Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Yuri Gagarin: A Single Breathtaking Moment

by Patrick J. Walsh

For all the complexity of theory and science and engineering that it required, humanity’s first flight into space remains the story of a man, and a machine.

On April 12, 1961, at 9:07 a m local time, Yuri Gagarin lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Vostok 1, and became the first person in history to fly in space.

The flight was the culmination of years of planning by the Soviet Union, whose political leadership had sought a human spaceflight as proof of the nation’s perceived advantages over its superpower rival, the United States.

The chief figure of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev, guided the drive toward the first human flight in a climate of intense political pressure, and in the context of the Soviets’ dangerous Cold War confrontation with the U.S.

Vostok 1 was launched by the multi-stage R-7 rocket, which had originally been designed as a weapon of war. Gagarin was a military man, trained with other exceptional recruits of the Soviet military apparatus to carry out a mission whose importance was viewed at the highest levels of the Soviet regime as being primarily military in nature.

But even in the foreboding context of global hostility, the courage Gagarin displayed as a pioneering space explorer was recognized by well-wishers around the world as the telling mark of a hero, at the dawn of a new era in humanity’s exploration of its place in the cosmos.

Gagarin was 27 when he made his historic flight; seven years later, at the age of 34, he would die in a plane crash during a training exercise. He would leave behind a legend far beyond anything he could have imagined as he made his way to the launch pad on that morning of April 12, 1961.

His place now fixed in the memory of history as the bright young man of courage and hope who represented humanity on its first vault into the heavens, Yuri Gagarin has become a part of many individual journeys into space.

The facility where cosmonauts and their fellow spacefarers train for future flights has been named in his honor; members of the Apollo lunar landing missions left mementos bearing his name on the surface of the Moon; and astronauts visiting his homeland have visited his quarters and signed his log before traveling into space with their Russian counterparts.

Perhaps most fitting, there is a famous photo of Yuri Gagarin -- smiling broadly, handsome and vibrant in his military uniform, and holding a dove -- the ultimate expression of his having attained a place far above the conflicts of his time -- that has found its way to a display on the inside of the International Space Station.

Just before his historic flight, Gagarin recorded a brief statement, in which he said, “My whole life is now before me as a single breathtaking moment. I feel I can muster up my strength for successfully carrying out what is expected of me.”

Decades later, the story of humanity’s first flight into space remains the story of a man...

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

Spaceflight [3 volumes]: A Historical Encyclopedia      Echoes Among the Stars: A Short History of the U.S. Space Program