Today in 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to venture into space. The story about the man, however, is equally interesting.
On April 12, 1961, 27-year-old Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made history when he became the first man in space. Travelling at a speed of around 27,400 kilometres per hour and reaching a maximum height of 327 kilometres, he completed one full orbit of the Earth and landed back on the ground 108 minutes later. The descent wasn’t smooth because the craft didn’t have much capacity to slow down on re-entry, but Gagarin ejected from the Vostok 1 module parachuting safely back to terra firma.
This was an epic moment in human history. A human being had been blasted into orbit and returned home unharmed. Gagarin went up a pilot/cosmonaut and came back a national hero, a worldwide celebrity, a Russian superstar. He was cheered by hundreds of thousands of people in Moscow’s Red Square, interviewed by international media, mobbed by crowds wherever he went. He was feted by the Communist Party as the embodiment of Soviet accomplishment and glory. Streets were named to recognise his achievement and he was awarded the country’s top honours.
This was all quite overwhelming for the young man. The son of farm workers, he’d lived through the Nazi occupation when Russians suffered many deprivations, watched as family members were hauled off to labour camps, and scrounged for food. He’d had a modest upbringing and decided in his teens to enrol in a technical college. Yuri later transferred to pilot training. He had a strong work ethic and a desire to do his best and he made his first solo flight in 1957. In 1960 he joined the space program.
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When the technology was ready to send a man into orbit, it was Gagarin’s humble roots that secured him the honour of becoming the first person in space. It’s said that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who had himself grown up on a farm, wanted a farm boy to make this historic mission, cognisant of the public appeal of an ordinary young man who’d grown up outside the big cities.
The suddenness and intensity of celebrity took its toll on Gagarin. He was sent around the world as the face of Soviet success. He met world leaders, famous actors and musicians, was interviewed by leading journalists; he was an icon, the world’s darling. His affability endeared him to all who met him – he was smiling, quietly spoken, optimistic about the future, a perfect ambassador for all that was good about the Soviet Union.
But his travels eventually came to an end and Gagarin suffered a massive let down. Media attention had died down and not wanting to risk the life of their hero, government officials were reluctant to send him on more missions. Depressed and feeling useless, Gagarin developed a strong liking for alcohol and soon became known for engaging in risky behaviour including one time when he jumped off a hotel balcony, fracturing his skull.
Eventually he returned to flying duties; he trained other Soviet cosmonauts and became involved in spacecraft design. He was also selected as the backup pilot for the Soyuz mission, designed to reach the Moon.
Gagarin, however, wasn’t destined for the Moon. Not quite seven years after his historic journey into space, Gagarin was dead, killed in routine test flight along with another pilot Vladimir Seryogin. At the time, pilot error was given as one possible cause of the fatal accident.
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That a highly experienced fighter pilot who had served in the Soviet air force before joining the space program could lose control of his plane was unthinkable so inevitably a slew of conspiracy theories sprang up about his death. Among such theories were that Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev ordered Gagarin’s death because he envied the cosmonaut’s popularity and when the file investigating the accident was later opened and was seen to be marked top secret, those rumours gained a great deal of traction. Other theories included that Gagarin had been whisked away to a psychiatric hospital, or that he’d been poisoned by American agents, or that he’d been intoxicated while flying.
More recent investigations have concluded that another larger plane misjudged its altitude and flew too close to Gagarin’s plane forcing it into a deadly spiral. It was no conspiracy, but an unfortunate accident that took the life of the 34-year-old national hero.
Russians were devastated at the loss of their champion and thousands of people lined the streets as his military funeral procession made its way to the Kremlin. Mourners included government members, other cosmonauts, his widow Valentina and their two daughters. Gagarin’s ashes were interred in the Kremlin wall and in 1968, shortly after his death, his home town Gzhatsk was renamed Gagarin in his honour.
To us, space travel almost seems workaday. We admire astronauts; we’re amazed at the work produced by telescopes and space stations, but we’re no longer glued to the screen to watch their exploits. We rely on satellites for communication, for television signals, to provide weather and climate information, to predict and monitor natural disasters and to find out more about the galaxy we inhabit. There are so many man-made objects in the sky now – NASA puts the figure at more than 500,000.
Now take a moment to reflect that 57 years ago in April 1961, when the Vostok 1 carrying its human cargo – Yuri Gagarin – blasted into the heavens, it was the very first. No one will ever top that particular achievement.