The First Starman
Today, we’ll discuss something that happened 60 years ago — April 1961 — that changed the world; indeed, it changed the world and outer space beyond.
We still live with the impact of this event.
And we’ll get there in just a moment.
But first, let’s look further back in time to a small village called Klushino, nestled in the rolling hills around Smolensk, in western Russia. There’s no particular reason to know the name, other than that it sits on what military historians call the “invasion route” towards Moscow.
In the summer of 1812, Napoleon’s army confidently marched east through Klushino on its way to conquer Russia. Later that year the same, much diminished Napoleonic army marched again through the town, this time westward as it fell back in an utter rout.
Our focus, though, is on Klushino in October 1941 when another army — German, this time — overran and seized the place.
One captive was a young, 7-year-old boy whose parents worked on a Soviet collective farm. The Germans expelled him and his family from their house to free up rooms for invading soldiers. The evicted Russians moved into a small animal outhouse exposed to the elements.
The Germans burned Klushino’s school, ending this child’s education. And then, within a short time, they tried to hang his brothers, who in turn ran off. In retaliation the young boy snuck about and poured dirt into the fuel tanks of German vehicles.
The Germans caught the child-saboteur, beat him like a dog, placed him on a starvation diet, and put him to work hauling soiled, blood-soaked trash out of a military hospital.
On March 9, 1944, the Soviet Red Army freed what was left of Klushino from German occupation; coincidentally, it was the boy’s 10th birthday.
Which brings us to the heart of the story. So let’s dig in…
Here was this 10-year-old farm boy, newly liberated in a war-ravaged landscape. He had no education. Many family members were dead. He was undernourished and in ill health after three years of captivity.
Over time, a kind neighbor taught this youngster how to read. Along the way, he picked up the basics of arithmetic from a discarded army manual.
Later, at age 16, this youngster took a job in a steel foundry. Then in 1951, after a year of night school at his factory, he graduated from seventh grade.
There’s more to the story, but let’s jump ahead by 10 years, to April 12, 1961.
At age 27, this child of war was a Soviet Cosmonaut, and he became one of the most famous names in the world.
Yuri Gagarin (1934 – 68), first man in space. Courtesy Russian Ministry of Defense.
His name was Yuri Gagarin, and he was the first man to orbit the earth in outer space.
In many respects, you could not have picked a more unlikely candidate to perform what was truly a first in human history.
Then again, it’s not hard to understand why Gagarin was exactly the right man for the job. “I am a simple Soviet man,” he once quipped. “I was born to the family of a peasant. There were no princes or nobility in my family tree.”
Returning to Gagarin the foundryman in 1951, he quickly moved up the ladder to become a mold-maker. Then, in a quintessentially Soviet success story, he landed another job at… wait for it… a tractor factory!
While building tractors, Gagarin also took flight lessons at a local flying club. Meanwhile, he studied math, physics, aeronautics and other scientific preliminaries. He wanted to apply for flight training in the Soviet air force.
By 1955 Gagarin was a cadet in a military academy. And in 1956 he was commissioned as a pilot in his country’s air corps. He showed promise and was assigned to fly a first-generation jet fighter plane, the MiG-15.
Strapped into a high-performance airplane cockpit, Gagarin began to accumulate flight time, but not all that much by the standards of experienced pilotage. Within a year, by 1957 he had all of 265 hours in his logbook.
By comparison, the Soviet Union had thousands of far more experienced pilots, many with flight time calculated in multiple tens of thousands of hours. In this sense, Gagarin was scarcely past being a trainee, or what we would (affectionately) call a “nugget” in the U.S. Navy.
Plus, the ranks of Soviet pilots were filled with multitudes of seasoned combat veterans from World War II. Add in a large cadre of experienced jet pilots who had engaged in aerial dogfights with Americans during the Korean War. By these metrics too, Gagarin was an aviation novice.
Then again, Gagarin’s next level of selection was overseen not by war-fighting generals focused on combat flying, but by an organization with a bland-sounding name, the Central Flight Medical Commission.
Bland name or no, this group had clout. It was staffed with the Soviet Union’s premier aviation physiologists and tasked by the highest authorities to select pilots to become Cosmonauts for the country’s fledgling space program.
And here is where fate played one of her tricks.
Those childhood years of wartime privation and undernourishment gave Gagarin an advantage. That is, one key criterion for Cosmonaut selection was that the candidate could be no more than 1.7 meters tall (5 ft., 7 in.) in order to fit inside the spaceflight system under design.
And due to lack of childhood nutrition, Gagarin was short. He met the spec.
In fact, Gagarin was a mere 1.57 meters (5 ft., 2 in.) tall. He easily fit within the tight confines of the proposed space capsule.
After sifting through records of thousands of Soviet pilots, Gagarin was one of 29 candidates nominated for Cosmonaut status by the air force brass. Of these, 20 were selected after a rigorous scrub of personal histories.
This last point also matters. Per Soviet ideology, it helped greatly that Gagarin was of farm-tilling, Russian peasant stock. Plus, his life story included front line resistance against Germans during the war.
Gagarin’s “blood and soil” background resonated well not just with the selection committee for space flight, but eventually across the broad spectrum of Soviet society. At the same time, however, Gagarin was no mere token. He was sharp as a tack.
Gagarin impressed colleagues and superior officers with his diligence. He pursued education, emphasizing math and physics. That, and he exercised hard and made practice parachute jumps for fun.
According to one Soviet military physician in the space program, Gagarin exhibited strong traits:
“A high degree of intellectual development; fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his sharp and far-ranging sense of attention to his surroundings; a well-developed imagination; quick reactions; persevering, prepares himself painstakingly for his activities and training exercises, handles celestial mechanics and mathematical formulae with ease as well as excels in higher mathematics.”1
Not bad for a self-educated child of war, a steel mill foundryman, and former employee at a tractor factory.
It’s a long story, but after a rigorous process Gagarin came out ahead of all others. He was destined to ride that first manned Russian rocket.
And on April 12, 1961, Gagarin sat in a capsule atop a mighty missile created by no less than the legendary “chief designer” Sergei Korolev.
Soviet Vostok 3KA system, of the type flown by Gagarin. Russian Ministry of Defense.
The fuel ignited, nozzles roared and Gagarin began his journey.
“Off we go,” shouted Gagarin into his radio, above the noise and vibration. “Until we meet again soon, dear friends!”
Stage 1 pushed Gagarin through the thick blanket of the earth’s lower atmosphere. Stage 2 took him to the edge of space. And with stage 3 he had orbital velocity.
After 108 minutes and a single trip around the earth, Gagarin’s capsule descended to land in Kazakhstan.
The Soviets were concerned about safely landing a capsule with someone inside. So the procedure was that, at about 23,000 feet altitude, Gagarin would eject and parachute to earth.
Everything went as planned, and Gagarin hit the dirt near a group of Kazak farmers working in a field.
“When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked,” Gagarin later recounted, “they started to back away in fear. I said don’t be afraid. I’m Soviet just like you.”
Yuri Gagarin, first man in space.2
Until that moment, Gagarin’s mission — indeed, much of the Soviet space program — worked behind a thick curtain of secrecy.
But after that successful first manned orbit of the planet, the Soviets pulled out all stops. Gagarin had flown faster, higher, farther than any man since the dawn of time. And Soviet leaders trumpeted the achievement.
Instantly, Gagarin became a national hero and global celebrity. He received medals, prizes and titles. He was feted and paraded. He traveled across the Soviet Union and the world, from Bulgaria to Brazil.
He visited Canada too, but not the U.S. per a bar on entry dictated in a tawdry fit of Cold War pique by President John F. Kennedy.3
Gagarin’s popularity was a problem, however. His value as a political symbol exceeded the large Soviet investment in him as a pilot-Cosmonaut. Thus did Soviet officials bar Gagarin from future space flight, out of concern over losing such a national hero in an accident.
Per one account, Gagarin was, “too dear to mankind to risk his life for the sake of an ordinary space flight.”4
Gagarin made his one orbit and never again flew into space. He remained an earthbound, ceremonial Cosmonaut in service of the Soviet state. He traveled the USSR and world as Exhibit 1 of the superiority of Soviet education, science, engineering and certainly of space flight.
On occasion, Gagarin described his adventure in a manner far from political, and in fact near poetic. “I enjoyed the rich color spectrum of the earth,” he once said. “It is surrounded by a light blue aureole that gradually darkens, becoming turquoise, dark blue, violet and finally coal black.”
Other times he said things that made more sense than many political actors might have wanted to hear, like this: “Looking at the earth from afar you realize it is too small for conflict and just big enough for cooperation.”
Gagarin may have been grounded from space travel, but he continued to fly as a jet pilot. At least his handlers gave him that much leash.
But then on March 27, 1968, his aircraft hit turbulence, flipped over, and entered a spin from which he did not recover.
Age 34, Gagarin died in the crash of a MiG-15, about 120 miles east of Moscow.
Gagarin, Kremlin Wall5
His body was recovered and cremated, and his ashes are interred in the Kremlin Wall.
Post-mortem, Gagarin was honored across the Soviet Union, and indeed the world. Among other places, you can find his likeness on the wall of a subway station in Moscow:
Gagarin memorialized in fired tile, Moscow Subway.
And there are literally hundreds of other tributes and remembrances to Gagarin, from London to Houston, from India to Indonesia.
In a gracious act authorized by President Nixon, the first U.S. moon landing in 1969 left a tribute to Gagarin on the lunar surface.
And this last item illustrates a point about the space race between the U.S. and Soviet Union. It began not in the 1960s, but in 1945 at the end of World War II, with the mad scramble by each side to pick up pieces of Germany’s rocket program.
Meanwhile, Gagarin’s 1961 orbital success caught the world by surprise. And it illustrates how post-war, U.S. intelligence agencies and policymakers always seemed to underestimate the scientific prowess of the Soviets, even in such critical sectors as rocketry (let alone in nuclear weapons and much more).
Throughout the 1950s, the U.S. promoted a rocket and space program. But as results played out, America constantly seemed to be a few steps behind the Soviets, who met with great success.
And indeed, the chronology of Soviet firsts is what it is. In 1957 the Soviets launched the first orbiting satellite, Sputnik, which shocked the U.S. government and people to the core. Then in 1959 the Soviets ignited the first rocket motor in space.
In 1961 Gagarin was the first man in space. In 1963 Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space. Then in 1965 Alexei Leonov conducted the first spacewalk.
Eventually the U.S. charged ahead for a few decades in the realm of manned space missions. The Mercury-Gemini-Apollo Programs were successful, eventually landing Americans on the moon. The follow-on space shuttle program was expensive, cumbersome and dangerous, but effective.
But for the past decade, the U.S. went through a period of no national means of access to manned space flight. NASA launched its Astronauts from a Russian cosmodrome, atop Russian rockets. Closer to home, many U.S. rockets (manned and unmanned) still rely on Russian engines.
There’s much more to discuss along the lines of rocketry and where the U.S. is heading as a space-faring nation.
But for now, this 60th anniversary date belongs to Yuri Gagarin. He was a remarkable man of humble origins, touched by fate to become the central actor of an astonishing story.
It’s Gagarin’s day. He was the first Starman.
On that note, I rest my case.
That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
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5 Urn With Y. A. Gagarin’s remains (1934-1968), Moscow Kremlin, Moscow, Wikimedia Commons