Yuri Gagarin: First man in space
April 12 2021 marks 60 years since the Soviet Union
sent the first cosmonaut into space
Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, one of the founding fathers of astronautics, maintained that the first manned space flight would take place no earlier than 2017.
As he addressed the festive May 1 procession in Moscow’s Red Square in 1935 with a message of greeting in a live broadcast, Tsiolkovsky said: “In the Soviet Union we have many young flight enthusiasts – children who are fond of making flying models and building gliders and young people flying airplanes. There are tens of thousands of them in our country. They fuel my boldest hopes. They will help my discoveries materialise and train talented builders of the first interplanetary vehicle.”
A remarkable prophecy it was. Yuri Gagarin, who at that moment was a little more than 12 months old, would begin his aviation career as an amateur maker of aircraft models. Later, he would join an air club, then become a cadet at a school of military pilots, and eventually start flying fighter-planes… Tsiolkovsky was wrong only in one respect. The first manned space flight followed 56 years earlier than he had anticipated.
“The Russian troika is a legend, but will it be able to take you into outer space at least in 100 years from now?” A question like that is said to have been addressed to the Soviet delegation at a news conference of the International Astronautical Federation’s congress in Copenhagen in 1954.
In the meantime the Soviet Union was already making plans for the construction of the Baikonur space site in Kazakhstan. In February 1955, the Defense Ministry made a decision to create a test site for experiments with space rocket technologies. Two years later the world’s first-ever inter-continental ballistic rocket R-7 was launched successfully there.
From that moment on the events gained momentum with every passing day.
In 1959, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite to have heralded the start of a space race with the United States.In 1959, a Soviet interplanetary probe became the first man-made device to have reached the Moon.And in 1960, two test dogs, Belka and Strelka, returned back to Earth after a 25-hour orbital flight.
The United States, too, was hurrying with preparations for the first manned orbital mission.In October 1959 seven astronauts who at the moment were in the process of training for the first manned space programme Mercury wrote a memorandum with a proposal for establishing contact with their Soviet counterparts, NASA’s chief historian William Burry told TASS. The memo was signed by the members of the first space team: Scott Carpenter, Leroy Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard and Donald Slayton. The reasons behind their idea were not altruistic at all, but purely pragmatic ones: at meetings with Soviet counterparts they might obtain valuable information about the Soviet space programme.
The memo’s signatories argued that the United States would hardly have anything to lose, because almost all details of the project Mercury were already well-known and received detailed media coverage. On the other hand, they said, the Russian space program was classified and any information they might obtain would be dramatically new.That initiative met with no support from NASA or the White House. The Soviet Union, too, was unlikely to pull the veil of secrecy from anything that concerned preparations for putting a man in space. Even those selected for the first group of cosmonauts realised what they were being trained for only after a long while.
In the spring of 1960, 20 trainees were put on the list of the first team of cosmonauts. And in the summer of the same year six candidates for the first flight were selected: Yuri Gagarin, German Titov, Andriyan Nikolayev, Pavel Popovich, Grigory Nelyubov and Valery Bykovsky.
The cosmonauts were to undergo a series of tests to prove they were apt for a still non-existent profession. It is not romantics for the sake of romantics that should provide the groundwork for a final decision when the selection of the first Soviet cosmonauts is in progress. Space rejects such people. Patriotism, bravery, modesty, ability to instantly make sound decisions, willpower of iron, knowledge and love towards other people – these should be the basic traits of character.The experts and examiners had to take into account a variety of factors: pace of work, emotionality, nature of mistakes, and the degree of self-criticism. Great importance was attached to such quality as temperament. For instance, it was maintained that melancholic types were no good for space missions. Gagarin was identified as a sanguine.
On April 8, Yuri Gagarin was appointed the main pilot. The Vostok spacecraft blasted off from the Baikonur space site at 09:07 Moscow time on April 12.The flight lasted 108 minutes. The spacecraft orbited the Earth once.
At 10:02 Moscow time TASS wired the report of the first manned space flight. Three versions of the report had been prepared in advance: one was to be used in case of the cosmonaut’s death; the other would report an emergency and crash landing, and the third declaring the Soviet Union’s success. It was the latter version that was circulated around the world one hour after blastoff.
On the same day, April 12, the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party and the Soviet government issued a message to the world. In part, it said: “The Soviet Union was the first to have launched an inter-continental ballistic missile, to put a satellite in space, to send a space probe to the Moon, to create the first artificial satellite of the Sun and to launch a space probe towards Venus … The triumphant flight of a Soviet man in a spaceship around the Earth crowns our achievements in space exploration.”
Gagarin’s flight was a world sensation. All mass media around the world gave it front-page coverage and discussed it at length in editorials and comments. And national radio stations were broadcasting reports about the first manned space flight non-stop.
Alongside some details of Gagarin’s historical flight the Soviet leadership’s message contained a call for peace and an end to the arms race.During his international tour, which is sometimes referred to as the Peace Mission, Gagarin visited more than 30 countries, from Czechoslovakia to Japan, where he was received at the highest level.
For instance, his trip to Great Britain at the invitation of the Foundry Workers’ Union resulted in a meeting with the Queen: “I had breakfast in Buckingham palace. Imagine! The Queen received me well. She was very friendly and kind. We discussed the weather, space and impressions. I presented the Queen with a book. She looked very glad to have it. And she presented me with a family photograph in return.”
Contemporaries were curious how Gagarin managed to cope with so many duties. He was a member of the USSR Supreme Soviet (national legislature), President of the USSR-Cuba Friendship Society, and a representative of many commissions. Also, he managed to keep training for flights, instruct other crews, attend business conferences at design bureaus, visit industrial plants, study and spend time with the family.
Gagarin was very anxious about not seeing his name on the lists of future space crews. The Soviet leadership was reluctant to put at risk a man who was the symbol of victory in the space race. In the end, the worst happened, though. On March 27, 1968 Gagarin died in an air crash during a training flight.
After that his wife was given the letter her husband had written back in 1961, two days before his historical space voyage:
“I have the full trust in our technology. But sometimes a person may stumble on a flat floor and break one’s neck. If something happens, don’t be dead with grief. Take care of our girls. Bring them up to be decent people, not work-shy loafers. Arrange your own life the way you’ll feel fit… This letter of mine looks somewhat sad, doesn’t it? I do hope you’ll never see it…”
In August 1968, Gagarin was to address the UN Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space with a report on cosmonauts’ professional activity. Death intervened. Aleksey Leonov took Gagarin’s place to represent the Soviet Union. The range of topics discussed included the outlook for space exploration, future manned flights, exploration of the Moon and many other ambitious ideas. Over the past 60 years many dreams have materialised; the first spacewalk, the first man on the Moon, prolonged space missions and launches of probes towards other planets.
By 2021, hundreds of people have been in space.Three countries (Russia, the United States and China) have their own capabilities to accomplish manned space missions.However, any trip in space remains a highly risky affair. Over the 60 years since Gagarin’s flight, the Soviet Union lost four cosmonauts, the United States 16 astronauts, and Israel, one. The effects of zero gravity and of space radiation on the human body remain largely unclear.
Yet humanity will go ahead with its quest for new discoveries and for conquering outer space. As some researchers indicate, humanity’s underlying motives are not confined to scientists’ curiosity.
This year, on April 12 the whole world has celebrated a truly remarkable event, the 60th anniversary of the first manned flight into space. The significance of this breakthrough into near-earth space cannot be overestimated.
Yuri Gagarin continues to be a model of heroism and dedication for billions of people around the world; he continues to inspire people to take on any obstacle and achieve the most ambitious and noble goals. It is no coincidence that 10 years ago, the UN General Assembly declared April 12 as the International Day of Human Space Flight, at Russia’s initiative.