Yuri Gagarin


Yuri Alekseevich Gagarin (in Russian: Ю́рий Алексе́евич Гага́рин, pronounced ˈjʉrʲɪj ɐlʲɪˈksʲejɪvʲɪt͡ɕ ɡɐˈɡarʲɪn), born March 9, 1934, died March 27, 1968, was a Soviet pilot and cosmonaut, the first human being to fly in space during the Vostok 1 mission on April 12, 1961, as part of the Soviet space program.

Yuri Gagarin acquired international fame. He is decorated with numerous distinctions, including that of Hero of the Soviet Union and the medal of the order of Lenin, the highest Soviet distinctions. The Vostok 1 mission was his only space trip, but he was also Vladimir Komarov”s backup for the Soyuz 1 mission. He died at the age of 34 during an aerial training in the crash of his MiG 15. His name was given to a lunar crater and to an asteroid.

Childhood and education

Yuri Gagarin was born on March 9, 1934 in Klushino, near Gzhatsk (renamed Gagarin in his honor in 1968) in the Smolensk Oblast in western Russia. His parents worked on the collective farm of a kolkhoz. His father, Alexei Ivanovich Gagarin (his mother, Anna Timofeyevna Matveyeva (1903-1984), who came from a family of engineers in St. Petersburg, the cultural capital of the country, worked as a milkmaid. She tries to communicate her love of reading to her four children. Life is hard in this village without electricity and running water.

In 1941, the war with Nazi Germany broke out. Yuri, the third of the Gagarin children, was seven years old. The village was bombed, its resources exhausted by the refugees who poured in after the first battle of Smolensk, and then, at the end of 1942, was occupied by German troops before the family had time to escape. The brutality of the Nazi occupiers knew no bounds. Yuri”s youngest son, Boris, is hanged before being released half-dead thanks to his mother”s pleas. Yuri”s sister was wounded by a German with a scythe, and his father was so badly beaten after trying to sabotage a mill that he was permanently disabled. The family was expelled from their isba by German soldiers and had to dig a primitive shelter in which they were forced to live. In 1943, Valentin and Zoya, his older brother and sister, are deported to a forced labor camp in Poland by the SS; there they manage to survive, then escape before joining the Soviet troops. The parents only learned that they were still alive at the end of the war. Yuri”s family survives under bombardment and starvation. Despite the risks, Yuri, like the other children in the village, engaged in small-scale sabotage of the German war machine. Yuri witnessed an event that marked him and would play an important role in his destiny: a damaged Soviet fighter plane landed near the village and a rescue plane came to pick up the pilot shortly thereafter. The children of the village, attracted by the spectacle, rush to the scene. Yuri is fascinated by the plane and the pilots, one of whom takes the time to show him how the controls in the cockpit work.

In the spring of 1944, the Soviet troops advanced after the Dnieper offensive and the village was liberated from the occupiers. But the houses were destroyed, the livestock exterminated or carried away. The Gagarin family decided to settle in Gzhatsk, although this city was in the same state of destruction as Klushino, and built a house there. Yuri, who had not attended school since the beginning of the war, resumed classes. He is a turbulent child, who more and more frequently enters into conflict with his father. The latter cannot stand contradiction and wants his children to learn his trade. For his part, Yuri wanted to escape the heavy life of the village and announced in 1949 to his parents that he did not want to become a carpenter and that he was leaving them to study in another field. His father tried to make him reconsider his decision and then let him go, asking him not to tarnish the Gagarin name. Yuri went to Moscow, where an uncle lived who could help him find a place in a college. He wanted to become a gymnast, but he could not find a place and finally entered an apprenticeship school at a foundry in Lyubertzy, a suburb of Moscow. Despite the handicap of his small size, he distinguished himself and was selected to enter the Technical-Industrial Institute of Saratov, in the southeast of Russia. This school trains technicians in the field of agricultural machinery and he attends courses for four years. At that time he had the opportunity to train as a gymnast, but realistically he preferred to opt for a training that would guarantee him a career.

In Saratov, he joined the amateur flying club of the city as soon as he could, because he had not forgotten his childhood fascination. After his first flight in a Yak-18, he decided to become an aviator. After that, he studied at the Saratov Institute and received practical and theoretical training as a pilot. In October 1955, he decided to take the plunge: he abandoned his studies at the Institute, against the advice of his father who reproached him for wasting the state”s money, and entered a military pilot school as a cadet. His instructor was impressed by his abilities and recommended him for the military flight school K. E. Voroshilov military flying school in Orenburg. In this city, during a student ball, he met a nurse, Valentina Goriatcheva. He married her a year later, on October 27, 1957, before graduating as a MiG-15 fighter pilot. He was then assigned to a fighter-interceptor squadron at the Luostari air base located in the Petchenga region, in the Murmansk Oblast near the Norwegian border, north of the Arctic Circle. The living conditions were hard for the young couple, but their first daughter, Lena, was born in April 1959. Their second daughter, Galina, was born in March 1961, 36 days before her father”s flight.

First Man in Space

On June 22, 1959, the process of selection of the first cosmonauts of the Soviet space program is launched. The persons in charge decided to look for their candidates among the pilots of the air force because they are already, by their profession, accustomed to undergo important accelerations, to jump in parachute, etc. Contrary to the Americans, who selected senior pilots, the Soviet leaders decided to choose relatively novice pilots, having between 25 and 30 years, largely because the spaceships must be entirely automated and that the cosmonauts must essentially have a role of observer. Given the limited space available in the future space capsule, recruits should not be taller than 1.70 to 1.75 meters nor weigh more than 70 kg; Gagarin, who is 1.58 meters tall, meets this criterion. After an initial selection based on physical criteria and a series of interviews to determine their personality, 200 pilots were selected from among the 3,000 applicants, including Yuri Gagarin. He also passed the second stage of the selection process which reduced the number of candidates to twenty in February 1960. There are five exceptions to the rule of age among the twenty selected, including Vladimir Komarov. At the time of his selection Gagarin is a junior pilot with 250 hours of flight on MiG-15. Gagarin must not tell anyone, including his wife, the nature of the program for which he was selected.

An Air Force doctor involved in his selection assesses his personality: “Modest; embarrassed when his humor makes him say something a little too daring; high degree of intellectual development evident; fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his acute perception of the environment even at long distances; has a highly developed imagination; quick reactions ; persevering; prepares assiduously for his activities and training exercises, manages to master celestial mechanics and mathematical formulas with ease and excels in higher mathematics; does not hesitate to defend his opinion if he thinks he is right; understands life better than many of his friends. ” Gagarin is also the favorite candidate of his peers. When the twenty candidates were asked to vote anonymously for the one they would like to see fly first, all but three voted for Gagarin. One of his peers, the future cosmonaut Yevgeny Khrunov, will remember later that Gagarin had an extraordinary capacity of concentration and could, if necessary, be very demanding towards himself and the others. It was a characteristic of his personality much more important than that revealed by his famous smile.

As the installations for the training of the pilots have, at that time, a limited capacity, it is decided, on May 30, to prepare in priority a group of six pilots (TsPK-1). Those are chosen, among other things, on physical criteria, the biggest being rejected. Gagarin follows like the other apprentice cosmonauts a physical training, makes parachute jumps, trains on a simulator of the Vostok capsule, passes in centrifuge and receives a basic training on the operation of rockets and spaceships. In January 1961, the group passes in front of a commission chaired by the general Nikolaï Kamanine. This one will occupy, during the following decade, the post of commander of the cosmonaut corps. At the end of the examinations, three pilots are selected: Gagarin, Guerman Titov and Grigori Nelioubov. At this stage, Gagarin is already given favorite by all those who know him and he is noticed by Sergueï Korolev, the person in charge of the Soviet inhabited space program. Titov is more cultivated and much more expansive than Gagarin, but has a rebellious character. The third selected, Grigori Nelioubov, is undoubtedly the most gifted on the technical level, but he is considered as too rebellious by the most conservative selectors. He will never fly and, after being dismissed due to an alcohol problem, he will commit suicide in 1966.

The final choice is made between Gagarin and Titov. The person in charge of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev, to whom one asks his preference, puts them on an equal footing and it is finally the commission of Kamanine which decides in favor of Gagarin. The better physical resistance of Titov, which makes of it an ideal candidate for the second programmed flight which is much longer, as well as his social origins, can also have played against him: he comes from the middle classes whereas Gagarin has much more humble origins and embodies, as such, “the ideal of the Soviet equality”. The second daughter of Gagarin, Galya, was born in March 1961, one month before the flight. The training is then so intense that he has little time to devote to his daughter and his family. His wife, who is not supposed to know yet the objective of his training, has guessed what is preparing, which accentuates the pressure on the couple. The accidental death of the cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko during a training at the end of March does not slow down the preparations. Titov and Gagarin are informed only one week before the launch of the decision of the commission. Disappointed, Titov does not show any sign of discontent, but he does not congratulate Gagarin.

The flight of Gagarin is preceded by several flights without crew intended to develop the Vostok spacecraft which must carry it in space. The characteristics of the Vostok 1K version, intended only for the test flights, are frozen in April 1960. Five flights of Vostok 1K carrying dogs take place between May and December 1960. Only one of these flights is a complete success, two are partial failures and the two other flights are complete failures. The flight of Korabl-Sputnik 2, also known in the West as Sputnik 5, which takes off on August 19 is a success, but the physiological reactions of the dogs to the weightlessness lead the scientists to recommend to the State commission that the flight of the future cosmonaut does not exceed more than one orbit, even if, once brought back to the ground, the health of the dogs is good. The dogs Belka and Strelka, which have completed 18 orbits, that is to say one day and two hours in space, are the first living beings recovered after an orbit and the spacecraft itself only the second to be recovered, following a satellite of the American program Corona.

Following these not very encouraging results, two flights must validate the Vostok 3KA version which must be used by Gagarin. The first flight, Korabl-Spoutnik 4, which takes place on March 19, carries in particular a dog, mice, guinea pigs and reptiles as well as a dummy occupying the place of the pilot. Like the future mission, the spacecraft loops a single orbit, then makes an atmospheric reentry and ejects the dummy with its parachute before landing. The whole flight proceeds in a normal way, contrary to the flights carried out before. On March 25, a second similar flight, Korabl-Spoutnik 5, is carried out with the same success. To fix the date of the first manned flight, the persons in charge of the Russian space program take into account the progress of the American competitor program. The first manned suborbital flight of the Mercury program having been positioned at the beginning of May, Korolev decides, after having discussed it with the leader of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev, to plan the flight of Gagarin in mid-April. The Soviet government still hesitated, in 1959, to give priority to a manned space mission over the development of the strategic missile program. But, at the end of 1960, the progress of the American Mercury program forced the Soviet leaders to give their agreement: the Soviet Union has no choice if it wants to keep its supremacy in the space race, to prolong the euphoria which followed the success of the Sputnik missions and the Luna program and to keep the image of a USSR in advance on the technical level.

There is no countdown like for American flights, the flight is launched at the scheduled time. At the moment of departure, Gagarin”s pulse abruptly increased from 64 to 157 beats per minute, but he happily exclaimed, “And away we go! (Поехали! . It is 9:07 a.m. (Moscow time, 6:07 a.m. GMT). As the rocket rises, Gagarin reports that he feels the increasing acceleration but says he is not suffering from it. To Korolev who asks him how he is, he answers with lightness: “Good, and you? He feels difficulties to speak when the acceleration reaches 5 g. The telemetric system which displays the progress of the spacecraft gives some frights to the person in charge of the program by indicating at times an alarming trajectory after the firing of the third stage. Approximately two minutes after the takeoff, the aerodynamic cap which covers the spacecraft is released as envisaged and the window located at the level of the feet of Gagarin is unmasked. This one exclaims: “I see the clouds. The landing site… It is magnificent! What a beauty “.

Eleven minutes after the launch, the spacecraft is inserted in orbit and starts a revolution around the Earth which will last 1 hour and 48 minutes, at an average altitude of 250 kilometers (327 km and perigee: 180 km). The orbit is much higher than envisaged, with an apogee higher than 70 km, which makes fear with the center of control a longer mission if the retrofuses do not function. Gagarin becomes the first man to travel in space and the first man to orbit the Earth, fulfilling the prediction of Constantin Tsiolkovski, father of modern astronautics, who had announced in 1935 that the first man in space would be Russian: “I have no difficulty in imagining the first man overcoming the Earth”s gravity and flying into space. He is Russian and a citizen of the Soviet Union; his most likely occupation is pilot; he is brave but lacks temerity. I see his frank Russian face”. Gagarin is moved by the beauty of the Earth, blue, round and with the atmosphere so tenuous. He experiences the weightlessness and notices that he can eat, drink and work normally even if he has to stop the writing of his logbook having lost his pencil which flew away in a corner of the cabin, the screw which had to retain it by a thread having loosened. He comes to the conclusion that weightlessness does not hinder human work in space. He spends his time in orbit to observe the Earth and to control his instruments. No experiment is planned. As the specialists had doubts on the capacities of a man subjected to the weightlessness, the whole of the operations is started from the ground. The flight proceeding normally, Gagarin does not have the occasion to take the manual control. For the radio exchanges with the ground, Gagarin answers under the code of “Kedr” (Заря-I). The agency TASS officializes, 55 minutes after the launch, the placing in orbit of Gagarin, who on this occasion is promoted to major (he was first lieutenant). The American intelligence services know a little before the announcement that a manned flight takes place thanks to one of their listening stations located in Alaska. When his mother hears the news on the radio in Gjatsk, she begins to cry, repeating over and over “What did he do and where did he go?” As he arrives over the Pacific Ocean, Gagarin passes into the shadow of the Earth for his first and only “night” in orbit and is amazed by the beauty of starry space.

After a complete orbit, the retrorockets of the spacecraft are put on fire to brake it and to start the atmospheric re-entry and the return on Earth; but this maneuver does not take place as planned: the spacecraft undergoes a brutal shock then starts to turn on its axis at the speed of 30 degrees per second. Gagarin reports “All turned. I saw first Africa, then the horizon, then the sky. I hardly had time to protect my eyes from the sun”s rays. I put my legs up so I could cover the window without having to close the blinds.” The pyrotechnic charges supposed to separate completely the descent module in which was Gagarin from the service module containing the useless apparatuses had not completely fulfilled their office: the service module, denser, fell first while remaining attached to the cabin of Gagarin by some cables. The vessel was conceived to present its heat shield turned towards the front, where the aerodynamic braking carries the hull to extreme temperatures. But in this abnormal configuration, Vostok 1 exposed to the heat the parts of the hull less well protected. Gagarin describes this phase of his descent towards the Earth: “the spacecraft was surrounded by flames, I was a cloud of fire which ran towards the Earth”. The situation is critical but Gagarin who is aware of it remains of an Olympian calm, calculating that he would land in USSR and transmits by radio to the Earth that all is well. Finally, 10 minutes after the release of the atmospheric re-entry, the increase of the aerodynamic pressure manages to break the last cables which maintain the two modules together. In retrospect, Western experts estimated that the incident would not have put the mission in danger. Gagarin is shaken in all the directions during the descent while he describes a capsule surrounded by a purple light, the cracks and the heat. When the deceleration reaches its peak at 10 g, the sight of Gagarin blurs a few seconds but the capsule slows down its rotation. With a few kilometers of the ground, in application of a procedure common to all the Vostok vessels, Gagarin ejects himself from the capsule: he carries out the remainder of his descent in parachute because, for reasons of weight, one could not install on the Vostok vessel retrorockets making it possible to sufficiently reduce the residual speed at the landing. Whereas he releases the seat with which he was ejected and opens his parachute, Gagarin immediately recognizes the landscape which scrolls under his feet: it is a region near the Volga where he carried out his training of parachutist. His reserve parachute opens in a dangerous way in addition to the main parachute, but fortunately remains under him without getting tangled with this last one. Finally descending in safety, Gagarin starts to sing for himself. He lands around 10 h 55 (Moscow time, 7 h 55 GMT) in a field near a ravine not far in the region of the city of Saratov: the first manned flight lasted 108 minutes.

Just after his landing, he takes six minutes before being able to open the air valve of his suit which allows him to breathe again the air of the Earth. His main concern is then to be able to signal that he is safe and sound because no official is there to welcome him, the scientists of Vostok having calculated a landing near 400 kilometers further south. During this time, it is an enthusiastic Khrushchev who asks by telephone several times to Korolev if Gagarin is alive. Two schoolgirls attended the landing of Vostok and described the scene: “It was a big ball of about two-three meters. It fell, then it bounced and fell again. There was a huge hole where it bounced the first time.” A farmer and his daughter watched this figure dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit with a large white helmet parachute down near the craft. Gagarin saw an old peasant woman and her granddaughter working in a vegetable garden, walked up to them but they began to run away. It is reported that Gagarin would have succeeded in reassuring them by shouting: “Do not be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who returns from space and who must find a telephone to call Moscow! The babushka (which will be used by the Soviet propaganda to make believe that the landing was, like the flight, perfect) takes him to the nearby kolkhoz where he uses the telephone to warn the helpers. His ship landed three kilometers away and children from the surrounding villages have already gone inside, finishing the leftover food in tubes that were there.

On April 14, Youri Gagarin is triumphantly received in Moscow, on the Red Square, by Krouchtchev, Léonid Brejnev and the majority of the Soviet leaders. The space flight of Gagarin has an enormous repercussion in the USSR and in the whole world. The Soviet Union had generally for the Western powers an image of backward country: this one is completely erased by the success of the Soviet space program which is at its pinnacle and by the event that is in the history of the humanity the sending of the first Man in space. For Asif A. Siddiqi, historian specialist of the Soviet space program, the success is all the more impressive that it intervenes sixteen years after the end of the Second World War which left a USSR exsanguinated and ravaged, with an industry in ruin and 25 million dead, thus very disadvantaged with regard to the United States, which had not had to undergo the war on their territory

The American reaction is courteous and the vice-president Lyndon Johnson presents his congratulations announcing that “the courageous and pioneering flight of Yuri Gagarin in space opened new horizons and created a brilliant example for the cosmonauts of the two countries”, but the president John Fitzgerald Kennedy announces in a press conference that the United States will not try to catch up with the USSR in the race to space but will beat them in areas of activity more profitable in the long term to humanity. The Washington Post, for its part, called for a general mobilization to beat the USSR. Wernher von Braun, director of NASA and one of the fathers of American astronautics, declared that “to keep up, the United States will have to run like hell”. However, Kennedy quickly reversed his decision and Gagarin”s flight re-launched the space race. On May 25, he announced in a historic speech that the United States would send a man to the Moon before the end of the decade.

Before Gagarin starts, following his flight, a world tour used for political propaganda purposes, the Soviet leaders impose him to reveal as few details as possible on the space program, until evading his size not to reveal the characteristics of the capsule. So that the orbital flight is approved, the Soviet authorities announce that Gagarin returned to the ground on board the capsule and hide the fact that he parachuted. The real course will be known at the end of the 1990s with the liberalization of the Russian regime. When he is questioned by foreign journalists, his answers are often evasive and he is obliged to lie: one does not know anything, at the time, of the exact location of his launching base which is however known by the American secret services thanks to their radar station in Turkey. The Soviets indicate a place near the city of Baikonur, which is in fact 360 km from the launch base. The name of the person in charge of the Soviet space program, Sergueï Korolev, also remains secret. This one does not appear in the commemorations; one lets believe that a venerable member of the Academy of sciences whose bonds with the space program are very tenuous is the father of the Soviet astronautics. To reward those who took part in this exploit, nearly seven thousand people receive various medals and titles and a certain number the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, but only those which belong to the leading authorities, of which the first secretary Khrushchev, are officially named. The five real leaders of the program are rewarded but remain in the shadows.

Waiting for a second mission

Shortly after his flight, Gagarin was appointed head of cosmonaut training at Star City on the outskirts of Moscow. In this role, he is associated with the elaboration of the program of the missions and the selection of the cosmonauts. During the following flights, Gagarin takes part in the critical decisions concerning the course of the missions and ensures in part the radio link with the cosmonaut in flight. He even opposes Korolev, who wishes a flight of one day for the second mission, supporting the doctors of the cosmonauts who favor a flight of three orbits, that is to say five hours. Korolev will nevertheless have victory. Gagarin also participates in the selection of the first woman cosmonaut on the flight Vostok 6 and even opposes the candidature of one of them because she is already a mother, the Russian society stigmatizing the mothers undertaking dangerous activities. He is however contradicted by the president of the Academy of Sciences who keeps the candidate.

At the same time, Gagarin began a tour around the planet: accompanied by Titov, who repeated Gagarin”s feat on August 6, 1961 (Vostok 2), and Kamanine, head of the astronaut corps, he visited Afghanistan, Brazil, Canada, Ceylon, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, India, Finland, Hungary, Iceland and the United Kingdom in 1961. The following year, he visited many other countries. This brutal glory goes to the head of Gagarin as of Titov. Both of them are sown by the Party for their repeated abuses of drinks and their behavior with the female gender. During one of his escapades, Gagarin seriously injured his head by throwing himself from the second floor of a building to escape his wife who was about to catch him in gallant company.

Gagarin is monopolized by his unofficial task of ambassador of the Soviet Union which does not leave him enough time for his training of cosmonaut. The Soviet leaders would like him to give up flying: Kaminine proposes to him to take the direction of the Center of training of the cosmonauts. Gagarin does not want this office work. He refused several times this proposal before accepting, under pressure, the post of deputy director on December 21, 1963 with the rank of colonel in the Soviet air force.

On Friday June 25, 1965, he came in person from Paris (where he was the guest of the Bourget air show) in a Caravelle (piloted by Léopold Galy) with a Soviet delegation to visit, during nearly three hours, the Sud-Aviation factories in Blagnac where the Concorde project was taking shape (the Russians had just started the one of their own supersonic, the Tupolev 144). The same day, the delegation had lunch in Saint-Martin-du-Touch, a commune which was at the time a neighbouring town and later became part of Toulouse.

From 1962, the project of the new spacecraft Soyuz is developed by the teams of Korolev. Soyuz is much larger than the Voskhod capsule and it must allow to carry a crew of three people. It has an automatic rendezvous system which allows the docking of two vessels. From 1964, Soyuz becomes a master piece of the Soviet manned lunar program that the leaders of Moscow finally decided to launch by noting the progress of the Apollo program. The first planned mission includes the launching of two Soyuz vessels with crew which must carry out a meeting in space. Starting in September 1965, four cosmonauts began training for the position of commander. For the first time for four years, Gagarin is among the preselected but the favorite is Vladimir Komarov: this one is considered as the most competent and the most brilliant of the four men. Gagarin, occupied by his bureaucratic tasks, got fatter and lost some of his cosmonaut skills. But he trained hard and became the favorite in front of Komarov until the officials, at the end of a meeting at the cosmonaut training center, imposed Komarov in April 1966 and assigned to Gagarin the role of understudy. Gagarin wants so much to realize another space flight that he is suggested as understudy for a flight of the Soviet manned lunar program.

The development of the Soyuz spacecraft goes badly. All the test flights without crew are marred by problems and the date of the first flight is regularly postponed. Without waiting for new tests and against the opinion of some cosmonauts and engineers, a double mission is planned under the pressure of the politicians who want to make a blow of brilliance to counter the American domination which is appearing: within the framework of the mission Soyuz 1, a first Soyuz spaceship must be launched with on board Komarov, then a second Soyuz joined him in orbit with three cosmonauts for an orbital meeting. On April 23, 1967, Komarov is accompanied by Gagarin until the hatch of his vessel which takes off and places in orbit the vessel without encumbers. The spacecraft of Komarov knows numerous problems which this one tries in vain to face with the help of the teams on the ground, of which Gagarin. But the situation imposes the interruption of the mission and the cancellation of the launching of the second spaceship. During the descent towards the ground, the parachute of the vessel is put in torch and the vessel crashes by killing Komarov. A commission of investigation is created and Gagarin is part of the persons in charge to determine the origin of the failure to the landing. A few days after the accident, Kamanine informs Gagarin that this one has practically no chance to take part in a future space mission and that he is going to propose his prohibition of flight.

In 1966, Gagarin, like the majority of the other cosmonauts of his promotion, begins a cycle of study at the Institute of aeronautics Joukovski of Moscow. As practical work, the cosmonauts work on the characteristics of a space plane inspired by the American Dyna-Soar project abandoned a few years before. Gagarin is in charge of the aerodynamics and the landing system. In November 1967, always with the aim of protecting the life of a character who symbolizes the triumph of Soviet astronautics, Gagarin is no longer authorized to make flights on solo fighter aircraft. Thus, he flew less than ten hours each year until his death. Gagarin is occupied by his participation in several state commissions and by his role as ambassador of Soviet astronautics. He liked to drive fast and miraculously escaped serious accidents (more than twenty car accidents in less than seven years). According to Kamanine, his womanizing lifestyle, endless meetings and frequent drinking gradually transformed Gagarin”s public image and erased the smile that made him so charming.


At the beginning of 1968, Gagarin is again authorized to fly a fighter plane provided that he is accompanied by an instructor. He made a series of training flights, at a rate that Kamanine considered too high, because Gagarin wanted to fly solo again. Thus on March 27, 1968, he took off a little after 10 o”clock in the morning on board a MiG-15 UTI from the military airport Chkalovsky near Moscow. He is accompanied by an instructor, the colonel Vladimir Serioguine, 45 years old pilot with impeccable references, who since 1963 is assigned to the training of cosmonauts. A few minutes after the takeoff, Gagarin asks the controllers the permission to modify his flight plan and to return to the base; it will be his last communication. In the absence of news, the alert is quickly triggered. A few hours after this last contact, helicopters took off to search for the plane, which was spotted about 64 km from the air base, in a densely wooded area covered with one meter of snow. The plane crashed into a 6 to 7 meter crater, which suggests that it hit the ground at a speed of 700 to 800 kmh. The search team quickly discovered a jawbone which was identified as that of Serioguine. The search was interrupted by the night. When they start again the following day, the rescue team discovers first the flight suit of Gagarin hung in a tree at a height of about ten meters then, a little later, the bodies of the two pilots. A commission was set up from the evening of March 27 to discover what had happened.

The official thesis is that Gagarin, victim of a failure of his plane, did not eject to avoid that his MiG-15 crashes on a school. This information quickly proved to be entirely false. The official investigation at the time, whose conclusions were not made public, attributed the accident to a sudden maneuver either to avoid a weather balloon or to avoid entering the turbulence zone located at the top of a cloud layer. These conclusions, which implicate the pilot, raise protests of Kamanine and the senior cosmonauts. In the absence of official information on the circumstances of the accident, many hypotheses are stated by Western experts. The report of the time is declassified in April 2011: its conclusion is that the most probable cause of the accident would have been a sudden maneuver intended to avoid a sounding balloon.

According to Asif Azam Siddiqi, American historian of the space conquest who takes up the conclusions of an article of Sergueï Belotserkovski and Alexeï Leonov published in Pravda in 1998, the file would have been reopened 20 years after the facts in the Soviet Union and a meticulous study would have brought to light several factors contributing to bring a new light on the accident Two MiG-21 and another MiG-15 would have been allowed to fly in the same area at the same time and the cosmonaut would have taken off without information on the ceiling of the cloud cover. Whereas Gagarin began a turn and his descent to an altitude of 700-1 200 meters to return to the ground, the second MiG-15 would have passed, without realizing it, at 500 meters of the plane of Gagarin, cutting its trajectory. This one, caught in the turbulences created by the wake of the plane, would have started a spin that the pilot would have succeeded in straightening after having made five turns. But at the exit of the spin, Gagarin and his teammate, who were in a thick cloudy layer, would have had only an imprecise idea of their altitude, in fact between 400-600 meters, with an angle to dive of 70 degrees. It would then have been only five seconds before the plane crashed to the ground, leaving no chance for the two pilots to eject.

In a June 2013 interview with Russian television RT, Alexei Leonov said that a declassified report on the incident revealed the presence of a second “unauthorized” aircraft, an Su-15, in the area. Leonov posits that this aircraft had descended to 450 meters (1,480 feet) and that, while lighting its afterburner, “the aircraft had reduced its distance to 10-15 meters in the clouds, passing close to Gagarin, catching him in its wake turbulence and sending him into a spin – an installed spin, to be precise – at a speed of 750 kmh.”

Gagarin and Serioguin are both buried in the wall of the Kremlin. The loss, in two years, of two cosmonauts (Vladimir Komarov in 1967 and Gagarin in 1968) leads to an important change in the safety procedures applied for the development of launchers and manned spaceships. Whereas, until then, the Soviet authorities had sometimes made the cosmonauts take important risks to beat the Americans in the space race, as it was the case in particular for the flight of Komarov, thereafter, the flights of the vessels without pilot, allowing to qualify the machines with a reasonable degree of certainty, become the rule.

Youri Gagarin was very appreciated by Korolev for his calm, his optimism and his sense of observation: “During the days of preparation for the launching he alone seemed to remain calm. More than that: he was full of good spirit and shone like the Sun”. For the BBC, “his kind and modest personality charmed the world”.

After the flight, some sources stated that Gagarin during his space flight made the comment: “I do not see any God up there”. However, no such words appear in the recordings of Gagarin”s conversations with the ground stations during the flight. A close friend of Gagarin, Colonel Valentin Petrov, revealed in 2006 that he had never said these words and that the sentence came from a speech of Nikita Khrushchev at the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union where anti-religious propaganda was discussed. In a certain context, Khrushchev said “Gagarin went into space but he saw no gods there”. A popular poster (Бога Нет), however, exploited Gagarin”s flight for an anti-religious campaign by also referencing Titov, who was an atheist-militant. Colonel Petrov adds that Gagarin was baptized by the Orthodox Church as a child. In 2011, the rector of the Orthodox Church of Star City tells that “Gagarin had baptized his eldest daughter Yelena shortly before his space flight; his family celebrated Christmas and Easter and kept icons in the house.”

According to the BBC, “Yuri Gagarin contradicted the West”s austere impression of the Soviet Union – a charming, laid-back Russian with a ready smile. The first man in space became a powerful propaganda tool. The Politburo knew the impact of the first manned flight into space and turned Gagarin”s worldwide fame into a weapon of soft power. The mission having remained secret until its success, the world shock wave was only stronger, especially in the United States which competed in the race of the first man in space. According to Tom Ellis, professor of history specializing in the Cold War at the London School of Economics, Nikita Khrushchev had said: “It will not be organized by the state, it will be spontaneous” and the celebrations in the USSR were the biggest since the end of the Second World War. Invitations were issued from all over the world, including the Western bloc, and Soviet propaganda exploited Gagarin”s modest origins to the maximum. For the festivities on Red Square, Gagarin”s parents were asked to “dress simply” to emphasize the Soviet ideal of “carpenter to astronaut”. During Gagarin”s visit to the United Kingdom three months after his flight, which was not a state visit because of the political will of the British government, which wanted to spare its American ally but to recognize the Soviet success, the enthusiasm of the crowds, who considered Gagarin a hero, took the authorities by surprise, and they finalized a meeting with the Queen and the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan after the announcement of his arrival. According to Gurbir Singh, a journalist specializing in the conquest of space, Gagarin”s visit to the United Kingdom was the “pinnacle” of his tour because “it was the heart of the capitalist West. The world tour, which took place between the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban missile crisis, was one of the rare moments of relaxation during the Cold War. Gagarin was welcomed at the United Nations headquarters in New York but not on American soil. His growing popularity became a threat and President John Fitzgerald Kennedy did not allow Gagarin to tour the United States.

According to Tom Ellis, the instrumentalization of Gagarin”s modest origins goes beyond an East-West ideological confrontation because with decolonization many new nations see as an example the Soviet model of a technologically backward country after a devastating war that becomes in a short time the pioneer of space conquest. After Gagarin”s death, the Soviet space program was overshadowed by the American victory of the Apollo program, but Gagarin”s popularity was preserved as that of a hero. During Neil Armstrong”s tour of the USSR, he is cheered by enthusiastic crowds, and “NASA thinks it may be because Armstrong looks a little like Gagarin.

For Asif Azam Siddiqi, “the Soviet space program has been marginalized in the West and ”mythologized” domestically” because of the mixture of secrecy and propaganda of the time. According to him, for American historians, Sputnik 1 and Gagarin are only the “preludes” to the Apollo 11 moon landing, and everything that came after was a disappointment. Americans do not see Sputnik and the Gagarin flight as dates in human history but as a “catalyst for the decision to send humans to the Moon.

In Russia, April 12 is a holiday, called “Cosmonauts” Day”. On March 25, 2011, the United Nations General Assembly declared April 12 “International Human Space Flight Day”.

After their country won the race to the Moon, Gagarin”s flight is no longer considered by American historians as a major breakthrough in the history of mankind but just a step that helped decide the United States to send men to the Moon. The first flight of the American space shuttle takes place on the twentieth anniversary of Gagarin”s historic flight.

In 2012, the Soyuz rockets that supply and raise the crews of the International Space Station are still, like Gagarin”s Vostok rocket, a derivative of the R-7 Semiorka rocket, the family of rockets that carried all Russian manned flights.

In France, many streets, schools, high schools, gymnasiums or squares are named after Yuri Gagarin, usually in communist municipalities. In 2015, nine schools were named after him, a rare occurrence for a foreign personality.

Following his space flight, Lieutenant Gagarin was directly promoted to the rank of major. He received the title of Hero of the Soviet Union and the medal of the Order of Lenin, which are the highest honors of the Soviet Union. He was appointed honorary member of the International Academy of Astronautics (1966).

In his country, his name was given in tribute to many places, institutions or awards including, among others, the city Gjatsk renamed Gagarin in 1968, a square in Moscow where there is the monument to his memory and the largest museum of aeronautics and space of Russia, located in Monino. The Gagarin crater is one of the largest lunar craters (265 km in diameter), located on the far side, and the asteroid No. 1772 bears his name. Object of an intense propaganda, he receives many honors and his name is used to baptize streets and monuments in the countries of the third world, in the countries “brothers” of Eastern Europe, and in Western Europe in the municipalities held by the local Communist Party.

External links


  1. Youri Gagarine
  2. Yuri Gagarin