Yuri Gagarin (1934-68), Hero of the Soviet Union, first Russian cosmonaut and the first man to fly into outer space.
9 March is the birthday of Yuri Gagarin, the trailblazer in space. This energetic and vivacious man was universally admired, and seemed to be destined to live a long life. The open and friendly smile he flashed around the world won over millions of people, and became a revelation to many in the midst of the mistrust and tension of the Cold War years.
Gagarin was born into a peasant family in the Smolensk region west of Moscow in 1934. He finished vocational school, and he worked as a moulder at a plant for some time. However, he was strongly attracted to aviation, and at 21, he entered a military flying school. Later, he qualified as a member of the first team of cosmonauts. He did all the training required, and was thoroughly prepared for the first manned flight.
His self-control was astonishing. Before the historic start, he had a good night’s sleep, which surprised many people, who couldn’t sleep a wink even before a routine school exam. Describing his emotions before the start, he said, “Was it joy? No, it wasn’t only joy. Was it pride? No, it wasn’t only pride. It was happiness. One can hardly dream of a greater accomplishment than taking the challenge to be the first to fly into space. I was also aware of the great responsibility this flight involved, the responsibility of being the first to do what many generations could only dream of…”
Gagarin’s flight lasted only 109 minutes. This short flight launched him from obscurity to resounding worldwide fame. Celebrity was, perhaps, an even more serious challenge than flying in space. At times, he thought it was too heavy a burden to be always the focus of attention, and sincerely believed his accomplishment to be a matter of sheer luck. Many of his comrades, he was sure, could have done this equally well. In triumph, he returned home from the space flight.
Later he recalled, “A special airplane took me to Moscow. While approaching the capital, I looked down and gasped, for the streets were flooded with people. At the airport, too, there were masses of people waiting for me to arrive. In full military uniform with new Major’s insignia, I went down the ladder. In the distance, I saw an overcrowded rostrum with huge heaps of flowers scattered around. A red-carpeted path led to it. I had to walk this way alone… Never, even on board the spaceship, was I so excited as at that moment.
On the way, I managed to regain my self-control. I knew all eyes were on me. Suddenly, I felt that one of my shoes had come unlaced. At any moment, I could step on the loose end and crash down, full length, on the red carpet. What an embarrassment! Doing fine in space, and then falling down on a level surface! However, I approached the rostrum, and saluted as I reported, ‘The first space flight in the history of mankind aboard the Soviet spaceship Vostok is complete. All the equipment functioned without fault. I feel fine, and I’m ready to carry out any new mission. Major Gagarin’”.
Gagarin intended to continue contributing to space exploration. “I’d like to travel to Venus… and see for myself if there are canals on Mars. I believe it’s not long before we see the Moon, our next-door neighbour”. He continued to fly until the tragic day in 1968 when he died in a crash during a training flight. Yuri Gagarin was only 34 years old…