It Was 50 Years Ago, Today
…when mankind left the gravitational confines of our Earth.
A poor boy from the steppes, Yuri Gagarin, simultaneously became the first man in space and the first man to leave Earth and orbit it completely. (This is something that took NASA several steps before John Glenn finally emulated the feat).
While of humble background (like Jesus), his father was a carpenter (like Jesus) and his mother read voraciously (as Jesus knew the scriptures). Obviously, Gagarin wasn’t Jesus, but he did die in his mid-thirties which parallels Jesus’s early death.
I was alive when Gagarin stunned the world by being shot into space. I remember very few photos of the man or the event. The West was naturally very embarrassed by being overshadowed by a dictator-led communist state. Most scientists were just astonished. Most politicians and the mainstream media were extremely alarmist in public (and fully actioned in private) because the inter-continental aspect of chucking a nuclear weapon sized piece of machinery aloft at the height of the cold war was paramount in their minds.
What struck me then and since was the fact that Gagarin always seemed to have a happy cheeriness about him. When we now see his pre-flight pictures, his confidence is astounding, because remember, before the voyage, mankind had conflicting ideas about the very survivability for a man in the entirely hostile and unforgiving environment of space. Some said that a man would die within half and hour from radiation….
Of course, the Soviet scientists had tested these theories with mammals (dogs & ape) and knew that even though the animals died on their space-flights (and were destined to die, by design), they knew that a man could survive the flight and if a return to Earth could be made, he’d live to see another day. They’d also done a small step-by-step approach to their rocketry so even though the rocket was made primarily as an ICBM, its designer was actually more interested in getting men into space and had designed accordingly. (see this article on Sergei Korolev and his space-flight dreams).
This, Gagarin duly did, by re-entering the atmosphere in his capsule and then, when the speed had sufficiently reduced, by opening his capsule and leaping from it to then descend on a conventional parachute.
Amazingly, this all worked, perfectly.
We now see the benefits of this early Soviet work because for the next few years, transport of people to the International Space Station (ISS) will be done by the Russian Soyuz spacecraft alone now that the NASA Space Shuttle is grounded for good.
The Soyuz is a direct descendant of Gagarin’s early capsule and the subsequent work and deaths of Soviet cosmonauts. Later joint work with NASA and their own accidents and astronaut deaths have made the Soyuz platform very reliable, in space flight terms. See this Wikipedia article for a full introduction to space-flight of all kinds.
Google, characteristically, have celebrated Gagarin’s achievement (and that it was, make no mistake, he was a very, very, brave man), with a decorated main page which I’ve copied for posterity above.
Hooray For Gagarin.
So it was 50 years ago today. An event that changed the world and our perception of it and ourselves in the universe.
It’s only people some years older than myself who actually remember the previous world where people remained fixed to the planet and could only dream and wonder about the reality beyond. For myself and folks younger than me, we can only to imagine what that world was like because we are part of the world that Gagarin’s bravery opened up for us..