Less than four years before, on 5 October 1957, the Soviets had launched the first satellite, or Sputnik, into space, followed a month later, on 3 November, almost the fortieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, with a second, this time with a cosmonaut of sorts on board – Laika, a dog. Animal lovers throughout the world protested but Laika proved the first of many canines launched into space by the Soviets.
The Americans were shocked by how far the Soviets had raced ahead, and more so when their own launch, on 6 December 1957, resulted in a humiliating failure when their rocket exploded on take-off. ‘Flopnik,’ teased the press. America felt it was fast becoming a ‘second-rate power’ in the Cold War behind the Soviet Union. In response, the US formed NASA and did finally succeed in launching its own rocket in January 1958.
But the ultimate humiliation came on 12 April 1961, when the Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin (pictured), became the first person in space in a round-the-world flight lasting 108 minutes. Originally, the flight was intended to take place on the 13th, but Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, feeling superstitious, brought it forward a day.
Gagarin was the successful candidate from a list of 20 possible names. The fact that he came from humble origins certainly helped. Also, on a more practical level, his height, or lack of it, (5 ft, 2 inches / 1.57 metres) was considered a benefit within the claustophobic confines of the capsule.
The Motherland Hears
Although Gagarin was later to claim, “I was never nervous during the space flight – there were no grounds for it”, not all the canine cosmonauts returned alive, and it was certainly a very high-risk project.
Gagarin’s fully-automated rocket was launched from Kazakhstan soon after nine on the morning of 12 April. Although fully controlled from the ground, Gagarin had been given a sealed envelope containing the necessary codes in order to take control of his rocket – should the need have arisen. But for most of the 108 minutes, all was under control and Gagarin was able to report back, “The Earth is blue… how wonderful. It is amazing” and whistle a tune by Russian composer, Dmitry Shostakovich, “The Motherland Hears, The Motherland Knows”.
Towards the end of the flight, however, the temperature within the capsule soared and Gagarin almost lost consciousness. But on time, Gagarin was able to eject and parachute down came to Earth, landing safely in the Volga River. Khrushchev repeatedly asked, “Is he alive? Is he alive?” When told that his cosmonaut had landed safely, the celebrations began.
With dashing good looks and a radiant smile, 27-year-old Gagarin returned to Earth a hero. Khrushchev was delighted. He had long pumped money into the Soviet space programme, as had the Americans in theirs. Supremacy in space, so the superpowers believed, equated to control of the Earth.
Khrushchev and Gagarin toured around Moscow in an open-top car. Gagarin became feted wherever he went (see the brief video clip below) and was made Hero of the Soviet Union.
Gagarin – the National Treasure
Afterwards, Gagarin was prohibited from going into space again – he had become too much of a national treasure. So he began training as a fighter pilot.
It was during a training flight, on 27 March 1968, that Gagarin’s MiG-15 plane crashed and 34-year-old Yuri Gagarin, together with his co-pilot, died. He was buried within the Kremlin walls.
Inquests were held and conspiracies abounded but no one could be sure of the exact circumstances that caused Gagarin’s death. But aviation specialists from Russia have recently, after almost a decade of investigations, concluded that an open air vent within Gagarin’s plane caused him to panic and crash.
Ultimately, it was a sad and premature end to a glorious life for the hero with the beguiling smile.
See also Khrushchev and de-Stalinization.
Rupert Colley’s novella, My Brother the Enemy, a dramatic story set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, is now available.