Yury Gagarin: 108 minutes that changed the world

The whole world fell in love with Yury Gagarin minutes after he landed back on Earth. The man with the legendary smile, the first man in space would have been celebrating his 75th birthday on March 9.

There were twenty of them: perfectly ordinary, not very able or strong aviators. Their only distinguishing quality was their height. None of them was tall as the cockpit of the projected spaceship was tiny. The Soviet space aviation programme had decided against building a spaceship for human use. Instead, the purpose of the rocket was to carry thermonuclear bombs.

Mark Gallay, a pilot trainer once said: “you could find twenty people like them in any given aviation regiment”. Be it through sheer luck, or due to extraordinary personal qualities, Yury Gagarin, the man destined to be the world’s first cosmonaut, was amongst them.

Gagarin was said to have been a lucky man. Born in 1934 in a remote part of western Russia near the city of Gzhatsk (now renamed Gagarin in his honour), he survived the Nazi occupation, although it prevented him from completing his secondary education.

After the Second World War, he entered a technical college, only to transfer to an aviation school. He had trouble passing the medical commission, due to his height. It was even perhaps lucky that his birthday fell on March 9, and not a day earlier as the Soviets would never allow a man born on International Women’s Day to become their hero.

His friends from his early flying days remember that he had trouble landing his plane as he was too short to see through the cockpit window. Allegedly, he carried a cushion around with him to be able to complete his flying missions. Nevertheless, he was always full of determination and strove for perfectionism, which led to his selection for the space battalion.

A Baikonur legend says that Gagarin was chosen over his substitute Titov due to his good manners. When he entered the spaceship training module, he took off his shoes. For Korolev, the chief space designer and the mastermind behind the first-ever manned space flight, this was, apparently, a sign of respect and determination.

Into orbit and back

What awaits a man in outer space? We consider space aviation to be a given today. Even space tourism is nothing of a surprise. Yet, at the time of Gagarin nobody knew what awaited a human being thrust outside Earth’s atmosphere.

Amongst the other props and devices, Gagarin’s spaceship contained a sealed envelope with the number 25 written on a single white sheet. This was the code to activate the manual control of the vessel. The spaceship was completely automated. However, in case the systems failed, there was the option of manual steering and landing.

The reason why Gagarin was not given the code prior to take-off was because psychiatrists time and time again asserted their belief that anybody who saw their planet from space would go mad. According to specialists at the time, it would result in a complete loss of self-awareness. They insisted that if Gagarin knew the secret code before take-off, he would use it in an act of self-harm, jeopardising the USSR’s important mission.

The Soviet information agency had prepared three different news broadcasts: one to be made in the event of a successful flight, another to be read if the craft did not survive take-off, and a third one should the world’s first ever cosmonaut die during the flight. Fortunately, the second and third were not needed.

Prior to his departure, Gagarin made a speech which was broadcast throughout the Soviet Union and retransmitted worldwide.

“All my life now appears to be one happy moment,” Gagarin said mere minutes before entering his spaceship. “Everything that was lived and done before was achieved for this moment alone.”

His speech was filled with the hopes and optimism commonly expressed throughout the Soviet society at the time: the feeling of international outreach and the inevitability of communism on the path of which, according to Gagarin, the Soviet Union was confidently stepping. This was the image that Gagarin projected, before taking to the cockpit and saying his legendary “let’s go” just seconds before blast-off.

The flight went as planned. As Gagarin reported later, only the rocket’s facing catching fire made him remember his young wife and two daughters he had left behind. Yet, this was part of the plan. Vostok1 was covered in a special substance which aided its exit from the Earth’s atmosphere. A mere 108 minutes later he was back on Earth, this time in a capsule.

His open, triumphant smile, both upon landing and minutes before take-off, instantly became a worldwide symbol of the space age.

The man and the legend

An avalanche of attention swept Gagarin off his feet practically as soon as he got out of the landing capsule: flowers, applause, Khrushchev the Soviet leader shaking his hand. He visited world leaders all over the world. He shook hands with the most prominent western celebrities – something unheard of for a Soviet man at the time. There are even rumours that plots had been hatched to murder him during his visit to Cuba.

People recognised him on the streets. When he crashed his expensive new gift of a car into a pensioner’s old vehicle, both the pensioner and the policeman recognised the Soviet hero. The policeman stopped a passing car and ordered it to take Gagarin wherever he was going and promised that those guilty would be punished. Gagarin refused the ride and insisted on paying for the damage done to the pensioner’s car.

But there was a quieter, more private side to the myth. His friends to this day remember him as a very creative and committed individual, always eager to spread good cheer wherever he went. And, they insist, that he never became starstruck, despite having been to space and back.

Aleksey Leonov, a cosmonaut friend of Gagarin’s, remembers celebrating his birthday in Gagarin’s company. The first man in space was late, but excused himself by bringing a large bunch of lilacs – nobody knew where he’d found them. It was only at 3am that guests began leaving the flat, and Gagarin had had as much to drink as any of them.

The next day, after only three hours of sleep, he drove his car out of the garage eager to take his friends waterskiing on his boat. He was at the boat’s wheel the whole way, while taking time to pour drinks and make a few jokes.

Tragic loss

In 1962, Gagarin began serving as a deputy to the Supreme Soviet. He later returned to Star City, the cosmonaut facility, where he worked on designs for a reusable spacecraft. Gagarin worked on these designs in Star City for seven years. He became a Lieutenant-Colonel of the Soviet Air Force on June 12, 1962, and on November 6, 1963, he was promoted to the rank of Colonel.

Soviet officials tried to keep him away from any flights, worried as they were of losing their hero in an accident. Gagarin was back-up pilot for Vladimir Komarov in the Soyuz 1 flight. When Komarov's flight ended in a fatal crash, Gagarin was ultimately banned from training for or participating in further spaceflights.

At the same time, he began to re-qualify as a fighter pilot. On 27 March, 1968, while on a routine training flight, he and flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin died in a MiG-15UTI crash near the town of Kirzhach. Gagarin and Seryogin were buried in the walls of the Kremlin on Red Square. Tens of thousands of people attended their funeral.

The legacy

During the Soviet era, Gagarin became a harmless symbol: one who, despite the space race with the US still being in full gear, could not offend anyone. Even then, however, conspiracy theories linked to the circumstances of his death began to emerge, and the circumstances of the tragic crash remain a mystery to this day.

Some say that he was drunk during his final flight: others that he had a “bad feeling” about the flight from the very morning. Even more people suggest that the Soviet government specifically lined up a defective plane to get rid of a man who knew too much about the system. Nevertheless, his friends to this day insist that it was a simple accident – his luck had finally failed him.

He was, be it in his propaganda image or in his private self, a simple man from a remote part of Russia who conquered the hearts of people worldwide. He remains to this day the most apolitical symbol of the Soviet Union, promoting through his image, qualities not tied to a particular system or creed, namely an endless striving towards the unknown and a feeling of unity and compassion.

That’s why the anniversary of his birth, as well as the date of his flight is remembered and celebrated years later, not only by his colleagues and those close to hims, but also by ordinary people for whom he may be nothing more than an icon.

Anna Bogdanova, RT