Yuri Gagarin

The First to Fly
by Colin Burgess.

Colin Burgess is the author of many books and articles on spaceflight and space history.

These days, toppled statues of Lenin and the heroically overly-productive Stakhanovite workers are strewn across the former Soviet Union. Many others have already been salvaged from their rubbled bases and melted down in factory furnaces, only to reappear on the streets of Moscow bearing the Zil logo. These once-respected icons of the Soviet state may be derided and even forgotten in the new Russia, and their achievements spurned along with their statues, but monuments to one particular hero from the former USSR still stand tall and are lovingly maintained.


Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the First Human Space Traveler.
(Photo: Colin Burgess collection)

Forty-five years after completing a single orbit of the Earth - his only space flight - the memory of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin is still highly revered across the nation. That largely unheralded feat, a true milestone in history, caused spontaneous and patriotic fervor to erupt like wildfire across the Soviet Union, and his fame has transcended the country's harrowing conversion from Communism to capitalism.

Gagarin's 108-minute flight aboard a spherical, eight-foot diameter spacecraft named Vostok (East) in April 1961 not only scored an impressive first-up victory in the superpower space race for the Soviet Union, but placed his name indelibly in the history books. The son of collective farm workers, and a devoted family man with a renowned sense of humor and a shy, engaging smile, the 27-year-old not only grabbed the world's headlines, but captured the imagination and hearts of a generation both at home and abroad. Meanwhile his pioneering space flight quickly established that the Soviet Union was not prepared to take a back seat in seeking the high ground of space and space politics.

Yuri Alexeievich Gagarin was born in the village of Klushino, on the eastern edge of the Smolensk region, on 9 March 1934. He would be the third of four children born to Alexei, a carpenter by trade, and Anna Gagarin. There was no electricity or running water on the local collective farm where the family toiled to make a modest living, but they were a close-knit family. Yuri's mother was a well-educated woman who had grown up in St. Petersburg, and she would either read to the children each night or allow them to read for themselves.

Alexei Gagarin had hoped that all three of his sons would become carpenters and one day unite in a family business. However the war interceded in these plans, with German troops advancing into the Soviet Union in 1941. The following year the village of Klushino was brutally overrun by the Nazis, who took savage reprisals against villagers of all ages involved in any acts of resistance or sabotage. At one time Yuri's younger brother Boris was captured and hung by the neck from a tree; his mother only just managed to cut him down in time to save his life.

Another incident during the war would have an indelible effect on Yuri Gagarin, when a Soviet aircraft fell from the sky belching smoke and crash-landed near Klushino after a one-sided aerial dogfight with a German fighter. Like other children from the village Yuri rushed out to the crash site, taking food for the two pilots and helping them to salvage useable parts of the wreckage before they were eventually picked up and rescued by another aircraft which landed nearby. Yuri, who had clambered all over the downed fighter and talked briefly with the airmen, was in awe of them and the aircraft and began to dream of becoming a combat pilot himself.

After the war, and much to his father's consternation, Yuri decided against carpentry as a career, and took on temporary work in a steel foundry in Moscow prior to studying engineering at the Saratov Industrial Technical School. He also joined a local flying club, and once he'd made his first flight in a Yak-18 he knew beyond any doubt what he wanted to do with his life. In 1955 he enrolled as an aviation cadet and quickly became so proficient that his instructor recommended him for a military piloting school at Orenberg. Soon after, at a dance held at the school's air base, he met his future wife Valentina. They were married in October 1957, and Gagarin later admitted he was too swept up in their wedding preparations to take much notice of dramatic news that month concerning the launch from the Soviet Union of the world's first Earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik.

Gagarin was subsequently posted to a Soviet Air Force fighter interceptor squadron located in the bleakness of the Arctic Circle, and despite the inhospitable surroundings he worked and flew hard. He and Valentina celebrated the birth of their first daughter, Lena, in April 1959. A few months later, provoking considerable speculation, teams of officials began arriving at all of the major Soviet air stations, interviewing pilots for an undisclosed "special project." Gagarin was ordered to report to Moscow for medical tests and interviews as one of 154 potential candidates. Following intense screening and testing that number was finally winnowed down to twenty. Yuri Gagarin had just been selected as a member of the first Soviet detachment of cosmonauts.

By the early summer of 1960, six of the twenty candidates had been selected as those best suited to pilot the first manned Vostok spacecraft, and it soon became evident that Gagarin was the outstanding candidate. His training intensified even as he and Valentina celebrated the birth of another daughter, Galya. A week before the flight, set for 12 April, the Soviet State Commission confirmed that Yuri Gagarin would be the prime pilot, with Gherman Titov as his back-up.

In a speech made in the Kazakh town of Akmolinsk on 14 March 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had publicly indicated that "the time is not far off" when the Soviet Union would send "the first spaceship with a man on board ... into space." His prescient comments would see fruition just four weeks later when Lieutenant Yuri Gagarin (he would be promoted to Major during the flight) became history's first human space traveler.

Liftoff of the Vostok spacecraft carrying Yuri Gagarin into space on 12th April 1961. (Photo: Colin Burgess collection)

The launch took place at 9:07 a.m. Moscow time on 12 April, with an elated Gagarin crying out "Poyekhali!" ("Here we go!") moments after lift-off. The rocket's second stage shut down on schedule and the Vostok spacecraft slipped into an elliptical orbit with an apogee of 327 kilometers and a perigee of 181 kilometers, inclined at 64.67 degrees to the equator. No public announcement was made of the event until it was confirmed that the spacecraft had actually achieved orbital status. Fifteen minutes after being launched, Gagarin radioed that he was over South America. He drank water and ate a jelly specially prepared by the Soviet Academy of Sciences as the dramatic news of his launch swept across the globe.

By 10:15 a.m., Gagarin was looking down on Africa, announcing that "the flight is normal" and "I withstand well the state of weightlessness." The landing sequence began soon after. Seventy-nine minutes into the historic flight the vehicle's retrorockets burned for forty seconds, slowing it sufficiently to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. At this time, according to plan, the eight-foot diameter descent module should have separated explosively from the accompanying equipment module, but a cable holding the two components together did not detach. The tethered spacecraft began to spin and tumble erratically, exposing less protected areas of the descent module to the intense heat of re-entry. As the temperature inside his spacecraft began to rise dramatically, Gagarin could only watch helplessly as crimson flames raged around the spacecraft. "I was in a cloud of fire rushing toward Earth," he would later recall.

Ten minutes later the cable holding the two segments together finally burned through and sheared off with an audible bang. As the descent module continued to fall through an increasingly thicker atmosphere the wild rotation and swinging was gradually dampened, and Gagarin, who had come perilously close to losing consciousness, regained his full senses. 23,000 feet above the Saratov region of the Soviet Union the spacecraft's hatch blew off on schedule, and moments later Gagarin was automatically ejected, finally touching down near the village of Smelovka. His spacecraft thudded down under its own parachute two miles away.

Meanwhile, the Soviet propaganda machine was in full swing, with a dramatic radio announcement bringing news to an elated nation that the cosmonaut had "safely landed in the prearranged area of the USSR" at 10:55 a.m. after an epic journey lasting 108 minutes, including just over 89 minutes in orbit. His Vostok spacecraft had reached a speed exceeding 27,000 kilometers per hour, or about three times faster than any person was known to have flown previously. Following a post-flight debriefing he returned to Moscow amid a vast outpouring of jubilation, relief and pride in his accomplishment, and was wildly feted across the Soviet Union. Gagarin would later embark on an extensive world tour, with crowds eagerly flocking to see and cheer the world's first spaceman. It would be some thirty years before any news of his perilous re-entry would be revealed.

Gagarin in his space suit and helmet in training for his space flight.
(Photo: Colin Burgess collection)

By 1964 Gagarin desperately wanted to make a second flight, this time in a new generation of spacecraft called Soyuz (Union). As an incredibly popular, living icon of the Space Age, his personal ambitions would find little favor within the Soviet echelons of power. However Gagarin was not slow to take advantage of his now-considerable influence, and despite the reluctance of his superiors was assigned as back-up pilot to fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov on the first manned journey of the new craft in April 1967. Sadly, this would prove to be an ill-fated mission. Grievous technical problems were encountered after the launch which caused the Soyuz 1 mission to be aborted early and returned to earth. During its final descent the main parachute shrouds tangled after deployment and the spacecraft slammed into the ground at high speed, exploding on impact and catching fire.

Gagarin was devastated at the tragic loss of his close friend and colleague, but there was more bad news in store: as a reaction to this catastrophic event he was banned from making another potentially dangerous journey into space. It had been politically decreed that he was a national treasure with a tremendous public (and propaganda) image, as well as a high-profile international ambassador for the Soviet Union. As such, his life could not be placed in peril.

Disappointed and frustrated, Gagarin subsequently became deputy director of the cosmonaut training centre, but a staid life behind a desk could never quell his restless spirit, and he was determined to make another space flight. A decade later, and to the concern of many, he undertook jet fighter training once again in order to at least maintain his proficiency in high-performance aircraft.

On 27 March 1968, 34-year-old Gagarin took off in a MiG-15 fighter together with his instructor, Vladimir Seryogin. Poor weather conditions prevailed that day, with strong, gusting winds and gloomy rain-filled blankets of cloud. As conditions deteriorated even further, Seryogin decided to curtail the exercise after just five minutes in the air. Soon after, the dull thud of a large explosion was heard in a nearby forest.

A later investigation seemed to indicate that the MiG had been involved in a steep dive, from which it had almost recovered. Fellow cosmonaut Alexei Leonov believes that the MiG may have been caught in the turbulent backwash of another jet aircraft passing close by, unseen in the thick clouds, and the pilots had temporarily lost control. Witnesses revealed that moments before the crash an SU-11 jet had been seen tearing upwards through the clouds on full afterburner, which would have created a deadly backwash of turbulence. This has been officially ascribed as the most likely cause of the accident, but whatever happened that fateful day, the life of Yuri Gagarin had come to a sudden and tragic end.

An obelisk marks the place where Gagarin and his instructor died in the crash of their MiG trainer.
(Photo: Colin Burgess collection)

We can never know what accomplishments and honors Yuri Gagarin might have accrued. This year, 2007, the man whose memory lingers on in the hearts of Russia's citizens, the daring pilot and first cosmonaut known as "the Columbus of Outer Space," would have celebrated his 73rd birthday - still four years younger than astronaut John Glenn when he made his second space flight in 1998.

Yuri Gagarin may be gone, but his indomitable spirit and pioneering legacy will live on, and will always be cause for universal celebration and remembrance.

© Colin Burgess
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