Yuri Gagarin, Soviet cosmonaut, paved the way for space exploration and truly went where no man had been before. He was the first human in space, Sinead McNicholl tells his story.
Gagarin’s triumphant 108 minute flight into space is one of the pivotal events of the 20th Century. It opened up the idea that humans could be successfully launched into space opening the possibility than one day civilisation might spread to the stars. It can be claimed that his flight intensified America’s Apollo plans which would one day see man land on the Moon! Yuri Gagarin essentially stepped into what was described as a tin can on top of a bomb! Since April 2011 will see the 50th Anniversary of this special flight, I decided to look at the man who volunteered to go into the unknown.
The date is March 9, 1934, in Klushino, a village 100 miles from the Capital in Moscow in what was then the Soviet Union (now Russia). Little do the small inhabitants know that a child, born to collective farm workers on this day, will make their village famous as he will be the first man to be sent into space! Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was the third of four children and from a young age had a fascination with space and the planets.
In school he was particularly interested in physics and mathematics and went on to train as a technician leaving in 1951 as an educated metal worker. He then enrolled in an industrial school in Saratov where he became interested in aircraft and started taking flying lessons during his fourth year there. 1955 marked the year of his first solo flight. The young Yuri seemed to have a natural talent for flying and whilst graduating from industrial school had at the same time reached his dream of being able to fly a plane.
After graduating, Gagarin decided to join the Soviet Air Force, training at the Orenburg Aviation School where he learned to fly MiG’s and other combat aircraft. It was here that he realised his potential in the air, it was also the place that a chance meeting at a dance would lead him to his future wife, Valentina Ivanovna Goryacheva. In November 1957 Yuri gained his flying wings with top honours from Orenburg becoming a lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force, he was 23 years old. It was also on this same day that he married Valentina.
After graduating, Gagarin was assigned to flying duties, but he had set his sights on the dream that he would one day go into space. He closely followed the Soviet’s space program and decided in 1959 to submit a request to be considered for Cosmonaut training. He was of course approved. Yuri was now a father to his first child, Lenochka, with Valentina, and together the family moved to Star City. Star City was a then highly secret complex built just for the cosmonauts outside Moscow. Many Russian cosmonauts, both past and present, still live in Star City with their families. The facility today has its own post office, school, shops, cinema, leisure centre, train station, and a museum of space travel and human exploration.
Cosmonaut training was tough physically, mentally and also psychologically. Experiments with weightlessness, heat endurance, stress tests and having to spend long periods of time in a sensory deprivation chamber made it difficult. But Gagarin’s trainers reported him as being a top achiever with a calm persona whilst always having a sense of humour. Perhaps he was calm and relaxed as he was nearing his dream of going to space; this is what he wanted to do! To relax Yuri loved the great outdoors and would often go swimming and fishing. He was also a keen hunter and loved camping, and like many young men, he loved fast cars!
His training was building him up to what would be a key moment for space exploration. On April 9, 1961, Gagarin learned that he had been chosen to be the first man to be sent to space with the official public announcement coming on April 11. On April 12, 1961, at the tender age of just 27, Gagarin left Earth. He did not know what to expect, as the world waited on baited breath to see if this brave man would return back safely. To put it into context, the only living things the Russians had sent into space before Yuri was a series of experimental animals begining with a dog named Laika!
Gagarin returned back to Earth safe and sound 108 minutes later, but I wonder did he truly understand the scale of what he had achieved and how his life would never be the same? His flight made headline news all over the world and overnight Yuri Gagarin was a household name. He was given the title Hero of the Soviet Union. He began to live the life of a celebrity as the Soviet Union paraded their young brave hero around the world. He became an icon, so much so that they even imposed a ban preventing him from training for any more spaceflights, just in case he would be injured or killed.
Gagarin instead began to train future cosmonauts including the first woman to fly into space, Valentina Tereshkova. He moved on to become deputy training director of the Star City cosmonaut training base which actually gave him the opportunity he had been waiting for, to fly again. In 1967 he began training for the first Soyuz flight, however he was never to reach the stars again. On March 27, 1968, at the age of just 34, Yuri Gagarin was killed when the jet he was testing from Chkalovsky Air Base crashed. His death was mourned internationally as he left behind a wife and two young children. His ashes were buried alongside other Soviet heroes in the walls of the Kremlin.
Yuri Gagarin’s bravery paved the way for the space travel aspirations that we have today. It jump started the famous ‘Space Race’ in which American President Kennedy promised to land man on the Moon within a decade. Gagarin will never be forgotten and has left behind a legacy. To recognise his tremendous achievement a crater on the Moon was dedicated in his name. Every April 12 there is also an International Event called ‘Yuri’s Night’. It is held in commemoration of the feat achieved. You could even have your own party! Have a look at http://yurisnight.net/ to get some ideas. You can also check out a dedicated website celebrating Yuri’s achievements which contains photos and personal memories of the great man at http://yurigagarin50.org/ . And if this article has whetted your appetite then on April 12 make sure and visit YouTube which will be hosting a global premier of the film ‘First Orbit’. Production company ‘The Attic Room’ have teamed up with both YouTube and the astronauts onboard the International Space Station to film a new view of what Yuri would have seen as he orbited around Earth.
So this April 12 take a moment to remember Yuri Gagarin and his historic flight. An interesting little aside is that this date also coincides with the launch of the very first Space Shuttle Mission back in 1981 which Colin Johnson has celebrated this month in his Astronotes article.
Article by Sinead McNicholl.