Yuri Gagarin’s brave, brilliant leap into the dark

On the 50th anniversary of the first manned spaceflight, James Woudhuysen praises Gagarin’s daring - and says we need more of it today.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

Yuri Gagarin was my hero.

For a child just nine years old on 12 April 1961, the day he flew into space, he appeared intrepid, unassuming, and cool. Above all, he appeared in black and white. This was not the glossy, sunlit, bright blue Florida-sky ethic of American efforts in space, all NASA aluminium foil and silver crewcuts in magazines such as Life. No, with Gagarin there was something grittier, more documentary, something altogether scarier than Cape Canaveral. Russia’s success in putting a man into space was, for a child of the West, also a success for grainy monochrome photography and flickering video footage. The mission was dark, seemingly shot at night, and redolent of the air of conspiracy that, in the year of the Berlin Wall going up, surrounded Nikita Khruschev’s Soviet Union.

Or maybe that’s just a man’s memory playing tricks. In those days, after all, all TV was black and white. But the unmistakable thing about the headlines and the publicity and the genuine celebrations that surrounded this particular celebrity was how strongly they loved both the man and his endeavour. And this was all the more remarkable given the bad light, almost literally, in which the Soviet Union was then regarded.

The launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957 had been a shock to the West. Now, in another surprise gambit, Moscow thumped home its apparent technological superiority over Washington. And yet there was something so smiley, calm, innocent and youthful about Gagarin that people in the West could, with him, forget all about the conflict between capitalism and what was thought to be communism. Gagarin’s achievement was for humanity – to conquer space, gravity, the limitations of this planet. His name was spiky but easily pronounced, and his easy demeanour was not that of an irascible Soviet apparatchik: recognisably Slavic, he was one of us.

At seven miles a second, he had achieved escape velocity and circumnavigated the Earth in just 108 minutes. Unlike Alan Shepard, who completed a simple up-and-down flight in May 1961, there was nothing ‘sub-orbital’ about Gagarin.

Obviously, Stalin’s successors milked the occasion, for they had few other heroes they deemed proper for foreign consumption. But even the Soviet bureaucrats couldn’t manage to sour the cream. When Gagarin, who had first trained as a foundry worker, flew to Manchester to receive a medal from the Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers, thousands mobbed him, and crowds overwhelmed the police. Later, through an interpreter and in a car park, he briefly addressed a large crowd of workers from AEI’s factories at Trafford Park and beyond. ‘There is plenty of room’, he observed, ‘for all in outer space. Plenty of room for the Americans, the Russians, and the British.’

The daring behind Vostok 1

Gagarin told the Mancunians that his craft, Vostok 1, had no photographic or military equipment, only scientific gear. Yet although in reality his flight was a Cold War propaganda gesture, there was much about it to applaud – and much that is missing from today’s much less decisive, much more tentative culture.

First, there was the mission’s willingness to experiment with and explore the unknown in ways that make those who today ‘dare’ to bomb Libya or police a demonstration in central London look like the cowards they are. We forget the scale of scientific ignorance that existed back in 1961. Why was Vostok limited to just one orbit? Because unlike the Americans, who knew how to experiment with minutes of weightlessness flying parabolic arcs in Boeing 707 jets, each of the 20 cosmonauts (out of 2,200 candidates) whom the Russians prepared for space had only experienced a few seconds free of gravity in special ground-based tests. Weightlessness was a great unknown for the Soviet space effort. Result: Sergei Korolev, the Soviet space programme’s legendary chief designer, limited exposure to weightlessness to a journey of just one orbit round the globe (1).

Second, there was Gagarin’s physical bravery. Sometimes an acrobat, and an excellent high-altitude parachutist, Gagarin, like his colleagues, had to train under a regime little different from Guantanamo Bay. Ghoulish doctors at the aptly named Institute for Medical and Biological Problems in Moscow had, with Korolev and the Soviet military, a commanding influence over the space programme. They therefore took it upon themselves to put cosmonauts in solitary confinement in an isolation chamber for periods of up to 10 days, there to take a battery of mental, physical and psychological tests. Sometimes the doctors starved the cosmonauts of oxygen in the chamber, to see how they got on. They also subjected Gagarin to 12G, or 12 times the force of gravity, aboard a whirling centrifuge.

One need neither admire this kind of training, nor the tiny primitiveness of the capsule in which Gagarin flew, to note how little of his mettle is around today. Who aspires, in 2011, to handle the exigencies of space? Who would be ready personally to check alignment for re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere by using Vostok’s ‘Vzor’ porthole, which revealed when the moment was right only by mirrors, lenses and elaborate calibrated markings? Today, people will not even leave the house without a hi-tech mobile phone. When Gagarin came home, the only thing umbilical about his flight was far from reassuring: the ball in which he sat failed to separate completely from the equipment module to his rear, causing the two vehicles, which were connected by electrical and electronic wiring, to tumble headlong round each other. Only burn-up in the atmosphere eventually severed the cabling, setting our hero free.

The lessons for today

Gagarin did what he did at the tender age of 27. His subsequent death, in an air accident at the age of 34, was tragic, and long the subject of many conspiracy theories. Yet we know what is important about his feat. The Vostok mission deliberately confronted, and was not fearful of, what today overwhelms the consciousness of the West: the unknown. It was a leap into the dark, but the risks it ran proved surmountable. It wanted to overcome the ignorance of its day.

Look now at NASA. It has no plans for new manned missions to the Moon, still less for humans to get to Mars. Instead, its leader emphasises that his is a sustainable programme of exploration and innovation. Yes, that’s right – innovation! In truth, the watchwords for NASA, after a series of lethal, Soviet-style mistakes, are our old, familiar, all-too-right-on friends: transparency, accountability, safety, integrity, ‘reaching out’ to foreign partners and stakeholders. There is high-blown bluster about innovation, but the reality is that NASA is more interested in space for its ‘societal benefit’ and putative effect on US competitiveness than for its intrinsic interest or grandeur.

Is it too much to ask for grandeur, or vaulting ambition, in today’s cautious times? At least the Russians, with their unglamorous rivets and their interchangeable modules, have done well enough over the years to contemplate manned flights to the Moon by 2020 and building a lunar base by 2030. After the events in Japan, fear of Nature, and of the sub-atomic realm, is greater than ever. Meanwhile, outer space is left simply for documentaries designed to inspire awe, or for a handful of astro-billionaires: it is no longer something to which you or I can easily have a human connection, as Gagarin told the people of Manchester that we would.

Gagarin made everyone sense that connection. For that moment, the human conquest of the planet, rather than man’s subordination to it, was something that everyone could feel proud of.

James Woudhuysen is author, with Joe Kaplinsky, of Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation, published by Beautiful Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) He is also a contributor to BIG POTATOES: The London Manifesto for Innovation.

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Topics Science & Tech


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