Commemorating the 60th anniversary of his reaching the Stars

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From the Embassy of the Russian Federation in the Republic of South Africa:

On 12 April we celebrate a very special occasion – on that very day in 1961, 60 years ago, Yuri Gagarin embarked on his legendary journey to outer space and came down in history as the first cosmonaut – the first man who travelled to the stars, beyond the borders of our home planet. He commenced his flight as a Senior Lieutenant of Soviet Air Force, an ordinary Soviet citizen, and came back as Major of Air Force (yes, he had been promoted), Hero of the Soviet Union and…a living legend. Let’s take a moment here and think of what it takes a man to take a leap into the unknown, to make something that literally nobody ever did before.

Yuri Gagarin

No doubt, this requires courage and Yuri Gagarin was a courageous man. The tragic years of WWII befell his childhood. Yuri Gagarin entered school on September 1 1941. Just a bit more than a month later, on October 12 1941, his home village, Klushino, was occupied by Nazi invaders. Thus, since the early years of his life, Yuri Gagarin learned to look danger in the face, to stay strong and true to himself no matter the circumstances.

Besides courage, taking the very first step into the abyss of outer space requires devotion to duty and homeland. And, again, undoubtedly, Yuri Gagarin was a true patriot with unwavering fidelity to his duty. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have become a cosmonaut. According to Sergey Korolev, the brilliant Soviet rocket engineer and head of the Soviet space programme, patriotism is one of the determinant traits of a cosmonaut, “As for picking the first Soviet cosmonauts, it has nothing to do with someone’s fascination with space. This is not what the decision must be based on. Patriotism, courage, modesty, precision of quick-reaction estimate, indomitable will, competence and love for people – these are determinant traits”.

However obvious it may sound, embarking on a spaceflight requires skill and years of hard training. Looking back at Yuri Gagarin’s life, one might come to the conclusion that he was a natural flyer. On October 25 1954 he joined an aeroclub in the city of Saratov. There Gagarin soon demonstrated a genuine talent for piloting. He carried out his first flight on Yak-18 aircraft while in total, during his days at aeroclub, he accomplished 196 flights. So, it was no surprise that once Gagarin was enlisted in the Soviet Army on October 27 1955, he joined the Soviet Air Force. There, at 1st Air Force Academy he kept training hard, achieving excellent results in every discipline.

Yuri Gagarin with Queen Elizabeth

What else does it take to become the world’s first cosmonaut? Perhaps, willpower, tenacity and leadership abilities. Yuri Gagarin had them all and it is not our assumption or an attempt to embellish his image. That was the conclusion of Soviet psychologists who worked with all the candidates for the status of cosmonaut.

As history showed, whatever else the enormous task of being the Earth’s first space explorer might have taken, Yuri Gagarin had just what it takes. So, on April 12 1961, at 09:07 (Moscow time) he began his way towards the endless outer space on board his spaceship, “Vostok-1”, from legendary Baikonur Cosmodrome – this place has been a starting point for hundreds of spaceflights. During the lift-off, Yuri Gagarin said his famous “Let’s go!” – a phrase that will remain in history forever. The first man travelled to space – and one of humanity’s oldest and most sacred dreams came true.

There, in space, Yuri Gagarin observed our blue planet in all its immense beauty. This is how he himself described it afterwards: “While flying around Earth in a satellite-ship I saw how beautiful our planet is. People! Let us preserve and enrich this beauty and not ruin it!”. Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight lasted for 1 hour and 48 minutes – the spaceship made one revolution around the Earth. At 10:53 (Moscow time) Yuri Gagarin successfully landed. Soon afterwards he was reporting on the success of his mission.

On the very next day Yuri Gagarin became a worldwide celebrity – there was hardly a single person in the world who wouldn’t know his name and what he had accomplished. Almost a month later, Gagarin was sent in his first foreign trip – “Mission of Peace”. He was received by numerous world leaders, including Queen Elizabeth II and Fidel Castro and gave interviews to world’s leading media. Nonetheless, everyone who knew Yuri Gagarin said the same – worldwide fame did not change him even for a bit. He was still true to himself – honest, modest and charming. Sergey Korolev was right – modesty is indeed a trait of a true cosmonaut, a true hero.

Yuri Gagarin and Fidel Castro

Sixty years later, Yuri Gagarin’s accomplishment hasn’t lost even a fraction of its importance. The true meaning of his spaceflight goes beyond being a highly symbolic act of travelling to stars – something that seemed so unreachable, so mysterious. By proving that it is humanly possible to travel to outer space, he paved the way for numerous future achievements of the Soviet space programme. The USSR takes pride in the fact that our country was a true pioneer of space exploration. Aside from sending the first man to space, the USSR also launched Earth’s first artificial satellite “Sputnik-1” on October 4 1957 and sent a living creature into space (a dog called Laika) on November 3 1957. On top of that, Soviet space apparatus “Luna-9” was the first to perform a successful landing on the Moon. This happened on September 12 1959. On November 1 1962 Soviet space probe “Mars-1” was put on Mar’s orbit. It wasn’t the only planet that the Soviet space probes reached. The USSR also had a separate research programme – “Venera” – dedicated to the exploration of Venus.

Besides, Gagarin was not the only space explorer. The first woman in space was also a Soviet citizen – it was Valentina Tereshkova who performed a spaceflight on board the “Vostok-6” spaceship on June 16 1963. The man who performed the first spacewalk in history (March 18 1965) was also Yuri Gagarin’s compatriot – Alexey Leonov.

Vostok 1 launching

The 1970s were just as fruitful in terms of achievements in space as were the 1960s. On November 17 1970 the wheels of the Soviet and world’s first lunar rover “Lunokhod-1” touched the surface of the Moon. The world’s first orbital station, Soviet “Salyut-1”, reached the Earth’s orbit on April 19 1971. On July 17 1975 two spaceships – USSR’s “Soyuz-19” and US’ “Apollo” – docked in space. This event became known as “handshake in space”.

On February 20 1986, a true technological miracle was put on Earth’s orbit. “Mir” (“Peace” or “World” – it is the same word in Russian) – the first modular space station in history. At the time, this was one of the most advanced creations of humankind. Over 20 000 experiments were held on board this station. It hosted 104 cosmonauts from 12 countries. The station spent 15 years in orbit before it was discontinued in 2001.

Yuri Gagarin and Gina Lollobrigada

Another reason for Yuri Gagarin’s flight’s everlasting importance is that it became a pinnacle of fundamental scientific research carried out by brilliant Russian-Soviet scientists, namely Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Sergey Korolev. The former scientifically justified the very possibility of a space flight on a rocket back in the 1920’s. For his vast contribution to the development of space science in Russia he is remembered as “Father of Modern Cosmonautics”. As for Sergey Korolev, he was the head of the Soviet space programme until his death in 1966. He was a man who literally started the Space Age of humankind’s history. Under his supervision and with his direct involvement, the Soviet Union managed to gain many of the numerous remarkable achievements recounted earlier in this article.

Today Russia, as the USSR’s continuing state, proceeds further in space exploration. Russian space agency, Roscosmos, carries out space flights on a yearly basis, expands its ties with other countries, including South Africa. Moreover, recently it was announced that Russia plans to revive the Soviet programme of a reusable spacecraft “Buran” (Russian for “Snowstorm”).

All this became a reality thanks to Yuri Gagarin’s historical achievement. By doing something that was deemed impossible for centuries, he showed us how much humanity can achieve, how beautiful our world is and that it is not indeed limited to our home planet. Sixty years later, the world still remembers Yuri Gagarin’s name – there are numerous monuments and busts dedicated to him in Russia and around the world, including South Africa. Yuri Gagarin’s bust was unveiled in Cape Town in November 2020. Gzhatsk, the city where Yuri Gagarin was born and grew up, was renamed in his honour. Nowadays it is the city of Gagarin. In our opinion, it’s all how it should be. The memory of Yuri Gagarin must be preserved and it is the international community’s common duty. Nobody knows what the future has in store for us: what foreign planets might we discover? Will one of them become a second home for us one day? Regardless of what fantastic discoveries we might make by exploring the outer space, how many Earthlings embark on space journeys in the future, one thing will always remain true – Yuri Gagarin was the first.