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Prominent Russians: Yury Gagarin

March 9, 1934 – March 27, 1968

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Yury Gagarin was the first man to orbit the earth in a man-made spacecraft leading the world into the era of the space exploration.

Early Years

Yury Gagarin was born in the village of Klushino near the town of Gzhatsk in the Smolensk Region on 9 March 1934. Gzhatsk was renamed Gagarin in 1968 in his honor. His parents, Aleksey and Anna, worked on a collective farm, and, though generally considered heavy manual laborers, were educated and intelligent people. Gagarin’s mother was a well-read woman; his father, a carpenter, preferred to be discreet about his skills to avoid Stalin’s purges against private proprietors. As his parents spent most of their time at work, Gagarin owed much of his upbringing to his elder sister.

World War II cast a gloom over the school years of young Yury. The Nazis had taken over the village of Klushino the same year Yury started school. Two of Gagarin’s elder siblings were taken away to a German labor camp in 1943 and did not return until after the war. The German troops stayed in the

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Smolensk Region for another two years, until it was liberated by the Red Army on 9 April 1943.

On 24 May 1945, the Gagarin family moved to the town of Gzhatsk, where Yury pursued his education. He attended an elementary school, from which he graduated in 1949. He then entered a trade school in the town of Lubertsy, outside Moscow. His teachers described him as intelligent and hard-working, if occasionally mischievous. His mathematics teacher served in the Air Force during the war, which may have influenced Gagarin’s love of the sky and aviation. While attending the trade school, he was also enrolled in an evening school, from which he graduated in 1951. One month later he received an honors diploma from the trade school as well and became a certified foundry man – a vocation he was proud of for the rest of his life.

While an apprentice at the metal works, Gagarin was selected for further training at the Saratov Industrial Technical School in 1951. It was there that he joined the Air Force Amateur Club and learned to fly a light aircraft, a hobby that was eating up the bulk of his time.

Gagarin marked 1955 with a number of outstanding achievements. He graduated from the Saratov School as an honors student, and later in July he won his wings, as he performed his first independent flight in a Yak-18 aircraft, triumphantly graduating from the Saratov Air Force Club in October.

On 3 August 1955, a feature story about Gagarin’s aviation excellence appeared on the pages of the local Saratov newspaper. Gagarin was very proud of it and later remarked, “the first appraisal in the media means a lot to a person.”

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In October 1955 he was drafted and sent to the famous Orenburg Aviation School, since he already had a pilot's license. Once in military uniform, Gagarin realized this was exactly what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

It was at the military school that he met his future wife, Valentina Goryacheva. On 7 November 1957, Gagarin graduated from the flying school and was commissioned a lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force; he married Valentina Goryacheva on the same day. They had two daughters – Elena and Galina.

On The Road To Becoming A Cosmonaut

By the end of 1957 Gagarin arrived at his assigned Fighter Wing of the Northern Fleet, where he spent two years. His daily routine included flights in the conditions of polar day and polar night along with military and political training. Gagarin loved aviation and it would have probably kept him busy for the rest of his life, had he not been interrupted by a qualification upgrade course for young pilots, aimed to teach them the use of “new technologies”: no one was openly talking about space flights quite yet, cautiously referring to space craft as “new technologies.”

On 9 December 1959, Gagarin completed a formal application for cosmonaut training and within a week he was summoned to Moscow to pass a full medical check-up to approve his physical fitness for the space flight.

On 3 March 1960 Gagarin was admitted to the cosmonaut candidate group and on 11 March the training sessions started in Zvezdny Gorodok (Star City), a newly built holding and training area in a suburb of Moscow.

Gagarin and 20 other trainees were about to face a real challenge. As the training had just begun,

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no one could actually believe that the space flights would become reality. It was not until the exact date for the flight was set that the cosmonauts-to-be actually realized what was in store for them.

The training course lasted a year. The group was introduced to a bewildering curriculum of space navigation, rocket propulsion, physiology, astronomy and upper atmospheric physics; the candidates received training in soundproof and decompression chambers, centrifuges and other special devices to accustom them to the physiological stress of space flight. More to Gagarin's liking however, were the long hours spent in the mock-up of the Vostok, an exact replica of the spacecraft in which he would later orbit the earth. After nine months of training the cosmonauts were told that the first flight of the Vostok was scheduled for 12 April 1961.

Space officials closely observed the trainees, as the final decision was split between Yury Gagarin and Gherman Titov, due to their excellent performance in training, as well as their suitable physical characteristics.

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About four months before the flight it became obvious that the first man to leave the earth in the literal sense would be Gagarin. None of the Soviet space program authorities ever mentioned that Gagarin was better prepared than Titov. The choice was accounted for by many more factors than mere physiological qualities and knowledge of technology. Capable, strong and even-tempered, Gagarin represented the ideal Soviet man, a peasant farmer who had become a highly trained cosmonaut in a few short years. Sergey Korolev, the chief designer of spacecraft, who had closely observed the course of training, and other authorities were positive that the first cosmonaut would become the face of the country, representing it in the international arena. These reasons tipped the scales in Gagarin’s favor, whose kind face and open mind conquered anyone who had a chance to merely take a look at him. The last word on the subject was uttered by Nikita Khrushchev, who, after a single glance at his picture, immediately chose Gagarin.

Orbiting Earth

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On 12 April 1961, Gagarin became the first human to fly into space. At 9:07 am, he was launched into orbit aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Every move he made and every word he said that day was to become legendary and sacramental. When responding to the ground control if he was ready, he said, “Poekhali!” meaning “Let’s get going!/Off we go!” in Russian. During his flight, Gagarin famously whistled the tune of the traditional aviation hymn, "The Motherland Hears, The Motherland Knows." The first report he sent to the ground control was, “The earth is blue. [...] How wonderful. It is amazing.”

The Vostok spacecraft consisted of a small spherical module placed on top of an instrument module with the engine system and a three-stage rocket underneath. Gagarin was strapped into the ejection seat. The spacecraft was operated automatically, due to the uncertainty as to how the human system would react both physically and mentally to the alien conditions. Gagarin made a single orbit around Earth at an altitude of 188 miles in 1 hour and 48 minutes, proving a human could survive in space and even perform useful tasks.

Because of a breakdown in the retrosystem, the descending craft with Gagarin onboard missed the assigned landing site in the Stalingrad (now Volgograd) Region, landing in the Saratov Region instead, where no one was expecting such a high-ranking guest. The radar on a nearby military air base detected an unknown target at 10:48 am. Gagarin ejected from the spacecraft at an altitude of over four miles, parachuting into a field near Saratov.

The first people to meet the hero cosmonaut were a forester’s wife, Anna Akimova, and her six-year-old daughter, Rita. Soon the local military unit, who’d detected Gagarin on the radar, arrived. In the meantime, in the town of Engels a helicopter was sent to meet Gagarin, catching up with him, as he was traveling to the city on truck. The chopper picked him up and delivered him to the city.

Upon arriving in the city of Engels, Gagarin was handed a personal telegram from the Kremlin, met with the journalists, posed for cameras and gave interviews. Once the connection was set up, Gagarin reported to Khrushchev and Brezhnev about the details of the first flight. From Engels, Gagarin was transported to the city of Samara, and, though all measures had been taken to make the arrival as discreet as possible, by the time the plane landed, there were hundreds of people waiting for their hero, along with the local authorities.

Gagarin had meetings with Sergey Korolev and other officials who had flown from Moscow to greet him. Excited though they were, the cosmonaut and the delegation, too exhausted after the sleepless nights of preparation and training, couldn’t carry on with the conversation and fell asleep shortly after the meeting started.

Originally, no one planned a pompous festivity upon Gagarin’s return to Moscow, but Nikita Khrushchev was determined to make things right. First, he called the defense minister and ordered him to promote Gagarin to the rank of major, as he deemed it inappropriate to keep the man who had flown into space a lieutenant. Though very reluctant, the minister was nevertheless forced to submit to the leader’s will. Then Khrushchev called the Kremlin and told them to have a decent reception for Gagarin.

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Escorted by a group of fighter jets, the plane carrying Gagarin landed at Vnukovo Airport, where the first cosmonaut was given an exceptional reception. The cheering crowd was enormous, with all the authorities, journalists, and cameramen, trying to get a better view of the world’s no. 1 hero. Gagarin had to walk along the red carpet, and though one of his shoe laces became untied, he couldn’t tie it back up for fear of ruining the mood, instead he just walked on to the sounds of the national aviation march, risking to trip and fall. Then Gagarin drove standing in an open convertible along the streets of Moscow and waved at the laughing, cheering and screaming crowd. Khrushchev awarded Gagarin the title of the Hero of the Soviet Union. That year practically all of the newborn baby boys in the USSR were named Yury.

After The Flight

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After the flight, Gagarin became an instant, worldwide celebrity, touring widely with appearances in Italy, Great Britain, Germany, Canada and Japan to promote the popularity of the Soviet Union in a so-called Mission of Peace, which lasted for about two years. Meeting with him was considered a great honor for kings, presidents, political figures, and artists all around the globe. Though handling the publicity with certain grace and professionalism in general, Gagarin still had a very hard time resisting the stardom disease – a feat in his case a lot more challenging than the flight. During that period, Gagarin, though wanting to fly but having no chance to do so, was said to suffer mental disturbances and turned to heavy drinking and a frivolous lifestyle.

A member of the Communist Party since 1960, he was appointed a deputy of the Supreme Soviet in 1962.

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On 20 December 1963, Gagarin was appointed Deputy Training Director of the Cosmonaut Training Center, a position he held until April 1965, upon returning to Star City. At the cosmonaut facility, Gagarin also worked on designs for a reusable spacecraft for about seven consecutive years. During this period he also enrolled in the Zhukovsky Institute of Aeronautical Engineering, where he began a five-year course leading to a degree. Simultaneously, he returned to the flying routine, re-qualifying as a fighter pilot and reentering mission training as a backup cosmonaut. On 17 February 1968, he defended his thesis and received the Academy’s diploma.

Gagarin often felt frustrated about the way the Soviet officials tried to keep him away from flying, worried about losing their hero in an accident. He nevertheless managed to become a part of the lunar program and started preparing for the new space flight in the summer of 1966. Gagarin was one of the first candidates to fly to the moon, which undoubtedly was his deepest dream, but still very far from realization. The first step was the testing of the new Soyuz spacecraft; the first flight on the Soyuz was scheduled for April 1967. Gagarin was trained as a backup for Vladimir Komarov. It didn’t mean however, that Komarov was better suited for the flight – the authorities were once again protective of the first cosmonaut.

The Soyuz capsule's parachute failed during reentry and the craft crashed, killing Vladimir Komarov. As this flight ended in a fatal crash, Gagarin was ultimately banned from training for and participating in further spaceflights. When giving a speech at Komarov’s wake, Gagarin promised that cosmonauts would teach the Soyuz crafts how to fly. Ultimately, his dream came true, as the Soyuz are still flying.

After the accident, Gagarin had to put even more effort into trying to talk the authorities into letting him fly again. His assertiveness was rewarded. Gagarin’s first flight was scheduled for 27 March 1968, but doomed to become his last. The MiG – 15 with Gagarin and his flight instructor Seregin on board crashed near the vicinity of Novoselovo, a village outside the city of Vladimir, during on a routine training flight.

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Gagarin and Seregin were buried in the walls of the Kremlin at the Red Square. At the request of Gagarin’s wife, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, left one of Gagarin's medals on the moon as a tribute to the world's first man in space.

A crater on the moon bears his name, as does Gagarin Square in Moscow with its soaring monument, along with a number of monuments and streets in cities throughout Russia. At Baikonur, a reproduction of his training room is traditionally visited by space crews before a launch. Russians celebrate Cosmonaut Day on 12 April every year in the honor of Gagarin's historic flight.

Death Investigation

The circumstances that lead to Gagarin’s death remain a mystery waiting to be unraveled. Over the years, all sorts of the most bizarre theories have been advanced as to what caused the plane crash, from poor weather conditions to an alien invasion.

In his 2004 book, “Two Sides of the Moon,” Aleksey Leonov, the first man to perform a spacewalk, recounts flying a helicopter in the area of the plane crash, as he heard "two loud booms in the distance." From that banging he inferred that a Sukhoi jet was flying below its minimum allowed altitude, and "without realizing it because of the terrible weather conditions, passed within 10 or 20 meters of Gagarin and Seregin's plane while breaking the sound barrier." It was the resulting turbulence that had sent Gagarin’s MiG into an uncontrolled spin. According to Leonov, the first boom he heard was that of the jet breaking the sound barrier, while the second was the actual crash of Gagarin's plane.

Russian documents, declassified in March 2003, showed that the KGB had conducted their own investigation into the accident, in addition to one government and two military investigations. The KGB's report dismissed various conspiracy theories, while discovering that it was the actions of air base personnel that contributed to the crash. The report states that an air traffic controller provided Gagarin with outdated weather information, and that by the time of his flight, conditions had deteriorated significantly. Ground crew also left external fuel tanks attached to the aircraft. Gagarin's planned flight activities, however, required clear weather and no outboard tanks. The investigation concluded that when Gagarin's aircraft entered a spin due to an known cause, Gagarin and Seregin could not properly react and bring their MiG out of this spin, because, relying on the faulty weather report, they believed their altitude to be higher than it actually was.

Scattered sources consistently refer to a serious quarrel that had taken place between Gagarin and Nikita Khrushchev at a banquet where both parties heavily insulted each other in public.

A new hypothesis, advanced by the original crash investigator in 2005, suggests that a cabin air vent was accidentally left open by the crew or the previous pilot, leading to oxygen deprivation and leaving the crew incapable of controlling the aircraft.

Among Gagarin and Seregin’s close associates another theory circulates: Seregin is said to have suffered consistent health problems prior to the flight, including nausea and severe chest pains. In the middle of the banking, he was said to have had another heart attack. As Gagarin was piloting, he didn’t notice Seregin’s condition immediately. Seregin’s body, tossing uncontrollably about the pit, had moved some of the levers. Gagarin couldn’t just eject from the plane and leave his friend alone, who might have still been alive. He kept flying above the village, hoping the moving plane would help to bring Seregin back to his senses.

The plane crash could also have been caused by a combination of the afore-mentioned reasons. The least grounded theory suggests that Gagarin didn’t die; he faked the accident to get away from his lifestyle, which was weighing on him more and more. He spent the rest of his life in a cottage in the city of Orenburg and died from a hunting accident at a very old age.

Discover more details about world's first cosmonaut with RT's documentary .

Written by Ekaterina Shubnaya, RT

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