Today is the 53rd anniversary of the first human spaceflight mission- the flight of Vostok 1 and cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin.
Every years since 2001, thousands of people around the world have celebrated this event on the night of April 12th to honor the birth human spaceflight. The event was begun by George Whitesides (the present CEO of Virgin Galactic) , his future wife Loretta Hidalgo, and friend Trish Garner. The goal was to increase the public awareness of the anniversary and spark further interest in space exploration.
Just 13 years later, the modest shindig has become an international event, with hundreds of registered parties held around the world every year. Several spectacular venues traditionally hold momentous events, including The California Science Center in Los Angeles, The Space Coast events near the cape, and the Great Lakes Science Center, in Cleveland, Ohio. My crew and I are even holding an event here in the HI-SEAS habitat module on Mauna Loa- even if it’s a bit of a private event. For more information, I recommend going to the official website: http://www.yurisnight.net
One of the most important aspects of Yuri’s Night is the celebration of Yuri’s flight not as a national accomplishment, but as a human accomplishment. Even in these times of renewed militant nationalism, the achievement of spaceflight should be recognized for it’s impact and implications for our species.
Few Americans know anything about Yuri Gagarin (I’d venture few even know his name or why he is famous) and I think it would surprise many to know he was a humble aviator, and was perhaps less a Soviet communist than he was a dreamer of a unified space frontier.
Many others have written telling works on the life of Gagarin, so I won’t attempt to replicate their works here. (For the best biography of his short life, I suggest “Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin“, by Piers Bizony http://www.amazon.com/Starman-Truth-Behind-Legend-Gagarin/dp/B007SRW4HA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1397347006&sr=8-1&keywords=Yuri+Gagarin
Yuri was, by all accounts, the poster boy for the Soviet propaganda machine. The son of peasant farmers, a survivor of Nazi occupation during WW2, a worker in the industrial foundries, graduate of a technical school, and a remarkable pilot in the Red Air Force. His story was not a construct of the communist party, but the real thing: a proletariat patriot. His selection to the first pool of candidates for the Soviet cosmonauts could not have been more likely.
On April 12th, 1961- Yuri was launched in his cramped Vostok capsule, the very first human to ever leave the planet. He flew a single orbit, the total duration of his mission was only 1 hour and 48 minutes. He had excelled in the rigorous preparations for the mission and was so well regarded by his peers, that of the 20 candidates in the first cosmonaut class, all but three anonymously voted him as their choice for the first flight.
After the flight, he became arguably the most beloved individual in post-war Russian culture. One cannot visit Russia today without seeing the monuments and murals featuring his ever present smile. It is true, that during the months following his mission, he became caught up in the notoriety he earned during his round-the-world tour at the behest of the Politburo. Carefully hidden escapades of drunken parties and marital indiscretions nearly ruined him.
What was known only to him and his closest peers, was his lamentation at living now only as a puppet of the Communist party. Like any aviator, he requested another spaceflight- only to be denied by Khrushchev himself as “too valuable” to risk his life. His repeated attempts earned him only promotion to higher echelons- and away from the cockpit. Denied his dreams, he straightened his personal vices and began earnestly working toward training more cosmonauts and developing more advanced spacecraft.
His efforts allowed to rise the position of Deputy Training Director of of Star City, Russia’s equivalent to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. With the ability to assign space training, and Khrushchev’s fall from power, Colonel Gagarin assigned himself to re-qualify as a pilot
What happened next has led to much speculation- conspiracy theories from both Russia and the United States are plentiful- but ti was clear that tragedy had struck when the young Gagarin and his flight instructor failed to return to Chkalovsky Air Base after a routine training flight.
On March 27th 1968, Yuri and instructor pilot Vladimir Seryogin had taken off in their Mig-15 UTI (a two-seat fighter aircraft) for an instructional ride in mixed IMC (instrument meteorological conditions, the name aviators use for cloudy or foggy weather). No mayday calls were received, and no witnesses saw the accident. But the bodies of both men were found with wreckage of their aircraft soon after. Independent investigations by the Soviet Air Force, the KGB, and civil aviation authorities had differing but similar conclusions- the aircraft entered a spin in a cloud layer, too low to recover. Some parties believed the pilots suffered oxygen deprivation, others inferred that they over banked the aircraft to avoid a mind-air with another fighter flying in the same area that day. Investigators faulted an air traffic controller for providing Gagarin with inaccurate weather reports, as well as maintenance personnel for inadequate preflight procedures.
In either case, nothing could undo the fact that Yuri Gagarin, just 34, died trying to reclaim his dreams.
“The main force in man- is the power of the spirit.”– Yuri Gagarin, 1962