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Surviving space and fame

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Self-made man: Yuri Gagarin.
Self-made man: Yuri Gagarin.

OLGA SOBOLEVSKAYA

April 12, 1961, man orbits the earth for the first time ever. Remembering the man who took it, and celebrity status, in his stride.

YURI GAGARIN'S fame has not faded a bit since a huge rocket launched him into a near-earth orbit on April 12, 1961. He became the first man to experience space weightlessness, not knowing for certain what effect it might have on his own life and health. He was the first to experience a speed of eight km per second, or more than 28,000 km per hour, something that heretofore was unthinkable. He was the first to experience cosmic overloads, the first to be in a descent module engulfed in flames when entering the earth's atmosphere. Yuri Gagarin was the first of all dwellers of the Earth to see it from space. But he was not merely a man who was subjected to such an unforeseen experiment. Yuri Gagarin can by right be considered an expert who was on level with the scientists and engineers who prepared and carried out the flight of the spaceship Vostok. Not for a moment did he lose his self-control throughout the 108 minutes of his flight, in the course of which were critical moments, unpredictable and unexpected situations that nobody before him had ever experienced. The spaceship Vostok was launched from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 6:07 GMT, and it landed near the village of Smelovka, Ternovksy district of the Saratov Region (the Volga Region). The length of the route was 40,868.6 km, maximum flight speed, 28,260 km an hour, and maximum flight altitude, 327 km, which still remains a record, and nobody ever rose any higher in a single-seater craft. Presence of mind, restraint, courage, wisdom, quickness of thought, power of observation and sound knowledge - this is by far not everything that can be said of Yuri Gagarin. One could also mention his profound charm and modesty, for, after his flight, he was to face another serious test. He was the first and perhaps the only man to have experienced such worldwide fame in his life. Justice ought to be done to the choice made by the chief designer, high-ranking military and representatives of the government. One of the members of the commission - general Nikolai Kamanin - wrote the following in this diary: "It is hard to decide whom to send to a certain death, and it is just as hard to decide whom out of the 2-3 worthy men to turn into a world celebrity, putting his name forever down in human history." Gherman Titov, who became cosmonaut-2, recalled that even on the day before the flight the scales were fluctuating. But he himself believed that all had been pre-determined. "Months before the flight," he said, "the press photographers and cameramen cleared for the groups of cosmonauts classified as top secret, aimed their lenses first at Gagarin, and then at me. Not only the correspondents, but also the doctors, cooks and engineers who were included in the narrow circle of people admitted to the sacramental space secrets, singled out among the six future cosmonauts precisely Gagarin due to his excellent character and complete absence of conceit.""It was the perfect choice," confirmed Gherman Titov. "Look at his biography. Yuri Gagarin is an ordinary man from Smolensk. When a boy he went through the hardships of war and nazi occupation. During the war his brother and sister were driven away to Germany. After graduating from the eighth form he went to a factory school, and became a foundry worker. Then followed the Saratov industrial specialised school, an air club, and a flight school. He was a lad who made his dream come true all by himself, without a father and mother to help him."In October 1957, upon hearing that the Soviet Union had launched the world's first artificial Earth satellite, the young student began to think of man's future space flights and felt "a strong craving for space, something that he was afraid to admit even to himself." Gagarin said that after the third Soviet satellite was launched into orbit, he "understood that not a moment was to be wasted. The next day I handed in an application to be enrolled in the group of cosmonauts." He doubted that he would pass, for, the number of those who dropped out was tremendous. "I am not tall," recalled Gagarin, "and am not sturdily built, while tall robust lads were passed by the commission. How could I vie with them?" And he never believed that his height also had its role to play. In one of the Moscow squares, right next to the monument to Earth's first cosmonaut, stands a mock-up of the descent module in which Gagarin carried out his historic turn around the planet. It is a sphere with a diameter of only 2.4 m which, apart from the cosmonaut, was to have had enough room for many other things as well. Yuri Gagarin died in an air crash on March 27, 1968. It was a flight on a training combat plane. In the instructor pilot's cockpit was test pilot Vladimir Seregin who was instructed to check on Colonel Gagarin's preparedness for the resumption (after an eight-year-long interval) of independent flights on a fighter. Gagarin's resumption of flights could have given the start to a new fruitful period in his life. Many people say that he was tired of being a celebrated figurehead, of being demonstrated as a "museum relic". Twelve minutes after the take off, Gagarin reported by radio to the flying control officer that the mission had been completed and asked for permission to return to the airfield. After that communications broke off. By the evening of the same day the fragments of the plane and the remains of the pilots were discovered in a forest. To this day, experts have not agreed on a definite explanation of the tragedy. The version of a collision with a weather balloon still remains the most probable one. Nevertheless, Yuri Gagarin's death remains a mystery which perhaps will never be unravelled.


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