A day before the space shuttle launch in 1982 Mr Atkins, our primary school teacher at the time, asked us to find out something about the men who pioneered space travel. Easy I thought to myself, just look up Neil Armstrong, that’s all we knew about space, Neil Armstrong.
At home, we had half a set of encyclopedias that had been inherited from my Grandma. It was a gamble as to whether or not you’d find what you where looking for depending on what books from the collection still existed.
Book A was missing which meant Armstrong was out of the question. After asking mum (Always quite taken with anything Russian) about spacemen, I looked up Gagarin’s name and was rewarded (by chance) with three paragraphs about his first trip into space, an orbit of the earth in Vostok 1, taking 1hour 48 minutes.
The accompanying photo was what got me most, grey, shiny and unmistakably Russian. Amazingly it’s the one currently used in Gagarin’s entry on wikipedia. Quite how I recognised it instantly after 30 odd years when I can’t seem to remember where I currently live, is beyond me. Relaxed, happy, almost laughing. His confidence and huge beaming smile seemed to belay everything that everyone was saying about the Soviet Union at the time. Look at the picture and judge for yourself, he was a great guy then and if he was here today he’d still be a top bloke.
During the Vostok Program, colleagues were asked to vote for the member of the program to fly first, 17 out of 20 voted for Gagarin, incredible.
The following is how a Soviet Air Force Doctor evaluated Gagarin’s personality in 1960, 8 months before his mission into space:
Modest; embarrasses when his humor gets a little too racy; high degree of intellectual development evident in Yuriy; fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his sharp and far-ranging sense of attention to his surroundings; a well-developed imagination; quick reactions; persevering, prepares himself painstakingly for his activities and training exercises, handles celestial mechanics and mathematical formulae with ease as well as excels in higher mathematics; does not feel constrained when he has to defend his point of view if he considers himself right; appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends.
In that sense Yuri Gagarin was a childhood hero of mine. All everybody else at school wanted to talk about was Neil Armstrong and how he walked on the moon, a magnificent achievement in its own right, but for me I was always more intrigued by Gagarin’s ground breaking solo voyage into space and around the earth. When I was younger the Soviet space program portrayed in the media in the west always looked a little bit home made, like the whole thing was being put together by a bunch of enthusiasts, which I suppose it was. I was drawn to the spirit of the people who built and developed technology under the Soviet regime.
It’s a shame that Yuri’s life would be cut short at the age of 34, apparently amid suspicious circumstances. Ironically, the very same society he championed through his achievements would eventually bring about his downfall.
Yuri Gagarin, Hero of the Soviet Union and space legend.