I was so busy reeling from the results of my cursed Bar Exam that I forgot April 12 was also a much happier occasion: International Day of Human Space Flight, which commemorates the 1961 flight of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin—the first man to enter outer space and the first to orbit the Earth. He spent 108 minutes aboard the Vostok 1, which was basically one big cannonball with rudimentary, if resourceful, technology.
Gagarin subsequently became the most visible and iconic Russian in the world, a far cry from dour and disreputable figures that were more familiar to outsiders. His natural charm and friendliness—both personally and in every media spotlight—earned him the moniker “the Smiling Soviet“, as it contradicted the popular image of Russians as gruff and sullen.
How does one become the first human in space, especially as the son of peasants in a country as seemingly blighted as Soviet Russia? After personally enduring the grief and hardship of the Second World War—including having his home occupied by a German officer, and serving in the resistance—Gagarin returned to normal life; he loved math and science in school, and was fascinated with planes, building model aircraft and eventually a local flying club. Unsurprisingly, he joined the Soviet Air Force, where his confidence and knack for flying were matched only by his astute technical knowledge; as a youth, he worked in a steel factory and later went to vocational school, learning about industrial work and tractors.
As the Soviet space program went into high gear in the 1960s, Gagarin and other talented pilots were being screened for their fitness and aptitude as “cosmonauts”—something no one had ever been before. (There was only so much we could know about the effect of space travel on a human.)
When it came down to him and 19 other candidates, an Air Force doctor made the following evaluation of him:
Modest; embarrasses when his humor gets a little too racy; high degree of intellectual development evident in Yuri; 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.
Gagarin was also heavily favored by his peers—even those otherwise competing with him for the glory of first man in space. When the 20 candidates were asked to anonymously vote for which other candidate they would like to see as the first to fly, all but three chose him
Another favorable factor was, of all things, his short stature (at least partly a product of his rough and impoverished childhood). At just 5’2″, Gagarin could easily fit in the small, rudimentary cockpit of the Vostok 1. (Being the first into space is scary enough—imagine in something that cramped.)
As Valentina Malmy wrote beautifully in the book Star Peace:
He was like a sound amplified by a mountain echo. The traveler is small, but the mountains are great, and suddenly they merge into a single whole. Such was Yuri Gagarin. To accomplish a heroic exploit means to step beyond one’s own sense of self-preservation, to have the courage to dare what today seems unthinkable for the majority. And to be ready to pay for it. For the hero himself, his feat is the limit of all possibilities. If he leaves something “in reserve”, then the most courageous deed thereby moves into the category of work: hard, worthy of all glorification, but — work. An act of heroism is always a breakthrough into the Great Unknown. Even given most accurate preliminary calculations, man enters into that enterprise as if blindfold, full of inner tension.
I can’t wrap my head around being the first person to venture into something as unknown and terrifying as space—to be able put your thumb up in front of you and our big planet as small as your fingernail.
Little wonder why Gagarin became such a worldwide celebrity, touring dozens of countries in the years following his fateful flight. The geopolitical implications melted away in the face of this impressive feat, and the man’s genuine charm and affability—this was something all humankind could celebrate.
Of course, this was still the Cold War: As a living symbol of Soviet triumph, Gagarin could not be risked on another spaceflight, given their inherent danger even today, let alone fifty years ago. Ironically, he died unexpectedly just a few years later during a routine training flight, an event subject to much secrecy and rumor (one conspiracy theory is that newly installed Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev ordered his death due to being overshadowed by the gregarious cosmonaut at public events).
For his part, the “Smiling Soviet” seemed above such politics, notwithstanding his (likely symbolic) stint as a member of the Soviet legislature. As to be expected, being the first man in space really changes you and puts things in perspective; you’re literally looking down on everything you, and all your fellow humans, have ever known. I wonder if it was surreal or even lonely being the only person with that sort of view.
Despite being banned from the U.S. by the Kennedy Administration—perhaps because his popularity among average Americans undermined the competitive spirit of the Space Race—Gagarin was honored by the Apollo 11 crew (ironically the same mission that ended the race in America’s favor). Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left a memorial on the surface of the moon commemorating him and fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, the first human to venture into Outer Space, and the first to die there. (Another memorial was left by Apollo 15 in 1971 to commemorate the Americans and Russians who died in space.)
Though untimely and cruelly ironic—an expert pilot dying from a routine flight rather than the first space mission—Gagarin is survived by one hell of a legacy: The almost banal regularity of human spaceflight in the 21st century is a testament to his courageous and spirited embrace of the ultimate unknown.