Mankind has always been captivated by the stars and everything that the sky holds. But the current age of space exploration was ushered in by the sustained action of two countries vying to land the first person on the Moon: The United States of America (USA) and the former Soviet Union (USSR). Today, more than 70 countries with research institutions and space agencies are involved in space exploration efforts.
The history of the USSR’s space efforts starts with World War II. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Russian father of rocketry, was the first to solve the problem of propelling a rocket against the force of Earth’s gravitational field. In the early 1950s, Soviets began experimenting with launching animals into space, although none succeeded. However, on 4th October 1957, the Soviets won the first round of the ongoing space race when they put Sputnik 1 into Earth’s orbit. The central character of this feat was the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
Gagarin’s flight came at a time when the Soviet Union and the United States were clashing for dominance in space. Before Gagarin’s launch, the Soviets sent a test flight into space using a Vostok spacecraft prototype, wherein a dummy, Ivan Iwanovich, — a dummy was sent with a dog named Zvezdochka. The prototype was successful so after the test flight, the Soviets considered the vessel fit for a manned flight. Soviets made this first giant leap into space on 12th April 1961, and Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel into space and orbit the planet.
Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was born on 9th March, 1934, in the village of Klushino in Smolensk, Russia. He was the third of four children from parents who worked on a collective farm. At the age of 16, he became a trainee in a metal works shop but then transferred to a technical school in Saratov. There he joined a flying club named “AeroClub” and took to the skies for the first time. In 1955, after completing his technical schooling, he entered flight training at the Orenburg Military Pilot’s School. Later, he became a lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force and was promoted to senior lieutenant in 1959.
Gagarin, a 27-year-old lieutenant, was selected as a candidate for the Soviet space program with 19 other pilots. These pilots were deemed suitable because they were experienced and trained in high-stress conditions to the forces of acceleration and the ejection phase. The initial pool of 19 was eventually trimmed down to two: Gagarin and fellow test pilot Gherman Titov (he later went into orbit 4 months after Gagarin). Gagarin and Titov both had performed excellently in their training and were short enough to fit in the Vostok cockpit. Gagarin was selected because of his modest background and his fellow candidates’ support for him.
On the morning of 12th April, 1961, Gagarin dressed up in the spacesuit and made his way to the launch pad. He climbed into the Vostok spacecraft, oblivious of his probability of returning to earth, but calm regardless. A spherical module of descent and conical equipment were included in the Vostok spacecraft. Final commands were issued to Gagarin. When the engine rumbled, Gagarin shouted Poyekhali! (Here we go!). The rocket rushed into orbit and detached the Vostok spacecraft from the launching rocket in 10 minutes. Finally, Gagarin was in space. Gagarin’s flight was eventful as he became the first human to see the earth as a blue pearl set against the black expanse of space. “The Earth is blue. How pretty! It is incredible,” he said mid-flight.
The landing of Vostok 1 ended in a near-disaster when the cables joining Vostok’s descent module and service module failed to separate properly, causing huge shaking as the spacecraft re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. Fortunately, Gagarin ejected before the landing, parachuting down safely near the Volga River. He spent 108 minutes in space. Even so, Gagarin came back safely after becoming the first person to see our planet from outer space.
Gagarin’s flight intensified the space race between the superpowers. Eventually, both nations managed to develop research outposts in space. Gagarin’s flight signalled that the era of mankind’s restriction to one planet was over, and the prospect of landing man on an extraterrestrial body was a possibility. This realization was the harbinger of the United States landing the first man on the Moon eight years later.
After his historic space flight, Gagarin became an international celebrity. He visited numerous countries around the world and was showered with honors by his own country. He was named the hero of the Soviet Union by Khrushchev’s government. Gagarin never went into space again, but still took a functioning part in preparing many succeeding cosmonauts. From 1962 onwards, he served as a deputy to the Supreme Soviet.
On 27th March 1968, Gagarin took off with a MiG-15UTI fighter with flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin for a usual training flight; it, however, ended up in a tragic plane crash near the town of Kirzhach. Gagarin didn’t survive the crash. His ashes were entombed on Cosmonauts’ Avenue outside the Kremlin in Moscow.
Every year, Yuri’s Night is celebrated on April 12th around the world and reminds us that even the sky is not the limit of what a human can accomplish.