Sixty years after becoming the first person in space, there are few figures more universally admired in Russia today than Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
His smiling face adorns murals across the country. He stands, arms at his sides as if approaching space, on a pedestal 42.5 meters (140 feet) above the traffic flowing down Moscow’s Leninsky Avenue. It is even a favorite subject of tattoos.
The Soviet Union may be gone and Russia’s glory days in space are behind us, but the legend of Gagarin lives on, a symbol of Russian success and, for a Kremlin eager to inspire patriotic courage, a major source of National proud.
“He is a figure that inspires an absolute consensus that unifies the country,” says Gagarin’s biographer Lev Danilkin.
“This is a very rare case in which the vast majority of the population is unanimous.”
The anniversary of Gagarin’s historic flight on April 12, 1961, celebrated every year in Russia as Cosmonautics Day, sees Russians of all ages laying flowers at monuments to his achievement across the country.
The enduring fascination comes not just from his story of ascending from humble beginnings to space pioneer, or even from the mystery surrounding his death.
Gagarin, says historian Alexander Zheleznyakov, was a figure who helped fuel the imagination.
“It transformed us from a simple biological species to one that could imagine an entire universe beyond Earth.”
– Humble beginnings –
The son of a carpenter and farmer who lived through the Nazi occupation, Gagarin trained as a steel worker before becoming a military pilot and then, at age 27, spent 108 minutes in space as his Vostok spacecraft completed a lap around the earth.
He was praised for his bravery and professionalism, an example of the perfect Soviet man, but his legend was also infused with stories of camaraderie, courage and love for his two daughters and his wife Valentina Gagarina.
A long-time secret, Gagarin wrote his wife a touching farewell letter in case she died during their mission.
“If something goes wrong, I ask you, especially you, Valyusha, not to die of pain. Because that’s life,” he wrote, using a diminutive for Valentina.
In an interview with AFP in 2011, cosmonaut Boris Volynov recalled a man who, despite sharing the privileges of the Soviet elite, spent hours on the phone to get medicine or a place in a hospital for his less well-off friends.
Upon his return to Earth, Gagarin found himself at the center of a propaganda campaign about the superiority of the Soviet model.
Biographer Danilkin says that the authorities used Gagarin as an example to the rest of the world, but also to convince Soviet citizens, who had endured the repressions of World War II and the Stalin era, “that the sacrifices of the previous decades were not in vain. ” .
President Vladimir Putin, he said, has co-opted that legacy to cement his own grip on power, promoting Soviet victories to encourage support for his 20-year rule.
“The current authorities methodically appropriate popular cults: first that of victory during World War II, then the conquest of space,” says Danilkin.
– Tragic hero –
Like all great Russian heroes, Gagarin is a tragic figure.
His death during a training flight in 1968 at the age of 34 remains a mystery because the authorities never released the full report of the investigation into the causes of the accident.
Partial records suggest that its MiG-15 fighter jet collided with a weather balloon, but in the absence of transparency, alternative theories abound.
One maintains that Gagarin was drunk at the controls; another who was eliminated by the Kremlin who feared his popularity.
More than 40 years later, many Russians still have not accepted his death.
“How could the superior cosmonaut, such a young and kind man, die like this all of a sudden?” says historian Zheleznyakov.
“People are still trying to get over it.”
To take off! Pioneers of space
Paris (AFP) April 7, 2021: Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space 60 years ago next week.
He was one of several stars in the Cold War space race between the Soviet Union and the United States who would become heroes to millions.
But the technology that sent them into orbit had less glorious origins in the last days of Nazi Germany.
– Germans –
Many of the key rocket scientists behind the American and Soviet space programs were Germans, who had worked on Adolf Hitler’s “secret weapons”, the V-1 and V-2 rockets.
Some 1,600 German rocket experts were secretly brought to the United States in the closing days of World War II, while the Russians rounded up about 2,000 in one night at gunpoint and sent them to work in the Soviet Union.
Wernher von Braun
The inventor of Hitler’s V-2 rocket, the world’s first guided ballistic missile, was the architect of the American Apollo program that would land a man on the moon.
Brought across the Atlantic with his brother Magnus, he came up with the Saturn V rocket that powered the American lunar missions. He died in 1977 still defending manned missions to Mars.
Kurt H. Debus
Von Braun’s friend, Debus was Hitler’s flight test director for the V-1 and V-2.
In 1952, he began construction of rocket launch facilities at Cape Canaveral in Florida and later was director of operations for what would become the Kennedy Space Center, overseeing the flight of the first American astronaut Alan Shepard and missions to the Moon. .
– The Soviets –
The first man in space, Gagarin, was chosen from 3,000 candidates.
It completed a single 108-minute orbit aboard Vostok-1 on April 12, 1961 after declaring “Let’s go!”
He died in 1968 at the age of 34 in a still unexplained plane crash.
Gagarin’s understudy for the historic 1961 flight, Titov, never got over disappointment.
Four months later, it orbited Earth 17 times in Vostok-2. He was elected to the Russian parliament in 1995.
The then 30-year-old made the first spacewalk in history since Voskhod 2 in 1965.
It lasted 12 minutes and nine seconds and nearly killed him when his spacesuit inflated due to a lack of atmospheric pressure. He had to purge some of the oxygen, risking death.
Later, Leonov participated in the groundbreaking Apollo-Soyuz mission that ushered in a new era of space cooperation between the Soviets and the US in 1975.
The first woman in space, she spent almost three days in orbit in June 1963.
It had to overcome a number of problems during the flight, which were not revealed until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
She is still the only woman to have carried out a solo mission.
Soviet chief rocket engineer Korolev recorded successes from the launch of Sputnik 1 to Gagarin’s historic flight. His role was only revealed after his death in 1966.
Komarov became the first person to die in space on April 23, 1967 after a 26-hour flight on Soyuz 1.
A parachute failed to re-enter, causing his ship to plummet to Earth.
– The Americans –
The first American flight in space, Shepard’s flight on Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961, was suborbital, rising to an altitude of 186 kilometers (116 miles).
He later commanded Apollo 14 in 1971 and became the fifth person to walk on the Moon, where he played golf.
The first American to orbit Earth in February 1962, he was later elected as a United States Senator, in office until 1999.
In 1998, at the age of 77, Glenn became the oldest person to go into space when he traveled aboard the space shuttle Discovery.
In June 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to be sent into space, on the Space Shuttle Challenger.
He was also involved in a 1986 commission that investigated the loss of the ship. He died of cancer at age 61 in 2012.
Armstrong was the first human to set foot on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Despite softening his line a bit – “That is a small step for (a) man, a great leap for humanity” – it has since been recorded in history.
His crewmates were Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, who followed him 20 minutes later, and Michael Collins, who remained alone in lunar orbit.
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