Saint Yuri

The Russians made their first cosmonaut a hero. Did they really know him?

A 10-story statue of Gagarin dominates the modern skyline over Moscow's Leninski Prospect. (--)
Air & Space Magazine

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Despite the mishaps, Korolev believed his engineers were learning from failure, and he pressed ahead with trials of a man-rated version of the Vostok capsule. After a flawless March 9, 1961 test returned a life-size mannequin to Earth along with a dog and some other animals, Korolev, still troubled by the failures of the previous year, called for one last test, using another dummy. The March 25 flight made a single orbit in 115 minutes and returned safely to a site near the city of Izhevsk.

The human passenger for the Vostok 1 flight wasn’t selected until the week before launch. Gagarin, Titov, Grigory Nelyubov, Andrian Nikolaev, and Pavel Popovich all arrived at the launch site in Baikonur on April 5, 1961, uncertain as to who would be the first man to venture into orbit. A committee that included Korolev made its decision known on April 8: Gagarin, with Titov as backup. To the other cosmonauts it was no surprise. Early on the chief designer had shown a special interest in Yuri. But the choice was affirmed by other committee members, including Nikolai Kamanin, the stern director of cosmonaut training, who had reached his conclusion independently.

Gagarin’s wife, Valentina Gagarina, recalls in her memoirs that on April 11, the day before his launch, in a ploy to keep her from worrying, Yuri phoned her from Baikonur and told her that on April 14 he would be involved in something big. It wasn’t until midday on the 12th, when a neighbor told her to turn on the radio, that Gagarina learned that her husband had orbited Earth. By then the news of Yuri’s feat was circling the globe faster than his Vostok sphere.

If Gagarin felt any apprehension about his flight, it didn’t show. Transcripts of his radio communications with the ground, published for the first time by a Russian newspaper in 1991, were full of breezy banter. Asked if he was bored during the final minutes of the countdown, he joked, “If there were some music, I could stand it a little better.” When a nervous Korolev asked: “How do you feel?” a minute and a half into the flight, the first man ever to ride a rocket into space answered back, “I feel fine. How about you?”

Although he stayed busy monitoring onboard systems during his one-hour 48-minute flight, Gagarin had time to enjoy the view. “It is beautiful, it is beautiful,” he said, looking at Earth. He ate and drank, lost his floating pencil, and reported feeling good as he watched the sun rise over North America.

The end of the flight, though, came closer to disaster than the world knew at the time. The Vostok sphere was supposed to separate cleanly from its equipment module, but the two remained tethered by an umbilical line, which set Gagarin tumbling at 30 degrees per second. “I was an entire ‘corps de ballet’—head, then feet, head, then feet, rotating rapidly,” he reported later. He also experienced about 10 Gs, more than expected, until the umbilical cord finally burned through and freed his capsule. Ten minutes of unanticipated tumbling must surely have rattled the Vostok’s first passenger. But in a debriefing session with Korolev, Kamanin, and other space officials the day after the flight, Gagarin played down the episode, saying, “I reasoned that it was not an emergency situation.”

Gagarin was ejected from his capsule at 23,000 feet and landed under two parachute canopies in a plowed field—a fact that he always had to lie about since, according to the rules of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the pilot was supposed to land with his vehicle to be able to claim a “complete flight” for the record books. He shrugged off his parachute harness and walked awkwardly toward a peasant woman and her granddaughter, introduced himself and explained that he was a Soviet who had come from space.

Until that day, every aspect of the Vostok program had been carried out in the total secrecy that characterized military projects behind the Iron Curtain. But by the evening of April 12, Gagarin was one of the most famous names on the planet. In his home country, photos and articles about the world’s first space traveler were splashed across the pages of Pravda and Izvestia for five days, until news of the Bay of Pigs invasion bumped it.

Yuri’s legend, though, kept growing with help from the Communist propaganda machine, which began distributing millions of pictures of the photogenic hero: Gagarin planting a tree, lifting weights, riding a bicycle, looking at flowers, holding a dove, wearing a skydiving rig, watching television with his mother, surrounded by children in a classroom, mixing with workers in a factory lunchroom, playing ice hockey.

“He was a god on Earth who got a sackful of mail every day,” says academician Sergei Belotserkovsky. Gagarin eventually had to have his own Moscow postal code and staff for handling correspondence. Rather than dismissing the thousands of “begging letters” he received, he used his influence to resolve every case he could. Sergei Kiselov, one of Gagarin’s skydiving instructors, attributes the fact that he can still walk to the cosmonaut’s intervention. Kiselov broke his neck when he landed with a heavy camera strapped to his helmet after filming some skydivers in freefall. He was hospitalized with paralysis in his legs, and Gagarin, over the protests of the military doctors, arranged to have him moved to a private hospital in Moscow reserved for the Communist party elite.

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