An Aviation and Cosmonautics Day: Yuri Gagarin

12Apr 2019
The Guardian
An Aviation and Cosmonautics Day: Yuri Gagarin

On April 12 the whole World celebrates an Aviation and Cosmonautics Day – a date to commemorate the first ever flight of human in space. On April 12, 1961 a citizen of the Soviet Union, first lieutenant Yuri Gagarin orbited the Erath onboard “Vostok” spacecraft for the first time in mankind history

 thus opening the era of manned space missions.

Nowadays it is a special date – a day of science triumph, a day of all the people involved in aerospace industry, a day of those who remember the history of conquering the near-Earth space, those proud for achievements of our cosmonautics, those interested in prospects of space programs development.

 Gagarin’s flight, on April 12, 1961, lasted 108 minutes as he circled the Earth for a little more than one orbit in the Soviet Union's Vostok spacecraft. Following the flight, Gagarin became a cultural hero in the Soviet Union. Even today, more than six decades after the historic flight, Gagarin is widely celebrated in Russian space museums, with numerous artifacts, busts and statues displayed in his honor. His remains are buried at the Kremlin in Moscow, and part of his spacecraft is on display at the RKK Energiya museum.

Gagarin's flight came at a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were competing for technological supremacy in space. The Soviet Union had already sent the first artificial satellite, called Sputnik, into space in October 1957.

Before Gagarin's mission, the Soviets sent a test flight into space using a prototype of the Vostok spacecraft. During this flight, they sent a life-size dummy called Ivan Ivanovich and a dog named Zvezdochka into space. After the test flight, the Soviet's considered the vessel fit to take a human into space. 

Becoming a legendary astronaut

The third of four children, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was born on March 9, 1934, in a small village a hundred miles from Moscow. As a teenager, Gagarin witnessed a Russian Yak fighter plane make an emergency landing near his home. When offered a chance years later to join a flying club, he eagerly accepted, making his first solo flight in 1955. Only a few years later, he submitted his request to be considered as a cosmonaut. More than 200 Russian Air Force fighter pilots were selected as cosmonaut candidates. Such pilots were considered optimal because they had exposure to the forces of acceleration and the ejection process, as well as experience with high-stress situations. Gagarin, a 27-year-old senior lieutenant at the time, was among the pilots selected.

On April 12, 1961, at 9:07 a.m. Moscow time, the Vostok 1 spacecraft blasted off from the Soviets' launch site. Because no one was certain how weightlessness would affect a pilot, the spherical capsule had little in the way of onboard controls; the work was done either automatically or from the ground. If an emergency arose, Gagarin was supposed to receive an override code that would allow him to take manual control, but Sergei Korolev, chief designer of the Soviet space program, disregarded protocol and gave the code to the pilot prior to the flight.

Over the course of 108 minutes, Vostok 1 traveled around the Earth once, reaching a maximum height of 203 miles (327 kilometers). The spacecraft carried 10 days' worth of provisions in case the engines failed and Gagarin was required to wait for the orbit to naturally decay. But the supplies were unnecessary. Gagarin re-entered Earth's atmosphere, managing to maintain consciousness as he experienced forces up to eight times the pull of gravity during his descent.

Vostok 1 had no engines to slow its re-entry and no way to land safely. About 4 miles (7 km) up, Gagarin ejected from the spacecraft and parachuted to Earth.

 Gagarin's legacy

Upon his return to Earth, Gagarin was an international hero. A cheering crowd of hundreds of thousands of people greeted him in Red Square, a public plaza in Moscow. A national treasure, Gagarin traveled around the world to celebrate the historic Soviet achievement.

When he returned home, Gagarin became a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union (the highest legislative body in the Soviet Union) and was appointed commander of the Cosmonauts' Detachment. He continued to make test flights for the Air Force, however.

On March 27, 1968, Gagarin was killed (along with another pilot) while test-piloting a MiG-15, a jet fighter aircraft. NASA's Apollo 11, the first mission to put people on the moon, landed in July 1969, and the crew left behind a commemorative medallion bearing Gagarin's name. They also left medallions for other astronauts who lost their lives in space or while preparing for spaceflight.

Over time,the Soviet Union and the U.S.began working together in their spaceflight endeavors. The first joint Soviet -U.S.spaceflight was in 1975, called Apollo-Soyuz. Following that, NASA sent several space shuttle astronauts to Soviet/Russian space station Mir after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The shuttle-Mir collaboration paved the way for NASA and the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) to become major partners in the International Space Station program, which first launched modules in 1998 and continues research today.

Gagarin's importance in the Russian space program continues. Crews using the Soyuz spacecraft participate in a number of prelaunch traditions prior to climbing on to the spacecraft to follow in the footsteps of Gagarin's historic flight. Beyond that, Gagarin is often held up as an example of character and heroism to younger children in Russia.The 60th anniversary of Gagarin's flight will be in 2021. The space community also commemorates Gagarin's achievement every year with Yuri's Night, a celebration that takes place on his launch date of April 12. Yuri's Night was founded in 2001 and attracts thousands of celebrants each year.

His parents worked on a collective farm:  Alexey Ivanovich Gagarin as a carpenter and bricklayer, and Anna Timofeyevna Gagarina as a milkmaid.  Yuri was the third of four children: older brother Valentin, older sister Zoya, and younger brother Boris.  

Like millions of people in the Soviet Union, the Gagarin family suffered during Nazi occupation in World War II. Klushino was occupied in November 1941 during the German advance on Moscow, and an officer took over the Gagarin residence. The family was allowed to build a mud hut, approximately 3 by 3 metres (10 by 10 ft) inside, on the land behind their house, where they spent a year and nine months until the end of the occupation.[5] His two older siblings were deported by the Germans to Poland for slave labour in 1943, and did not return until after the war in 1945.  In 1946, the family moved to Gzhatsk, where Gagarin continued his secondary education.  

In 1950, Gagarin entered into an apprenticeship at age 16 as a foundryman at the Lyubertsy Steel Plant near Moscow,  and also enrolled at a local "young workers" school for seventh grade evening classes. After graduating in 1951 from both the seventh grade and the vocational school with honours in moldmaking and foundry work,  he was selected for further training at the Saratov Industrial Technical School, where he studied tractors.  While in Saratov, Gagarin volunteered for weekend training as a Soviet air cadet at a local flying club, where he learned to fly — at first in a biplane and later in a Yak-18 trainer.  He also earned extra money as a part-time dock labourer on the Volga River.  

Soviet Air Force

After he graduated from the technical school in 1955, the Soviet Army drafted Gagarin.[7] On a recommendation, Gagarin was sent to the First Chkalov Air Force Pilot's School in Orenburg, and soloed in a MiG-15 in 1957.  After graduation, he was assigned to the Luostari airbase in Murmansk Oblast, close to the Norwegian border, where terrible weather made flying risky. He became a Lieutenant in the Soviet Air Forces on 5 November 1957; on 6 November 1959 he received the rank of Senior Lieutenant.   In 1960, after an extensive search and selection process, Gagarin was chosen with 19 other pilots for the Soviet space program. Gagarin was further selected for an elite training group known as the Sochi Six, from which the first cosmonauts of the Vostok programme would be chosen. Gagarin and other prospective candidates were subjected to experiments designed to test physical and psychological endurance; he also underwent training for the upcoming flight. Gagarin experienced microgravity with the use of a drop tower, which allowed for 2–3 seconds of weightlessness.[10] The eventual choices for the first launch were Gagarin and Gherman Titov due to their performance during training sessions as well as their physical characteristics — space was limited in the small Vostok cockpit, and both men were short. Gagarin was 1.57 metres (5 ft 2 in) tall.[2] 

In August 1960, when Gagarin was one of 20 possible candidates, a Soviet Air Force doctor evaluated his personality as follows: 

Modest; embarrasseswhen his humor gets a little too racy; high degree of intellectual development evident in Yuriy; 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; does not feel constrained when he has to defend his point of view if he considers himself right; appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends. ] 

Gagarin was also a favoured candidate by his peers. When the 20 candidates were asked to anonymously vote for which other candidate they would like to see as the first to fly, all but three chose Gagarin.[12] One of these candidates, Yevgeny Khrunov, believed that Gagarin was very focused, and was demanding of himself and others when necessary.  

Gagarin kept physically fit throughout his life, and was a keen sportsman. Cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky wrote: Service in the Air Force made us strong, both physically and morally. All of us cosmonauts took up sports and PT seriously when we served in the Air Force. I know that Yuri Gagarin was fond of ice hockey. He liked to play goal keeper... I don't think I am wrong when I say that sports became a fixture in the life of the cosmonauts.  In addition to being a keen ice hockey player, Gagarin was also a basketball fan, and coached the Saratov Industrial Technical School team, as well as being a referee.    On 12 April 1961, 6:07 am UTC, the Vostok 3KA-3 (Vostok 1) spacecraft with Gagarin aboard was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome. The five first-stage engines fired until the first separation event, when the four side boosters fell away leaving on the core engine. The core stage then separated while the rocket was in a suborbital trajectory, and the upper stage carried it to orbit. Once the upper stage finished firing, it separated from the spacecraft. The spacecraft orbited for 108 minutes before returning to Earth, landing in Kazakhstan.  As planned, during descent Gagarin ejected from the capsule and parachuted to the ground.  Gagarin thus became both the first human to travel into space, and the first to orbit the Earth. His call sign was Kedr (Russian: Кедр, Siberian pine or Cedar).      

The radio communication between the launch control room and Gagarin included the following dialogue at the moment of rocket launch: Korolev: "Preliminary stage..... intermediate..... main..... lift off! We wish you a good flight. Everything is all right."  Gagarin's informal poyekhali! became a historical phrase in the Eastern Bloc, used to refer to the beginning of the Space Age in human history.  In his post-flight report, Gagarin recalled his experience of spaceflight, having been the first human in space:The feeling of weightlessness was somewhat unfamiliar compared with Earth conditions. Here, you feel as if you were hanging in a horizontal position in straps. You feel as if you are suspended. 

 Following the flight, Gagarin told the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that during reentry he had whistled the tune "The Motherland Hears, The Motherland Knows".  The first two lines of the song are: "The Motherland hears, the Motherland knows/Where her son flies in the sky".  This patriotic song was written by Dmitri Shostakovich in 1951 (opus 86), with words by Yevgeniy Dolmatovsky. 

There were concerns that his spaceflight record would not be certified due to his ejection from the spacecraft. Prior records required that the pilot land with the craft. The spaceflight records were later certified.  

Some sources have claimed that Gagarin commented during the flight, "I don't see any God up here." However, no such words appear in the verbatim record of his conversations with Earth-based stations during the spaceflight.  In a 2006 interview, Gagarin's friend Colonel Valentin Petrov stated that the cosmonaut never said such words, and that the quote originated from Nikita Khrushchev's speech at the plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU about the state's anti-religion campaign, saying "Gagarin flew into space, but didn't see any god there."  Petrov also said that Gagarin had been baptised into the Orthodox Church as a child, and a 2011 Foma magazine article quoted the rector of the Orthodox church in Star City saying, "Gagarin baptized his elder daughter Yelena shortly before his space flight; and his family used to celebrate Christmas and Easter and keep icons in the house."  After the Soviet space program

Gagarin's flight was a triumph for the Soviet space program. The announcement on the Soviet radio was made by Yuri Levitan, the same speaker who announced all major events in the Great Patriotic War. Gagarin became a national hero of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, and a worldwide celebrity. Newspapers around the globe published his biography and details of his flight. Moscow and other cities in the Soviet Union held mass demonstrations, the scale of which was second only to World War II Victory Parades. Gagarin was escorted in a long motorcade of high-ranking officials through the streets of Moscow to the Kremlin where, in a lavish ceremony, he was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, by Nikita Khrushchev.[28] 

 Later on, Gagarin toured widely abroad. He visited Italy, Germany, Canada, Brazil, Japan, Egypt[29] and Finland to promote the Soviet Union's accomplishment of putting the first human in space. He visited the United Kingdom three months after the Vostok 1 mission, going to London and Manchester.  

The sudden rise to fame took its toll on Gagarin. While acquaintances say Gagarin had been a "sensible drinker", his touring schedule placed him in social situations where he was always expected to drink. Gagarin was also reportedly caught by his wife in a room with another woman, a nurse named Anna who had aided him after a boating incident earlier in the day, at a Black Sea resort in September 1961. He attempted to escape by leaving through a window and jumping off her second floor balcony, hitting his face on a kerbstone and leaving a permanent scar above his left eyebrow.  In 1962, he began serving as a Deputy to the Soviet of the Union,  and was elected to the Central Committee of the Young Communist League. He later returned to Star City, the cosmonaut facility, where he spent several years working on designs for a reusable spacecraft. He became a lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Forces on 12 June 1962, and received the rank of colonel on 6 November 1963.[9] Soviet officials tried to keep him away from any flights, being worried of losing their hero in an accident. Gagarin was backup pilot for his friend Vladimir Komarov in the Soyuz 1 flight, which was launched despite Gagarin's protests that additional safety precautions were necessary.  When Komarov's flight ended in a fatal crash, Gagarin was permanently banned from training for and participating in further spaceflights. 

On 20 December 1963, Gagarin had become Deputy Training Director of the Star City cosmonaut training base.  Two years later he was re-elected as a deputy to the SSSU, but this time to the Soviet of Nationalities.  The following year he began to re-qualify as a fighter pilot.  On 17 February 1968 he successfully defended his aerospace engineering thesis on the subject of spaceplane aerodynamic configuration, passing with flying colours.  Death

 On 27 March 1968, while on a routine training flight from Chkalovsky Air Base, he and flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin died in a MiG-15UTI crash near the town of Kirzhach. The bodies of Gagarin and Seryogin were cremated and the ashes were buried in the walls of the Kremlin on Red Square.  

Cause of jet crash

The cause of the crash that killed Gagarin is not entirely certain, and has been subject to speculation about conspiracy theories over the ensuing decades. 

Soviet documents declassified in March 2003 showed that the KGB had conducted their own investigation of the accident, in addition to one government and two military investigations. The KGB's report dismissed various conspiracy theories, instead indicating that the actions of airbase personnel contributed to the crash. The report states that an air traffic controller provided Gagarin with outdated weather information, and that by the time of his flight, conditions had deteriorated significantly. Ground crew also left external fuel tanks attached to the aircraft. Gagarin's planned flight activities needed clear weather and no outboard tanks. The investigation concluded that Gagarin's aircraft entered a spin, either due to a bird strike or because of a sudden move to avoid another aircraft. Because of the out-of-date weather report, the crew believed their altitude to be higher than it actually was, and could not react properly to bring the MiG-15 out of its spin.  

Another theory, advanced in 2005 by the original crash investigator, hypothesizes that a cabin air vent was accidentally left open by the crew or the previous pilot, leading to oxygen deprivation and leaving the crew incapable of controlling the aircraft.  A similar theory, published in Air & Space magazine, is that the crew detected the open vent and followed procedure by executing a rapid dive to a lower altitude. This dive caused them to lose consciousness and crash.  

On 12 April 2007, the Kremlin vetoed a new investigation into the death of Gagarin. Government officials said that they saw no reason to begin a new investigation.

 In April 2011, documents from a 1968 commission set up by the Central Committee of the Communist Party to investigate the accident were declassified. Those documents revealed that the commission's original conclusion was that Gagarin or Seryogin had manoeuvred sharply either to avoid a weather balloon or to avoid "entry into the upper limit of the first layer of cloud cover", leading the jet into a "super-critical flight regime and to its stalling in complex meteorological conditions".  

In his 2004 book Two Sides of the Moon, cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who was part of a State Commission established to investigate the death in 1968, recounts that he was flying a helicopter in the same area that day when he heard "two loud booms in the distance." Corroborating other theories, his conclusion is that a Sukhoi jet (which he identifies as a Su-15 'Flagon') was flying below its minimum allowed altitude, and "without realizing it because of the terrible weather conditions, he passed within 10 or 20 meters of Yuri and Seregin's plane while breaking the sound barrier." The resulting turbulence would have sent the MiG into an uncontrolled spin.

Leonov believes the first boom he heard was that of the jet breaking the sound barrier, and the second was Gagarin's plane crashing.  In a June 2013 interview with Russian television network RT, Leonov said that a declassified report on the incident revealed the presence of a second, "unauthorized" Su-15 flying in the area. Leonov states that this aircraft had descended to 450 metres (1,480 ft) and that, while running afterburners, "the aircraft reduced its echelon at a distance of 10–15 meters in the clouds, passing close to Gagarin, turning his plane and thus sending it into a tailspin – a deep spiral, to be precise – at a speed of 750 kilometers per hour." As a condition of being allowed to discuss the report, however, Leonov was required to not disclose the name of the Su-15 pilot, who was reported to be 80 years old (as of 2013) and in poor health.  

Personal life

In 1957, while at the First Chkalov Air Force Pilot's School in Orenburg, Gagarin met Valentina Ivanovna Goryacheva,  a medical technician graduate of the Orenburg Medical School.  They were married on 7 November 1957, the same day Gagarin graduated from Orenburg, and they have two daughters.  The Gagarins had two daughters: Yelena Yurievna Gagarina, born 1959,  is an art historian who has worked as the Director-General of the Moscow Kremlin Museums since 2001;  and Galina Yurievna Gagarina, born 1961,  is a professor of economics and the department chair at Plekhanov Russian University of Economics in Moscow.  Legacy and tributes


Aside from his short stature at 1.57 metres (5 ft 2 in), one of Gagarin's most notable traits was his smile.  Many commented on how Gagarin's smile gained the attention of crowds on the frequent tours he did in the months after the Vostok 1 mission success.  

Gagarin also garnered a reputation as an adept public figure. When he visited Manchester in the United Kingdom, it was pouring rain. However, Gagarin insisted that the convertible top remain down so that the cheering crowds could catch a glimpse of him. Gagarin stated, "If all these people have turned out to welcome me and can stand in the rain, so can I." Gagarin refused an umbrella and remained standing in his open-top Bentley so that the cheering crowds could still see him.  

Sergei Korolev, one of the masterminds behind the early years of the Soviet space program, later said that Gagarin possessed a smile "that lit up the darkness of the Cold War". 


The date of Gagarin's space flight, 12 April, has been commemorated as a special date. Since 1962, it has been celebrated in the USSR and later in Russia and other post-Soviet states as the Cosmonautics Day.  Since 2000, Yuri's Night, an international celebration, is held annually to commemorate milestones in space exploration.  In 2011 it was declared the International Day of Human Space Flight by the United Nations.  

A number of buildings and other sites on Earth have been named for Gagarin. The Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City was named in 1969. The launch pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome from which Sputnik 1 and Vostok 1 were launched, is now known as Gagarin's Start. Gagarin Raion in the Sevastopol city (Ukraine) was named after him during the period of the Soviet Union. The Air Force Academy was renamed Gagarin Air Force Academy in 1968.  There is a street in Warsaw called Yuri Gagarin Street. 

Gagarin has been honoured on the Moon by both astronauts and astronomers. He was honoured by the American space program during Apollo 11 in 1969 when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left a memorial satchel containing medals commemorating Gagarin and fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov on the surface.  In 1971, Apollo 15 astronauts David Scott and James Irwin left the Fallen Astronaut at their landing site as a memorial to all the American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts who died in the Space Race, with Yuri Gagarin listed among 14 others.  He is memorialized by the 1970 official naming of a 262 km crater on the Far Side after him.

 Gagarin is memorialized in music, including a cycle of Soviet patriotic songs The Constellation Gagarin (Russian: Созвездье Гагарина, tr. Sozvezdie Gagarina) was written by Aleksandra Pakhmutova and Nikolai Dobronravov in 1970–1971.  The most famous of these songs referred to Gagarin's poyekhali!: He said "let's go!" He waved his hand.  He was the inspiration for the pieces "Hey Gagarin" by Jean-Michel Jarre (on Métamorphoses), "Gagarin" by Public Service Broadcasting, and "Gagarin, I loved you" by Undervud. 

Vessels have been named for him. Soviet tracking ship Kosmonavt Yuri Gagarin was built in 1971. Armenian airline Armavia named their first Sukhoi Superjet 100 in Gagarin's honour in 2011.  

There were two commemorative coins issued in the Soviet Union to honour the 20th and 30th anniversaries of his flight: 1 ruble coin (1981, copper-nickel) and 3 ruble coin (1991, silver). In 2001, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Gagarin's flight, a series of four coins bearing his likeness was issued in Russia: 2 ruble coin (copper-nickel), 3 ruble coin (silver), 10 ruble coin (brass-copper, nickel), and 100 ruble coin (silver).  In 2011, Russia issued a 1,000 ruble coin (gold) and 3 ruble coin (silver) to mark the 50th anniversary of his flight.  

In 2008, the Kontinental Hockey League named their championship trophy the Gagarin Cup.  In a 2010 Space Foundation survey, Gagarin was ranked as the #6 most popular space hero, tied with Star Trek's fictional Capt. James T. Kirk.  

A Russian docudrama, Gagarin: First in Space, was released in 2013. Previous attempts at portraying Gagarin were disallowed; his family took legal action over Gagarin's portrayal in a fictional drama and vetoed a musical.  Statues

Several statues have been erected in his honour. 

On 4 June 1980, a monument to Gagarin was opened on Gagarin Square in Leninsky Avenue, Moscow.  The monument is mounted to a 38 m (125 ft) tall pedestal and is constructed of titanium. Beside the column is a replica of the descent module used by Gagarin.  

In 2011 a statue, Yuri Gagarin, was unveiled at the Admiralty Arch end of The Mall in London, opposite the permanent sculpture of James Cook. It is a copy of the statue outside Gagarin's former school in Lyubertsy.  In 2013 the statue was moved to a permanent location outside the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.  

In 2012 a statue was unveiled at the site of NASA's original spaceflight headquarters on South Wayside Drive in Houston. The sculpture, completed in 2011 by artist/cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, was a gift to Houston by various Russian organisations. Houston Mayor Annise Parker, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were present for the dedication.  

In April 2018 a bust of Gagarin, erected on the street which bears his name in the Serbian capital Belgrade, was removed, after less than week, following an outcry over the size of its head. Locals said that the tribute, was an "insult" to Gagarin. A new work will be commissioned.  It was revealed that the city had had no prior knowledge of the design, and neither had the Serbian Ministry of Culture, nor the foundation which had financed it.  

Apart from these, Gagarin has also statues and monuments for example in Karaganda, Orenburg, Izhevsk, Gagarin (Smolensk Oblast), Yoshkar-Ola, Cheboksary, Druzhkivka, Tiraspol, Irkutsk, Komsomolsk-on-Amur and Nicosia.  


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