History makers: Yuri Gagarin

On what would have been his eightieth birthday, we celebrate a man who expanded the horizons of humanity.

Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to enter into space, and the first to orbit the Earth, would have been 80 years old at the weekend. I say would have been, because on 27 March 1968, he was killed when his routine training flight crashed just outside Moscow. He was just 34 years old.

Gagarin’s life may have been brief, but it burned bright.


Yuri Gagarin

Born in a small village near Gzhatsk (renamed Gagarin after his death) in western Russia, his obsession with flight was apparent even in his youth. As a teenager studying agricultural technology at a technical school, he not only worked as a part-time docker, he also spent his weekends training as a Soviet air cadet at a local flying club.

Aged 21, Gagarin was drafted by the Red Army, and, thanks to a special recommendation, he was sent to the First Chkalov Air Force Pilot’s School in Orenburg where he quickly ascended the ranks, becoming a senior lieutenant in 1959. The following year, he was chosen, alongside 19 other pilots, for the Soviet space programme, an area of human endeavour in which the USSR, following the successful launch of the Sputnik I satellite in 1957, was leading the world.

The 20 recruits were whittled down to an elite six from whom the first cosmonauts for what was known as the Vostok programme would be chosen. Beside his mental and other physical attributes, Gagarin had a big advantage over his peers. He was short. Five foot two, in fact. This meant he could actually fit in the small capsule that was to be fired into space. And so it was that Gagarin was selected to be the Vostok programme’s first space pilot.

Gagarin and his fellow cosmonaut prospects were put through a harsh, intense training regime by the doctors at the Institute for Medical and Biological Problems in Moscow. This included prolonged stays in isolation chambers for periods of up to 10 days, during which they underwent a range of mental, physical and psychological tests, including oxygen deprivation - just to see how they coped. As Cathleen Lewis, curator of international space programmes at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, put it: ‘[The recruits] were performing enormous feats of physical training… [The trainers] wanted to test the limits of their pilots.’

If anyone was equipped to cope, it was Gagarin. As well as being super-fit, intelligent, and, less well-known, a poetry lover, he was also spectacularly disciplined. As his daughter Elena Gagarina recalled recently, he had no concept of ‘internal pain’ – and he was so mentally and physically strict that he would take naps of exactly 40 minutes and wake up ‘on the dot’ without an alarm clock. This discipline was such that one could well believe his smiling response to a question from a BBC interviewer in 1961 about whether he suffered from butterflies before take-off: ‘I can assure you there were no butterflies, moths or anything else in my stomach.’

Given the 50-50 chances of survival, Gagarin’s steely resolve seems even more remarkable. But it was also one of the reasons for the mission’s success. On 12 April 1961, not only did he become the first human to travel into space, and, once there, circumnavigate the Earth in just 108 minutes – he also managed to survive the re-entry. This was no mean feat given the failure of the release mechanism which was meant to separate Gagarin’s capsule from its service module. Burdened with the extra module as he scorched through the Earth’s atmosphere, temperatures soared in the module, and Gagarin was spun round to the point where he almost lost consciousness. ‘I was in a cloud of fire rushing toward Earth’, he was later to recall. But - and this key - he did remain conscious, and he did keep his wits about him.

After about 10 minutes in a ball of flames, the cables attaching the service module to Gagarin’s capsule burned through, and Gagarin was able to bail out and parachute to a safe landing near the Volga river. But this wasn’t just an individual achievement. In the act of survival, Gagarin, as one commentator put it, had ‘ushered in the era of human spaceflight’.

There was always something strangely innocent about Gagarin’s heroism. He managed to cut through the mutual cynicism of the Cold War to be feted as much in the West as he was in the East. In the UK alone, he was greeted by cheering crowds in London and rapt audiences in Manchester. His achievement wasn’t seen solely in terms of the USSR; it was grasped in its universal aspect, too. Gagarin embodied a willingness to take risks, to leap into the unknown, to overcome perceived limits. And in doing so, he expanded the range of human possibility itself.

Tim Black is deputy editor at spiked.

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