Alexander the Great, Bill Shakespeare and Casanova. Oh, and Neil Armstrong, of course. For, let’s not kid ourselves, Gagarin’s achievement (and that of his important collaborators) is among the most extraordinary the human race has ever pulled off. In 1903, the Wright Brothers made the first powered human air-flight; just 58 years later, thanks to a heady mix of scientific and mathematical genius, heavy industry, a nuclear arms race and global and ideological rivalry, Gagarin became the first human being to be powered beyond the Earth itself.

Ю́рий Алексе́евич Гага́рин (or, in the Latin alphabet, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin) was a good Soviet to the core. He was born on March 9 1934 in a village near the town of Gzhatsk (now renamed, yes, Gagarin) in Smolensk Oblast, Russia. His parents both worked on a ‘collective farm’ – although one might officially refer to them as peasants, his father was a skilled carpenter and his mother an avid reader, perhaps suggesting the success of their son shouldn’t be regarded as such an enormous surprise. During the Nazi invasion of Russia in World War Two, a German officer occupied the Gagarin house forcing the family to live in a shed; meanwhile, Yuri’s two older siblings were deported to Germany as slave labour and didn’t return until after the war’s end.

Two men and their dog: Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (left) and Sergei Korolev (middle), the geniuses behind the USSR’s space programme, the latter had spent six years imprisoned during Stalin’s Great Purge; Laika the stray from Moscow (right) was sadly to endure a much worse fate

Despite these family setbacks, the young Yuri quickly became interested in air-travel, space and planets and studied for a year at a vocational technical school, then moved on to a technical high school where he joined its ‘Aero Club’ and learned to fly a light aircraft. In 1955 he entered military training at Orenburg Pilots’ School, where he met Valentina Goryacheva – two years later they married and he earned his ‘pilot’s wings’ in a MiG-15 jet. He then moved to an airbase near the Norwegian border, being made a Lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force; in 1959 he made the rank of Senior Lieutenant. Over the years he’d also become a keen sportsman, especially enjoying playing ice hockey as a goalkeeper and playing and teaching basketball.

Gagarin was selected to join the Soviet space programme along with 19 other pilots in 1960. The programe itself, though, had been in existence long before then. In fact, it could be said its beginnings preceded the United States’ by some decades. The theory behind putting a Russian in space can be traced back to scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who as far back as the 1920s and ’30s had conceived designs for space stations, airlocks and closed-cycle biological systems for space colonies. His baton was carried by Sergei Korolev, who would prove himself the USSR’s lead rocket and spacecraft designer.

Under Stalin, the Soviets’ space programme was always tied to his great industrial Five Year Plans; as such, it didn’t really exist, the primary focus back then was to produce better and better missiles carrying nuclear warheads, as the USSR and the USA were locked together in a frightening arms race. This, however, changed in 1955, two years after Stalin’s death, when the USA announced its intention to launch a space satellite. This was right up Korolev’s alley, who as an avid follower of Tsiolkovsky’s work and having harboured dreams of sending humans to Mars, was put in charage of developing a Soviet satellite by new leader Nikita Kruschev. The result was the Sputnik satellites, the first of which was launched on October 4 1957. Beating an American launch into space, Sputnik 1 proved a major propaganda coup for the USSR and prompted the launch one month later of Sputnik 2. This wasn’t a repeat, though; no, this satellite contained a passenger – yes, the first living thing to leave the Earth, a dog named Laika.

Before, during and after: the launch of Vostok 1 on top of its rocket (l); an imagined illustration of the spacecraft in orbit (m); Vostok 1 after landing, its parachute trailing behind (r)

Now world famous, Laika’s tale is, of course, a sad one. Tragically, her fate always was to die – Sputnik 2 wasn’t designed to be retrievable. At the time, the public was told she was euthanised due to oxygen depletion. In reality, as was admitted in 2002, it’s far more likely poor, little Laika’s life was extinguished owing to the cabin overheating. Either way, one could argue that Laika’s sacrifice was necessary for space science research – before she became the world’s first creature in space, nobody knew whether a living thing could survive a launch and endure weightlessness, which she certainly did as she expired during the craft’s fourth orbit of the Earth. Having said that, though, Sputnik 2 scientist Oleg Gazenko has since claimed: “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it… we did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog”.

Three years later, of course, it was Yuri’s turn. Along with his other 19 rivals for the historic launch, he underwent physical and psychological testing, the results of which – as well as the fact that at 5′ 2″ he would have little trouble in the spacecraft’s cramped cockpit – saw him make it down to the last two along with Gherman Titov (who would become the second man in space). Eventually, Gagarin was chosen over Titov because he was considered both more psychologically and politically reliable.

Voskok 1 took off at 6:07am UTC/ GMT from lanch site No. 1 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the desert steppes of Kazakhstan – Gagarin exclaimed: “Poyekhali” (“Off we go!”). Ten minutes later, he left the Earth’s atmosphere and entered orbit, as Vostok 1 separated from its rocket. It’s believed that he spent a total of 108 minutes in the spacecraft following the launch, as he made one orbit of the Earth, passing over the Soviet Union, then the Pacific Ocean, tracing the bottom of South America, over the Atlantic Ocean, Africa and then back over the USSR. As he descended during re-entry, Gagarin experienced around 8g (g-force), but remained conscious.

Pressing the flesh: Yuri Gagarin after his successful flight meeting USSR premier Nikita Kruschev (l), Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro (m) and the capitalist crowds of Manchester (r)

Then, still 7km from the ground, the craft’s hatch opened automatically (Yuri hadn’t operated anything inside his capsule throughout, but in case of an emergency he apparently could have had some control) and he ejected out and parachuted down to Earth, landing after another 10 minutes south-west of the town of Engels in Saratov Oblast. A farmer and his daughter watched Gagarin land, about which he recalled: “When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!”.

By making Gagarin their first human guinea pig in space, the Soviet authorities had chosen well. Not just because he kept perfectly calm throughout (unlike Korolev, who apparently was a bag of nerves), but because following the event he proved the perfect propaganda tool. Although, as noted, a short man, he was also handsome and possessed a grin the size of St. Petersburg – and as a textbook Soviet, he was pliant as anything when paraded before the authority’s cameras, the world’s press and the public everywhere. He immediately and unsurprisingly became a global phenomenon, appearing before crowds not just in Moscow and elsewhere in the Soviet Union, but also in Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada, Finland and, believe it or not, the United Kingdom. Despite the British government’s reservations, just three short months after his spaceflight he appeared in public in both London and Manchester, going down a storm in the latter city in particular, where the working class Mancunians went, er, mad fer him.

As with all great stories though, there’s a twist in this tale. A year after the event that defined his life, he was made a deputy to the Supreme  Soviet of the Soviet Union (the USSR’s highest legislative body) and was made Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force, then was promoted to Colonel in 1963. Inevitably, perhaps, he returned to the space programme and helped design reusable spacecraft, as well as becoming deputy training director at the Star City cosmonaut training base. Protective of their asset though, the Soviet authorities eventually banned him from piloting another spacecraft.

Print rival: the American press reaction to Gagarin’s adventure in space – Time magazine from April 21 1961 (left) and a regional paper from Alabama published on April 12 1961 (right)

This proved a prescient move, for having decided to requalify as a fighter pilot, on March 27 1968 Yuri was killed on a routine training flight along with his instructor. The cause of the crash has always been controversial, but it seems that neither was Gagarin responsible nor was there any hint of someone trying to bump him off. Who would have wanted to anyway? He was a huge hero of the Soviet Union and, arguably, as big a hero of the rest of the world. Anyway, the death at only 34 years-old of one who had (literally) flown so high, seems to my mind truly tragic; more tragic surely than the deaths of the similarly young James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and, yes, Princess Diana. I mean, did any of them do anything close to what Yuri did, really? Rightly so, Russia mourns his passing to this day.

Like all great legends, though, the memory of Gagarin has lived far beyond his death. His legacy is, well, first and foremost arguably every cosmonaut and astronaut who has followed him. Perhaps more pertinently, though, Yuri’s space flight ensured that President John F Kennedy (elected in January 1961) pushed the USA’s non-Earthbound ambitions up the list of priorities; something he did reluctantly, having preferred to spend tax dollars on domestic issues – in April 1963 he told a reporter: “Don’t you think I would rather spend these billions on… health and education and welfare?”. Without Gagarin’s achievement there would have been no ‘We choose to go to the Moon’ speech from Kennedy; quite simply, there probably wouldn’t have been a man on the Moon. Or, at least, not as soon as just nine years later. Gagarin’s achievement then changed the course of the Cold War and the course of world history.

So, if any is, today is Yuri’s day (indeed, it’s officially referred to as Yuri’s Night) and 50 years since he achieved his highly impressive, nay arguably mind-boggling feat, the man himself is surely deserving of celebrating. I suggest we all raise a glass to good old, grinning Gagarin (and share a sad thought for little Laika too) – I certainly will, so long as I can find that bottle of vodka I had hanging around. Na zdorovie, Yuri.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 19, 2013 5:39 pm

    I’m surprised to see an article as passionate as this one. This article that must be printed in any famous magazine or newspaper. Yes, I do think that it is, first of all, an article, and not a “blog post”

    I’m surprised to see a non-Russian person who expressed his best feelings about a Russian legend Юрий Гагарин and about an event that was Russian, but contributed to all mankind.

    Every word in this article you wrote is true. And the truth is unique.

    That’s why it makes us humans so emotional.

    I wish you all the best, foreigner.

    I never thought I could adress those words to a non-Russian person. Simply because I don’t usually care or think about non-Russians, and sometimes I feel annoyed by the fact that non-Russian nations exist.

    Всего тебе хорошего.

    И если ты веришь в бога (я то не верю, но вдруг ты сам веришь), то храни тебя господь.


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