Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Shooting the Moon - Yuri Gagarin, First Earthling in Space

By Kelly Raftery 

Soviet heroes, including Yuri Gagarin were interned in the red brick walls
(denoted by the black plaques) of the Kremlin near Red Square.
Photo by Bern Rostad.

In Moscow, a visit to Red Square is a must. When you are there, you will see the worldwide symbol of Russia, St. Basil’s Cathedral’s colorful domes, stand at the spot where Ivan the Terrible beheaded his loyal guard, gawk at the expansive commercialism of the central department store, GUM, and just across the square, you will see a squat little red granite building that has the name Ленин emblazoned across the top. It has been many years since I was a tourist in Moscow, but in my day, the official guide led the group into the cool dimness of Lenin’s Tomb, past the preserved leader (wax, not wax –the debate continues), and back outside again. A long pathway takes one back to the main square. To one side is a deep red wall with black plaques denoting the burial or internment spots of Soviet notables, on the other side are graves, including those of Stalin, Brezhnev and Chernenko.

Internment or burial under, near, or in the actual historic red wall of the fortress was a place of great honor granted to very few individuals. One of those is perhaps one of history’s greatest travelers—Yuri Gagarin. 

Yuri Gagarin,
first person in space.
Without the bravery of Yuri Gagarin, there would have been no Neil Armstrong, no “Houston, we have a problem” and no International Space Station. Gagarin was the first man to be strapped to a rocket and catapulted into space. Yes, as much as we celebrate our own moon landing, the simple fact is that the Soviets beat us into space initially. Not many Americans know that fact or anything about the man who is a Soviet hero. Today, the crew of the international space station still leaves earth from the same place Yuri Gagarin did in 1961. Americans would not visit the moon until years after this accomplishment. 

The Russian archive entry on Gagarin states, “he was the first man to see that the earth was indeed round, indeed mostly water, and indeed magnificent.” What an incredible journey that must have been for a child of a rural Russian village who spent years of his youth in a 3x3 meter mud dugout after the Nazis confiscated the family home and sent his elder siblings to Germany as slave labor. Yuri Gagarin’s father was a bricklayer, his mother a milk maid on a collective farm in southern Russia. 

Having left home to continue his education, Yuri Gagarin learned to fly biplanes as a teen-ager; he was later drafted into the Soviet military, which taught him to fly a MiG. At the time Gagarin was serving, the Soviets had begun their search for pilots for their space program. The diminutive Gagarin (five feet two inches tall) was among around twenty pilots chosen for the initial training who went through extensive physical and psychological testing before being narrowed down to just two men—Yuri Gagarin and German Titov, both short men who were better able to fit into the Vostok capsule. Gagarin would go on to make history.
The Vostok-1 Capsule.
On April 12, 1961, the Soviets launched Vostok-1 into space, with 27 year-old Yuri Gagarin on board. The Vostok capsule was hurled into space at a speed of about 5 miles per second. Gagarin orbited the earth one time, his entire flight lasting a mere 108 minutes from beginning to end. He described seeing rivers and geographic terrain from space and commented on the odd feeling of weightlessness. The capsule had been packed with supplies in case Gagarin landed somewhere far away from civilization and had to walk back.   

The Space Race had begun. Yuri Gagarin returned to earth a national hero deemed too valuable to the Soviet Union to be risked on any further flights. Gagarin traveled the world and graciously accepted the cheers of adoring crowds. Always a social drinker, Gagarin at some point developed a problem with alcohol, drinking heavily, even by Russian standards. In 1968, Yuri Gagarin was killed during a training flight, an incident that has become the focus of speculation and conspiracy theories. Gagarin left an incredible legacy behind, including a pre-flight tradition that continues on to this day. 

At the last minute, Gagarin hopped off the transport on the way to the capsule, wanting to relieve himself one more time before leaving earth. To this day, departing (only male) space explorers (of all nationalities) get off the bus and take a quick moment to grace the back tire of the vehicle with urine before continuing on to the launch pad. If you don’t believe me, you can see a photo of this tradition. 

Yuri Gagarin is among the great travelers of history, the very first earthling to have seen our big blue marble from the perspective of space.


  1. What a fascinating history! I knew the Russians beat the US into space, but I had no idea about Yuri Gagarin's personal history. What an interesting life. Thanks for sharing this, Kelly.

  2. Jenni,

    I left off the more salacious bits of his post-flight life, it is interesting stuff if you are interested in reading more!


  3. I was a high school student when Gagarin made his flight. We were so embroiled in the cold war that the event sparked fear in the United States. I remember it well. When John Glenn orbited the earth a year later, my mother parked me and my siblings in front of the TV to watch the splash down. We weren't so far behind after all. I think the international cooperation that the space station represents is a grand step in the right direction.