On the 12 April 1961, Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin made history as the first human being to enter space, in Vostok 1 a Soviet spaceship. His flight lasted just 108 minutes, the distance travelled before he ejected to return to earth by parachute was 40,806 Km and 600M. He had reached a maximum height of 327Km as he circled the earth and he will always be remembered for his heroic part in this display of Soviet scientific excellence.
Gagarin the man was so much more though than this historic 108 minutes.
Born 9 March 1934 in Klushino the young Yuri saw that city occupied during the war by the Nazi hordes. These were difficult years when just surviving each day was a victory. After the city was liberated Gagarin resumed his studies and was inspired by his mathematics teacher, who had fought in the Red Army, to develop himself as fully as he could both mentally and physically.
After leaving school, he worked in a foundry as a moulder until 1954; this was hard work but Gagarin threw himself into whatever he did and enjoyed overcoming his tasks. He then moved to Saratov, learning to fly at an aeroclub and applying to join the Oremburg Military Flying School to train as a fighter pilot. It was here that he first met his future wife, Valentina Goricheva, and by 1957 he was a qualified fighter pilot. Two years later saw him qualify as a trainee cosmonaut.
This is proof not only that he constantly pushed himself to be the best he could be but also that, even though the renegade Khrushchev and his cronies had taken power in the Kremlin, the socialist spirit of the USSR had not yet succumbed to the rottenness of revisionism and the Soviet people were still being encouraged to learn and develop themselves for the good of themselves and their society as a whole. Just one year on, in 1960, he was chosen from 20 candidates to go into space in Vostock 1. It is reported that the first word he spoke during his mission on that day was ‘Poyehali’ which means ‘let’s go! Poyehali is a word which sums up how this proud citizen of the Soviet Union approached life.
After the space flight Gagarin travelled the world, visiting 30 countries, talking to people wherever he went about both spaceflight and the Soviet peace initiatives. He wrote a book on his experiences called I See The World and continued working on the Soviet spaceflight programme even though he was elected to the Supreme Soviet as a Deputy in 1962.
During an interview with a Western journalist discussing the spaceflight, the journalist said to Gagarin: “it is guaranteed that you can relax now for the rest of your life.” Gagarin replied “Relax? Here in the Soviet Union everybody works, including celebrities, Heroes of Socialist Labour of the Soviet Union, and they work with greater dedication. There are thousands of people in this country and they all try to work as best as possible, in order to give an example for others to follow”.
This was not empty talk on Gagarin’s part. Although the great Soviet Union was being destroyed from the top down, he, like many others, believed totally in the socialist ideal and he never stopped working to improve the space programme and try to keep the USSR at the cutting edge of scientific development. Gagarin worked on new designs for reusable spacecraft and in 1967 his work found him involved in the launch of the new Soyuz spacecraft. In 1968 while on one of his regular test flights he crashed and died at the young age of 34 years old. This was no wasted life, Yuri Gagarin was a hero to a whole generation of Soviet children, not just for his 108 minute spaceflight but for the way he lived his life with honour, bravery and humility, for the very fact that he believed all individuals owed a debt to the whole of Soviet society and openly lived his life in that manner.
Such was the love that the Soviet people felt for Gagarin that statues of him were raised in many places while the city of Gzhatsk in the Smolensk region was renamed Gagarin and the Military Aviation Academy in Monino included Gagarin to its name. Many institutions, especially to do with science and flight, took his name and hundreds of streets, squares and schools were to carry his name, many outside of the Soviet Union. His name has also been given to a crater on the moon and a minor planet.
In Britain a statue of Gagarin, a gift from the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos), will be placed in the Mall in July to mark the 50th anniversary of the first spaceflight but, unfortunately, it will only remain there for one year. There are also plans for an exhibition of items from the Soviet space programme, again though only for a limited time.
The British establishment may only plan to celebrate Gagarin’s spaceflight and then only for a limited time but we salute the whole life of this heroic example of Soviet Man whose selflessness and devotion to the cause we share continues to inspire us.