THIS very day 50 years ago (12 April 1961), humanity witnessed what at the time was its greatest achievement. Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin had just become the first human to travel into space and orbit the Earth in his rocket, Vostok 1.Gagarin was born in the village of Klushino near Gzhatsk, Soviet Union (what is now Smolensk Oblast, Russia) to collective farm workers Alexey and Anna Gagarin on 9 March 1934. During the Nazi occupation of the U.S.S.R. the Gagarin house was taken over by a German officer and the family had to live in a small mud hut for 21 months. While his parents worked, young Yuri was raised by his elder sister. His two other siblings were forced into Nazi slave labour in 1943 but survived and returned home after the war.
Gagarin soon became interested in space and the planets, and often dreamt about spaceflight. He joined the Soviet air force and was soon qualified to fly light aircraft. He met his wife, Valentina Goryacheva, while he was earning his pilot’s wings which he got in a MiG-15. He became a Lieutenant just over a month after Sputnik 1 (Soviet) became the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth and only two days after Laika (again Soviet) became the first animal in space. By 1959 he had risen to the rank of Senior Lieutenant.
One year later Gagarin was chosen along with 19 other pilots to be in the Soviet Space Programme. Spaceflight became one step closer when he was selected to be a member of the Sochi Six, from which the first cosmonauts for the Vostok programme would be chosen. Gagarin made the final two along with Gherman Titov*.The pair had both performed well in training and their height (or rather lack of, Gagarin was only 5ft 2in or 157cm tall) meant that they could easily fit into the cramped Vostok capsule. But Gagarin also had the support of his peers. When asked to vote in secret for who they thought should pilot Vostok 1, all but three of the 20 trainee cosmonauts chose Gagarin.
Finally, he was chosen to become the first ever cosmonaut. For his name, immortality beckoned.
On the morning of 12 April 1961, Gagarin and Titov (his backup) were woken at around 5:30am and had breakfast as per normal. The night before after the final pre-flight checks the two of them relaxed like any other men. They listened to music, played pool and talked about their childhoods. They were then transported to the launch site at the Baikonur Cosmodrome (now known as Gagarin’s Start in modern day Kazakhstan). Gagarin himself was extremely calm before take-off while others around him fretted like it was going out of fashion. Just 30 minutes before launch his heart rate was just 64 beats per minute.Vostok 1 launched at 06:07 UTC. “Poyekhali!” or “Off we go!” shouted Gagarin as he headed into the annals of history. The single orbit itself lasted 108 minutes with a top speed of 17,400-mph at an altitude of 187.7 miles. During his flight he was promoted to major in the air force. In his post-flight report Gagarin wrote: “The feeling of weightlessness was somewhat unfamiliar compared with Earth conditions. Here, you feel as if you were hanging in a horizontal position in straps. You feel as if you are suspended.” Shortly before re-entry Gagarin calmed the fears of those on the ground by telling Moscow: “I read you well.” But the re-entry was the most dangerous part of the flight. He wasn’t out of the woods yet by any stretch of the imagination. After a slight hic-cup over North Africa (the spacecraft hadn’t separated properly – wires were holding it in one piece) Vostok 1 split in two and Gagarin was left in the capsule experiencing around 8-10g – more than twice what a Formula 1 driver experiences.
At 07:55 UTC and 7km above ground, Gagarin ejected and free-fell until he was 2.5km from the surface when the he opened his parachute. Two schoolgirls described the capsule landing scene: “It was a huge ball, about two or three meters high. It fell, then it bounced and then it fell again. There was a huge hole where it hit the first time.”When Gagarin eventually landed south west of Engels in Saratov, the first people who came across him were a farmer and her daughter. According to Gagarin himself: “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!”
After the flight Gagarin became an international celebrity. He was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union (the U.S.S.R.’s highest honour) along with numerous other international awards. He went to many countries around the world to promote the Soviet Union which included: Italy, Germany, Canada, Brazil, Japan, Finland and Great Britain. It is said he fondly remembered his trip to Manchester in particular.
Tragically on 27 March 1968, Gagarin was killed along with his flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin when their MiG-15UTI crashed near the town of Kirzhach. Their ashes were buried in the walls of the Kremlin in Red Square. Very recent declassified documents state that the cause of the crash was the plane being manoeuvred sharply by either Gagarin or Seryogin in order to avoid a weather balloon or entry into cloud cover.
Gagarin is still widely celebrated in Russia to this day. 12 April is both Cosmonautics Day in Russia and Yuri’s Night around the world. Today, the golden anniversary of his flight, events are taking place all over the world, with a 50-gun salute in Moscow. This is just my small tribute to him.
Since his pioneering flight, over 500 men and women from 38 different countries have gone into space. Hopefully one day I’ll join the club (if I can afford it) and if I do I’ll be thinking of Gagarin, and what it must have felt like to be the first man ever to leave our safe little blue world.
*Titov became the second man in space in August 1961 aboard Vostok 2. He was the first person to spend a day in space, sleep in space and suffer from space sickness (motion sickness in space).
“Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever.” – Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Father of rocketry.