The exploits of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space 61 years ago, are worth remembering for their unadulterated bravery and sheer chutzpah. As previously noted, a 2010 survey by the non-profit Space Foundation found Gagarin to be the sixth-most-popular space hero, tied with the fictional Star Trek Captain Kirk. So, even though it’s frowned upon in certain circles these days to praise anything Russian, Gagarin should be the exception.
By all accounts, he was a brave, genuinely gentle and joyous man. Last year, the 60th anniversary of Gagarin’s ride into space, saw the publication of ‘Beyond’, a book by Stephen Walker, which captured the extraordinary dangers that marked every step of that Soviet triumph.
For, though the Soviets bested the Americans in manned space flight with Gagarin’s successful ride to and fro, there was so much that could have gone so badly wrong.
First, there was the Soviet cosmonaut candidates’ relative lack of experience and training. America’s Mercury astronauts were test pilots in their 30s but the Soviets were relative whippersnappers and new to the game. Gagarin, for instance, had just 230 hours of flying experience, compared to Alan Shepard’s 3,600.
The Soviets were also expected to grin and bear the stresses and the long odds against a successful space flight. Their Vostok capsules were too heavy to land safely with the cosmonaut on board so cosmonauts would have to be prepared to hope for the best they parachute down safely.
In April 1961, Gagarin himself had to wait for his capsule’s two sections to break apart on re-entry to earth and gently parachute down, but Walker writes that this almost didn’t happen. During descent, his Vostok capsule’s sections stayed joined and only broke apart after 10 minutes. So, the sensation Gagarin would then have felt was of being trapped in a burning building even as the forces of gravity made him 10 times heavier and caused the blood to drain from his eyeballs. He was finally ejected into a parachute, but his breathing tube got stuck and a secondary parachute opened unexpectedly.
Those weren’t the only technical problems in Gagarin’s flight into the history books. As Walker notes, the Vostoks had a flawed dehumidifier, which could have had terrible consequences for Gagarin’s flight had anything gone wrong.
Indeed, so much could have failed so spectacularly with Gagarin being unable to do anything to save himself. He had almost no agency, being strapped securely in to something that was basically a manned, space-bound robot. Even his seatbelt adjusted itself automatically.
All Gagarin could do was passively experience the terror of the rocket taking him 45 miles higher into space than it should have done because one engine failed to shut down. He could only sit in silence when the capsule lost radio contact for 32 minutes as it went out of range.
After his return to earth, Gagarin became a travelling salesman for the Soviet Union rather than a vital part of the space programme as it continued. He was a global star for the pre-internet age.
As previously recounted, my grandmother in northern India attended an event with him and came away quite charmed. A student in western India has described Gagarin’s patience and gentleness when he met him in December 1961.
There was little sigh of any post-traumatic stress disorder, to use the modern lingo.
Perhaps this was because he was unimaginative and stoic or he may have truly great in a way that few of us can conceive – or achieve.