Celebrations are being held today to mark the 50th Anniversary of the first successful manned space flight. At 09.07 am (Moscow Time) on 12 April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin blasted off into orbit around the earth uttering the word ‘Poyekhali’ (‘Here We Go’); thus ushering in the era of human space flight. In the fifty years since Gagarin’s pioneering journey, more than 500 other men and women have followed him into space.
Yuri Gagarin spent a total of 108 minutes in space, before making a safe re-entry and landing after he bailed out from his capsule and parachuted to earth near the Volga river. His first words back on the ground reported that he was well and had no injuries, before receiving official congratulations from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The success of Gagarin’s flight was a major propaganda coup for the Soviet Union, following on from their successful launch of the first space satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, and the Soviet press made much of the fact that Gagarin was ‘the son of humble peasants’ (his parents worked on a collective farm).
Archival documents released in the post-comunist period have demonstrated that Soviet desperation to beat the Americans by putting a man in space led to a number of technical ‘short cuts’ before the launch. There was no time for the development of safety precautions in case of fire or failure to launch, for example. The Soviets were thus taking something of a gamble by going ahead with the launch on 12 April and the success of Gagarin’s flight was by no means assured. Two days before take off, engineers removed some of the electronics from the Vostok to lighten the craft (including sensors for monitoring temperature and pressure levels), after belatedly realising that the combined weight of Gagarin, his spacesuit and his seat was 14 kilograms over the allowed limit. This ‘tinkering’ caused a short circuit which was hurridly patched up the night before the launch. During the flight itself, Gagarin was also beset by a series of malfunctions: portions of the control system failed 156 seconds after lift off; the engine switched off 15 seconds too late; Gagarin struggled to open the breathing valve in his spacesuit after a cord became tangled and towards the end of the flight the temperature in the capsule rose to such a degree that he almost lost consciousness.
The Soviet gamble paid off however, and after the success of his space flight, Gagarin was awarded numerous medals, including that of ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’. He became an international celebrity, appearing on the cover of TIME magazine on 21 April 1961, and travelled widely abroad but remained most feted within the Soviet Union, where he attained heroic standing. Numerous monuments were erected to honour his achievement and streets were named after him in many Soviet cities. Gzhatsk, the town where he spent much of his childhood, was even renamed Gagarin.
However, Gagarin never returned to space. The success of his initial mission and his heroic status made him too valuable for the Soviets to risk losing. Instead he began re-training as a fighter pilot and became deputy director of the Cosmonaut Training Centre near Moscow, which was founded in his honour.
Gagarin was killed in 1968 during a flight training exercise and his ashes were buried in the Kremlin walls on Red Square. His memory lived on however, providing enduring inspiration for Soviet pop culture with commemorative postage stamps, watchbands, music, posters, cards and coins dedicated to preserving his image:
Yuri Gagarin’s popularity and heroic standing have survived the collapse of the USSR unscathed and his achivements remain widely celebrated today. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently described Gagarin’s flight as a ‘revolutionary’ event that changed the world and 50th anniversary celebrations in Russia today will be marked by a number of ceremonies, parties and an honorary 50-gun salute at the Kremlin.
To see the world ‘through Gagarin’s eyes’ as it were, you can watch this wonderful film; First Orbit, which provides a minute by minute recreation of Gagarin’s flight using original mission radio communication, synchronous footage of the Earth shot from the International Space Station and accompanied by a beautiful original composition by Philip Sheppard:
More information about First Orbit can be found here:
The Guardian Newspaper also has a webpage which allows you to ‘Follow Yuri Gagarin’, hosting the First Orbit video and also accompanied by a full written record of communications between Gagarin and Ground Control here:
The BBC have a page dedicated to Gagarin here:
To hear more about Gagarin’s enduring cultural legacy in the USSR, watch the short video, ‘Jukebox Hero: Yuri Gagarin’s Pop Culture Legacy’, by RFE/RL here:
Finally, Google have also celebrated the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s space flight with the creation of a special ‘Google doodle’ on 12 April 2011!