It happened when Earth was still in black and white: 50 years ago we stepped outside our home planet for the first time. This is the tale of the beginning of an adventure that hasn’t ended yet, the biggest, most dangerous and rewarding quest ever embarked on by the human race – the fascinating story of two men who took us to a new level.
Together, they pushed the world in a way that nobody imagined before them. One was a scientist. The other, an optimistic hero loved by his people and everyone who has read about him, including myself. And after reading this, you will love him too.
The scientist’s was Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, a genius who dreamed of rockets that could take us to the stars. He was almost killed by Stalin’s crazy purges at the end of 1938. After years in prison, he became the head of the Soviet Union’s space program. He designed the vessel that took our hero where no human have gone before.
That hero was a very young man, the son of a poor family, born in rural Russia: Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin.
It was April 12, 1961. Sputnik, humans’ first spacecraft, had reached orbit just four years earlier. Four years. It was nothing. The rockets and the spaceships were all highly experimental. The men and women who stepped into them knew that everything could go wrong and, in fact, did go wrong too many times.
But April 12 was not going to be one of those times. It was a cold clear morning at Baikonur Cosmodrome’s Site 1, in Kazakhstan, one of the socialist republics under Moscow’s iron fist. That morning, at 4.10 Universal Time, Yuri Alekseyevich stepped into his Vostok 1 spacecraft after enjoying breakfast with his backup pilot, Gherman Stepanovich Titov.
Gagarin started pre-flight checks. Forty minutes later, the hatch closed and he waited for the final countdown to start, strapped to 150 tons of highly explosive kerosene and liquid oxygen.
He was going to be the first man in space – or die trying. And yet, inside his tiny spherical metal capsule, Gagarin was calm. Vostok-1, his ship, and Vostok-K, his rocket, were humming with him. I can imagine his subtle smile. He knew he could be reduced to tiny particles in a few minutes. Yet, he was optimistic, chatting with ground control, his pulse going at only 64 beats per minute.
At the other side of his radio was Korolev – chief designer of his spaceship. He was so nervous that he had to take a pill after feeling chest pains, fearing a heart attack. I can imagine him lighting the next cigarette with the one that was still burning on his mouth.
At 6.07am, Gagarin heard Korolev’s shouting on the radio: “Preliminary stage… intermediate… main… LIFT OFF! We wish you a good flight. Everything is all right.”
Gagarin exclaimed just one single word, as the world roared around him: Poyekhali!
“Off we go!”
And off he went. A few minutes later, Gagarin was in orbit. In awe, he muttered one of the most beautiful phrases in the history of civilization: “The Earth is blue. How wonderful. It is amazing.”
And amazing it was. It maybe was an obvious thing to say, but it was spoken from an honest heart, touched and humbled by the breathtaking view of his true home. Born son of a peasant in the village of Klushino near Gzhatsk, Russia, Gagarin was the first man to reach space and the first to orbit Earth. And to him, the experience resonated at the most basic level, in every fibre of his being.
When he said that phrase he was orbiting from an altitude of 300km over Gaia’s skin, expressing the exact same feeling that every single astronaut has had ever since. A sentiment of total awe at the beauty of our little but magnificient home. Feeling small, a tiny speck of organic material reaching for the stars, Gagarin and the rest of humanity realised how unique and precious Earth was. And, in that process, it elevated us to a whole new level.
In just a few minutes, the perspective of a species changed. There’s a world before and after Gagarin, perhaps even more so than Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. While reaching the Moon was perhaps the most amazing feat ever accomplished by humans, Gagarin’s flight definitely started the return of humans to their true home.
A perfect flight
During his orbit, Yuri kept radioing optimistic messages to Earth, telling everyone that everything was fine even while he could barely hear ground control, amazed by the experience that no human have had before:
The flight is continuing well. I can see the Earth. The visibility is good. … I almost see everything. There’s a certain amount of space under cumulus cloud cover. I continue the flight, everything is good.
Everything is working very well. All systems are working. Let’s keep going! […]Zarya-1, Zarya-1, I can’t hear you very well! I feel fine. I’m in good spirits. I’m continuing the flight…
At 6.31am, he transmitted the following words:
I feel splendid, very well, very well, very well. Give me some results on the flight! Repeat. I can’t hear you very well. I feel very good.
At 7.55am, Vostok-1 had completed an entire Earth orbit. It was another moment of truth. The spacecraft aligned automatically to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, getting ready to fire its retrorocket. The ship only had one retrorocket system because the Vostok-K rocket didn’t have enough payload capacity to carry a backup module. Had it failed, Gagarin would have stayed in orbit for days. In fact, he had ten days of provisions in case he had to wait for the spacecraft to naturally fall off its orbit.
Fortunately, all the systems worked perfectly fine. A few minutes later, a big ball of fire boomed over the skies of Russia. Gagarin activated the parachute and landed about ten minutes later, crashing on a field near Engels City, in Saratov Oblast, Russia. By the Volga River, a farmer and his daughter saw him walking towards them in his orange cosmonaut suit:
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!
Yes. He definitely had The Right Stuff.
The sad death of a hero
Gagarin’s adventure was a total success. The United States was stunned at the news and NASA rushed to get an astronaut into space. It wasn’t until May 5, 1961, that Alan Shepard was launched into space to became the first US astronaut, but only following a ballistic missile trajectory. It wasn’t until the next year that the US put an astronaut in orbit, when John Glenn circled the Earth for 4 hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds aboard the Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962.
After becoming a hero of the Soviet Union, Gagarin was grounded forever, too precious to be lost by the propaganda machinery of the draconian communist regime. He returned to Star City – where the Soviet Union developed their space program – to work on reusable spacecraft designs, but he never got into one himself again. In fact, after Vladimir Komarov died in the the first Soyuz flight, Gagarin – who was his backup pilot – was banned from even training for spaceflight.
It was ironic because only a few years later Gagarin died in a routine fighter pilot training flight, on March 27, 1968, aged 34. It was only two years after Korolev died from cancer – his role as the father of the space program still completely ignored by everyone.
Gagarin moved then from the status of hero to legend. For the people of Russia – sad and pessimistic – and to the entire world he represented an optimistic view of the future. Yuri, the son of simple farmer, flew into space. He did it and he believed in a bright, better future, in which humans would travel to the stars. And, during his short life, he transmitted that optimism to everyone who met him.
They just don’t make them like these anymore.
Godspeed Yuri Alekseyevich. You’ll be remembered forever.
Based on In honour of Yuri Gagarin, the First Human in Space, published on May 7, 2009.