On 12 April 1961, his Vostok-1 spacecraft blasted off from its launch pad in the desert of Soviet Kazakhstan, propelling the 27-year-old more than 100 miles into the sky, and landing him in the history books as the first man to orbit the planet. The voyage turned the cosmonaut into an international superstar, and struck a decisive blow in the bitter technological race being fought between Cold War rivals the United States and the USSR.
However, while Gagarin’s flight became an inspiration to millions across the world, and an immense source of pride for Moscow, the odds were stacked against the young pilot ever making it into space in the first place. His chances of making it back safely were even slimmer.
A big step for any man
Born at the height of Joseph Stalin’s repressive land reforms, Gagarin’s parents were workers on a collective farm near the western Russian city of Smolensk. While Soviet propaganda would later portray them as simple peasants, a sign of the feats ordinary people could go on to achieve, the reality was less clear cut. Anna, Gagarin’s mother, had been born to a prosperous oil-drilling manager in St. Petersburg, growing up with the privilege of a good education and a love of literature. The 1917 Revolution stripped her family of its wealth and, along with her skilled-carpenter husband, Alexei, she labored in tough conditions in the farmyard without seeing much of the rewards.
Just two years after Gagarin was born, Stalin would launch a series of brutal campaigns targeting anyone labeled a dissident, counter-revolutionary or saboteur, known collectively as the Great Terror. Close to a million people were executed, and many more deported to the brutal Gulag prison colonies. The country in which Gagarin grew up, the largest in the world, was going through an acutely unstable, violent period.
And it would only get worse. By the time he was seven years old, the Second World War had broken out and the village in which his family lived, 100 miles to the west of Moscow, sat squarely in the Nazi warpath. On the first day German troops rolled into the village, they torched the schoolhouse, ending Gagarin’s formal education before it had really begun.
It didn’t take long for the horrors of war to leave their mark on the young boy. Yuri’s brother, Valentin, later recalled how the pair sneaked into the woods in the aftermath of a battle between German troops and Soviet forces to watch the interrogation of a captured Russian colonel. “The German officers went to where he was lying, in a bush, and he was pretending to be blind,” Valentin said. “Some high-ranking officers tried to ask him questions, and he replied that he couldn’t hear them very well and asked them to lean down closer. So they came closer and bent right over him, and then he blew up a grenade he’d hidden behind his back. No one survived.”
After this, Yuri is said to have gained a sense of what was at stake, and began stealing food from the cellars to feed refugees fleeing nearby firefights. Village children scattered broken glass on the roads to puncture the tires of German supply trucks, and Yuri reportedly stuffed dirt into charging tank batteries, mixing bottles of chemicals used to replenish them randomly. Accounts from the time claimed a Nazi officer who suspected the young Gagarin boys of being saboteurs was forced to search for them on foot because Yuri had already pushed potatoes into the exhaust pipe of his army car.
Turfed out of their home, which had been requisitioned by the occupying forces, the family were given permission to dig a small, temporary mud shelter in the back garden of the house. Just a few meters wide, the conditions in which they lived would have been unimaginable. They sheltered here until the Nazis were driven out by the liberating Red Army, but not before two of Yuri’s siblings were deported to slave labor camps, returning only after the war.
When Gagarin strapped into his spherical spacecraft at the Baikonur cosmodrome, a continent away from his childhood home in western Russia, it was the culmination of years of training and a fascination with flight that led him from that muddy trench and into the skies.
For the Soviet Union as well, the journey was an unlikely one. Shattered by the brunt of the Nazi war machine, the country had been rebuilt from the rubble and scorched earth of war. Famines, purges and fear of arbitrary arrest were far from a distant memory. And yet, in the space of a decade-and-a-half, the USSR had come to rival the US in a race into space, a battle of technological supremacy and ingenuity, with Gagarin set to claim one of its first major victories.
Despite his tough childhood, or maybe because of it, he had rapidly shone in the years following WWII. From building model airplanes with his school friends, to enlisting as an air cadet with a weekend flying club, as a young man he showed a clear passion for life above the ground.
After signing up as a pilot in the Soviet Air Forces, his career was, however, nearly cut short after he struggled on more than one occasion to safely land an MiG-15 jet engine warplane. Recognizing that the young airman was suffering an unusual handicap, the unit’s commander reportedly gave Gagarin another shot – handing him a cushion to sit on. At just 1.57 meters (5 foot, 2 inches) tall, he had been struggling to see over the cockpit on descent.
Years later, when the budding Soviet space program began its search for a new generation of future cosmonauts, Gagarin’s height suddenly became an advantage. With its limited space, the Vostok capsule demanded a sole crew member of shorter stature – no more than 1.70 meters (5ft 7in). As an experienced flier, popular with his peers and deemed to keep a cool head under pressure, he shot through the recruitment process.
The mission required no less than nerves of steel. Half of Soviet space flights up to that point had failed, with technical problems and malfunctions leading earlier, unmanned Vostok missions to crash down to Earth, or to remain stuck, floating in space. On the day of the flight, the chief designer of the spacecraft, Sergey Korolev, was reportedly so nervous that he was unable to sleep the night before and had to be given a pill to calm him down.
By contrast, the pilot about to become the world’s first spaceman was, by all accounts, relaxed. Having declined a sleeping tablet the night before, Gagarin chatted with launch staff as he waited to board the rocket, and his pulse was recorded at a steely calm 64 beats per minute. Months of grueling training, from brutal exercise regimes to weathering oxygen deprivation chambers, had all led to this. His call to action from the cockpit before blast off – poekhali – meaning something akin to ‘Let’s go’ in Russian, would become a rallying cry across the Eastern Bloc.
It appears though that the cosmonaut may have come close to losing his nerve just before the countdown was due to begin. Gagarin insisted that the hermetic seal on the capsule was improperly joined, which could have led to fatal decompression of the chamber. Reports differ on whether this was an accurate diagnosis, or the result of a faulty sensor but, moments before he was due to blast off, engineers were working furiously to re-bolt 32 separate screws that would be the only thing standing between Gagarin and certain death.
This wasn’t the only problem. The day before the flight, archive documents show, the rocket scientists realized that the combined weight of the pilot, his space suit and his seat, would be above the maximum that could be carried by the thrusters. Rushing to meet the tight deadlines and pressure from senior officials, they stripped away part of the interior, accidentally disconnecting two gauges responsible for pressure and temperature, and causing a short circuit.
It isn’t clear whether Gagarin knew the full extent of the glitches preceding the launch. However, in a letter to his loved ones written two days before the start of the mission, he said: “I believe completely in the technical equipment, but even on level ground, a person sometimes falls over and breaks his neck.”
While the blast-off went smoothly, and Gagarin swept through the skies, more than 100 miles from the ground, his return to Earth was almost foiled. Engines designed to slow his trajectory and pull him out of orbit failed to disconnect properly as he began to re-enter the atmosphere. With added weight and untested aerodynamics, this could have led to the capsule spiraling out of control and breaking up. Mercifully though, the turbulence caused by re-entry shook the spacecraft and dislodged the rear equipment section. Gagarin landed, alive and an icon of the era.
Too much pressure?
Back on Planet Earth, Gagarin’s dizzying trajectory had only begun. He toured the world as a celebrity, a figure of fascination and a rare envoy from the largely closed-off Soviet Union. His popularity and charm were even said to be behind a perceived threat for then-US president John F. Kennedy, who banned him from the country. There was little doubt that the airman was evidence of a great victory – for technology, for humanity and, indeed, for communist propaganda.
However, the same tough demands and uncompromising pursuit of success that had allowed the USSR to claim the first major title in the space race had unwittingly put Gagarin’s life in danger. A culture of compliance and officials who took a dim view of failure only added to the potential for miscalculation. Before the decade was out, they would claim their first victim despite his warnings.
In 1965, Gagarin himself handed a letter to Kremlin aides addressed to Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev. In it, he claimed that poor funding and a gridlocked management structure were compromising the technical abilities of the nation’s space program. However, progress appeared to have stalled and, while the USSR had since put five more cosmonauts into space, including the first woman, Washington’s efforts were paying off. The Americans had flown 10 Gemini missions in just a few years, while the Soviets had spent two years without a single manned launch. The political pressure to pull back in front was unrelenting.
As a result, the complex Soyuz 1 mission was brought forward. A challenging, multi-part flight plan was devised, which would see the spacecraft rendezvous with another before returning to Earth. Gagarin himself had been a contender to sit in the cockpit, but was eventually made back-up to his friend and long-time colleague Vladimir Komarov.
Take-off, on April 23, 1967, took place amid strong objections from Gagarin. Flight technicians had identified 203 separate structural problems with the rocket that would carry the solo cosmonaut, and he agreed that it simply wasn’t ready for the mission. Komarov himself had reportedly told those close to him that he believed he would die on the mission, but didn’t want to back out and leave his friend’s life on the line. Gagarin repeatedly insisted the mission be postponed, but his protestations were ignored.
The initial phases were a success. But, once in orbit, Komarov radioed in to report that a solar panel had failed to unfold, limiting the vessel’s power. First a sensor array failed, and then the automatic stabilization system, while manual overrides appeared faulty. The mission’s flight plan was aborted, and Gagarin began to read instructions to his friend over the radio as the team on the ground worked to bring the cosmonaut back home.
However, due to a defect, on re-entry the main parachute did not unfold, although accounts conflict on the reasons behind the failure. In their sensational account of the era, ‘Starman’, Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony claim that US listening posts in Turkey picked up signals from Komarov’s spaceship as he hurtled back towards Earth, crying in rage and cursing the engineers and officials behind the mission for putting him in a rocket that was never ready to fly. His charred remains were exhibited in an open casket, the first fatality of mankind’s fascination with the world beyond our planet. Before the end of the decade, as if to underline the dangers of setting foot off solid ground, Gagarin himself was killed in a fatal crash during a routine training mission aboard a fighter jet.
Gagarin’s own fate could easily have been the same on his record-smashing flight. These were early days for space travel, and both the Soviet Union and the US were aggressively competing to break barriers first and take the credit. Like the early explorers who traversed the globe, astronauts and cosmonauts faced uncertain conditions and never-before-seen problems. Some 60 years after Gagarin’s record-breaking flight, 14 American and one Israeli astronaut have given their lives to push mankind’s furthest horizons, along with four Soviet cosmonauts.
While Komarov’s death was a testament to the dangers, his friend Gagarin had been luckier. When he touched down on Earth, he did so as a living monument to human achievement. A boy who grew up in the shadow of war, returning as a man who had conquered the skies. A stretch of faulty wiring or a loosened bolt could have changed history.
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