Yuriy Gagarin:The Importance Of Being First

 Modest; embarrasses when his humour 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.”Soviet Air Force doctor reporting on Yuriy Gagarin*

Ground control to Lieutenant Yuriy…

Fifty years ago 27 year old Soviet Union air force pilot Yuriy Gagarin became the first human being in space – making his own first giant orbit for mankind in a single circumference and spurring America to set itself the challenge of getting the first man on the moon by the end of the decade.

The popular and genial Gagarin was the ideal but apparently not the strongest cosmonaut candidate for the debut flight.  It seems that Gherman Titov was  ranked first but kept under wraps for the scheduled longer second space flight in the series. Gagarin was a much favoured candidate by his peers. When the 20 candidates were asked to anonymously vote for which other candidate they would like to see as first in the space hot seat, all but three chose Gagarin. 

Apart from all his other qualities Gagarin’s short stature at 1.57 metres (5 ft 2 in) was an asset in the tiny capsule of his rocketVostok 1, which lifted off as scheduled on 12 April 1961, at 9:07am Moscow time (6:07 GMT).   

The entire mission was controlled by either automatic systems or by ground control. This was because medical staff did not know how a human might react to weightlessness, so it was decided to lock the pilot’s manual controls. A code to unlock the controls was placed in an onboard envelope, for Gagarin’s use in case of emergency. It remained unopened, though he had already been told the code by the head of cosmonaut training Nikolai Kamanin. There were a few tricky minutes at re-entry when the service module remained attached to the re-entry module by recalcitrant wires that had failed to separate but Gagarin’s admirably equable temperament during strong gyrations was equal to the situation while the module’s attitude and altitude realigned.

Later Gagarin said; “The feeling of weightlessness was somewhat unfamiliar compared with Earth conditions. Here, you feel as if you were hanging in a horizontal position in straps. You feel as if you are suspended.”*

Ground Control was certainly in suspense until after about 106 minutes  the reentry capsule made a hard parachute landing in the Saratov region of the USSR. Gagarin made a softer one by personal parachute in the same place 10 minutes later, though at the time his detached reentry was kept secret because of what was held to constitute a full manned orbit of the earth. He had to be prepared to both die and lie for his country.

There was no slomo replay of his landing to contradict the official verdict.  A farmer and her daughter observed the strange scene of a figure in a bright orange suit with a large white helmet landing near them by parachute. Gagarin later recalled, “When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!  It was probably a collect call. 

Following Gagarin’s return to Earth he was bubble-wrapped by the Soviet authorities and incessantly paraded around for years as an example of Soviet communist success, helped by the fact that one of his most notable traits was his warm smile “that lit up the Cold War”.

When he visited Manchester in the United Kingdom some time later  it was pouring with rain; however, Gagarin insisted that the car hood remain back and refused an umbrella so that the cheering crowds could catch a glimpse of him, saying “If all these people have turned out to welcome me and can stand in the rain, so can I.”

He was finally allowed to return flying at a somewhat lower altitude but died when his plane crashed during a training flight in 1968 during bad weather, possibly after a manoeuvre to avoid a weather balloon. A legacy of early flight may have brought down the first spaceman.

Though his career as a cosmonaut was brief he left a lasting legacy. His legendary flight into space, four years after the unmanned Sputnik,  triggered John Kennedy’s prescient presidential speech at Rice University on September 12th, 1962 setting the goal of a moon landing by the end of the decade.

Before the shooting for the moon speech there was a period of American despondency, with worries that the spaceflight had won a propaganda victory on behalf of Communism. This was not the time for American boosterism. President Kennedy was quoted as saying that it would be “some time” before the US could match the Soviet booster technology and “the news will be worse before it’s better”. At the same time Kennedy also sent congratulations to the Soviet Union for their “outstanding technical achievement.”  Op-eds in many US newspapers urged renewed efforts to overtake the Soviet scientific accomplishments. 

The public challenge, in contrast to Soviet secrecy, galvanised American education, science and technology and military communities and led to the successful manned lunar shot in 1969. There was no seven year hitch, but a couple of major setbacks on the way including a fatal launchpad fire in the full glare of the media’s arc lights.

Decades later the earlier fierce space rivalry between the two titans was transmuted into an age of international space collaboration across national boundariesandacross disciplines on the international Space Station.** World views had changed, not the least because of the views from outer space first experienced by Gagarin.

His photo is the only astronaut portrait on the wall in the central section of the Space Station, said Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield: “Because we recognize that he is the one who opened the door for all of us.”* In the words of Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev, commander of the current mission at the International Space Station, from orbit 12 April 2011, “He is a human who made the first-ever step into outer space, which became a milestone for humankind at large.”

A real time recreation of Yuriy Gagarin’s pioneering first orbit, shot entirely in space from on board the International Space Station, was made this year.  The film combines this new synchronised footage with Gagarin’s original mission audio and lets us see what he saw on his trail-blazing blast.*

Since Gagarin’s epic voyage, more than 500 astronauts from countries around the world have left the Earth. Some have walked on the moon. Many, including Hadfield, have lived and walked in space.

A projectile is a self-propelled missile capable of being impelled forward. In metaphorical terms what drives a project is the energy of its participants. At the national level in New Zealand, which projects are our equivalent lunar challenges?  The Rugby World Cup isn’t a big enough or inclusive enough challenge, nor is the America’s Cup, though both consume a lot of national resources for marginal returns.

We need more than spectator sports to engage and involve people. We need worthwhile projects of national significance and a new world view projecting ourselves forward as a nation, making a quantum leap into a new orbit and expanding our sphere of influence globally by transforming ourselves into the Innovation Nation. 

As Robert Grudin, author of Time and the Art of Living put it:  “….people with great projects afoot…look further and more clearly into the future than people who are mired in day to day concerns. These former control the future because by necessity they must project themselves into it…”

Into which  future will we project ourselves?

#Feel free to add a comment below and share this post. 

**Alert   Dr Jack Bacon, internationally-known motivational speaker, futurist and technology writer and author of The Parallel Bang is back in New Zealand on a speaking tour in October 2011. He was the United States’ lead systems integrator of the Zarya-the jointly-built spacecraft that forms the central bridge and adapter between all US and Russian technologies on the Space Station. Visit http://www.drjackbacon.com/    If you are interested in an in-house presentation contact lyall@smartnet.co.nz     

*Blinks

Yuri Gagarin- 50th anniversary of the first …  Vid Russia celebrates the anniversary of the first human spaceflight on 12 Apr 1961.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKs6ikmrLgg    Vid   First Orbit  Documentary film maker Christopher Riley partnered with European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli to record a stunning new film of what Gagarin would have seen of the Earth from his spaceship. This was released online in April 2011 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of human spaceflight.
We Choose to go to the Moon Vid  John Kennedy’s speech at Rice University on September 12th, 1962 setting the goal of a moon landing by the end of the decade.
http://video.ca.msn.com/watch/video/hadfield-honours-gagarin/16az87wg4   Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield reflects on Yuri Gagarin’s space trip 50 years ago.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFks9A9TCF0  Music vid David Bowie “Space Oddity”.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Orbit  The making of First Orbit.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gagarin 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vostok_1 

#Lyall Lukey 2 May 2011
http://www.lukey.co.nz/  http://www.smartnet.co.nz
https://bluggerme.wordpress.com  My other less serious blog

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One Response to Yuriy Gagarin:The Importance Of Being First

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