As Vostok 1 lifted off, Yuri Gagarin said to the world: “Poyekhali!" (Let’s go!”). The first man in space spent 108 minutes orbiting the earth. He landed separately from Vostok 1, parachuting down in the middle of a field, greeted by a woman and her daughter 370 miles off target. The cosmonaut reportedly said to the stunned farm women, “Don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!” If only he had an iPhone.
Russia announced last week that it wants to build a moon base to help facilitate manned missions to mars. The United States, meanwhile, will stop flying manned missions later this month and space travel may become just another thrill ride for the very rich. With budget crises and wars to fight, there is a good argument to curtail the U.S. space program.
In Russia, the silver Monument to the Conquerers of Space pays tribute to Yuri's time, when space travel was for a few select heroes. The monument streaks up to the sky, topped with a rocket. At its base is Cosmonaut’s Alley, a pathway lined with busts of famous Russian cosmonuats directing the visitor to Moscow’s space museum. Yuri Gagarin’s bust is proudly in line. April 12, 2011 marks fifty years since he ducked into the Vostok 1 capsule to be launched into earth’s orbit like a human shot from a cannon. And although it seems almost quaint to climb into a tinfoil ball in an orange jumpsuit, it must’ve taken guts to volunteer for the job.
I visited the space museum in 2004. At the time it was just a few rooms, blue carpets and colored lights – more like a church basement than a national museum (it’s since been redone). I saw silvery replicas of space capsules, a tube of space borscht, and, of course, the two stuffed space dogs who returned from their flight aboard Sputnik 5 (Belka and Strelka). What were at the time great feats of unfathomable science had taken on the 1960s charm of Mad Men.
However, in 1961, the idea of climbing into a metal ball to be shot up into the atmosphere (the only survivors so far were some mice, monkeys and two canines), must have been otherworldly. Gagarin was in great shape, outgoing, and strong. He had a winning smile and a sense of humor. He was also small, reportedly chosen to go into the Vostok 1 because his 5’2 frame was best suited for the mission. As the son of workers on a collective farm, his parenting ensured that he had his politics in the right (Soviet) place. He was hero material. And he was prepared.
According to his daughter, Elena Gagarina, in an interview with the British Council, “The training of the first cosmonauts was extremely harsh and tested them beyond the limits of many men.”
Remember the scene in “The Right Stuff,” when the men undergo grueling testing? It's the scene where Dennis Quaid manages to keep his cool in an isolation chamber filled with harsh noise, red light and steam; and Ed Harris, playing John Glenn, shows off his lung capacity. I bet Gagarin underwent tests worse than those. How do you prepare for something when you just don't know what's going to happen?
Gagarin only got to go up in space once. Khrushchev didn’t want to risk losing him to the dangers of space travel. Instead, the cosmonaut began training for fighter jet missions. He died in an accident in 1968, most likely because he had to quickly avoid a weather balloon, according to recently released documents.
Also among these recently released documents were transcripts from Gagrin’s pre takeoff conversation with rocket designer Sergei Korolyov, in which they discuss Gagarin’s supply of food for the 108 minute trip. Here's the exchange (via The Telegraph):
"You've got sausage, candy and jam to go with the tea," Korolyov went on. "Sixty-three pieces – you'll get fat! When you get back today, eat everything right away."
Gagarin joked back: "The main thing is that there is sausage – to go with the moonshine."
Below: Archival video of Gagarin
Here's a "Russia Today" report on Gagarin:
And here are clips form my trip to Moscow’s space Museum: