In Russia, the legend of cosmonaut Gagarin lives on
By Romain COLAS
Moscow (AFP) April 7, 2021
Sixty years after he became the first person in space, there are few figures more universally admired in Russia today than Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
His smiling face adorns murals across the country. He stands, arms at his sides as if zooming into space, on a pedestal 42.5 metres (140 feet) above the traffic flowing on Moscow's Leninsky Avenue. He is even a favourite subject of tattoos.
The Soviet Union may be gone and Russia's glory days in space long behind it, but Gagarin's legend lives on, a symbol of Russian success and -- for a Kremlin keen to inspire patriotic fervour -- an important source of national pride.
"He is a figure who inspires an absolute consensus that unifies the country," says Gagarin's biographer Lev Danilkin.
"This is a very rare case in which the vast majority of the population is unanimous."
The anniversary of Gagarin's historic flight on April 12, 1961 -- celebrated every year in Russia as Cosmonautics Day -- sees Russians of all ages lay flowers at monuments to his accomplishment across the country.
The enduring fascination comes not only from his story of rising from humble origins to space pioneer, or even the mystery surrounding his death.
Gagarin, says historian Alexander Zheleznyakov, was a figure who helped fuel the imagination.
"He transformed us from a simple biological species to one that could imagine an entire universe beyond Earth."
- Humble beginnings -
The son of a carpenter and a dairy farmer who lived through the Nazi occupation, Gagarin trained as a steel worker before becoming a military pilot and then, at age 27, spending 108 minutes in space as his Vostok spacecraft completed one loop around the Earth.
He was lauded for his bravery and professionalism, an example of the perfect Soviet man, but his legend was also imbued with tales of camaraderie, courage and love for his two daughters and wife Valentina Gagarina.
Long a secret, Gagarin wrote his wife a poignant farewell letter in the event that he died during his mission.
"If something goes wrong, I ask you -- especially you -- Valyusha, not to die of grief. For this is how life goes," he wrote, using a diminutive for Valentina.
In an interview with AFP in 2011, cosmonaut Boris Volynov recalled a man who, despite sharing privileges of the Soviet elite, spent hours on the phone to procure medicine or a spot in a hospital for his less well-off friends.
On his return to Earth, Gagarin found himself at the centre of a propaganda campaign on the superiority of the Soviet model.
Biographer Danilkin says Gagarin was used by authorities as an example to the rest of the world, but also to convince Soviet citizens, who had endured World War II and Stalin-era repressions, "that the sacrifices of the previous decades were not in vain".
President Vladimir Putin, he said, has co-opted that legacy to cement his own hold on power, promoting Soviet victories to encourage support for his 20-year rule.
"The current authorities methodically appropriate popular cults: first that of victory during World War II, then the conquest of space," Danilkin says.
- Tragic hero -
Like all great Russian heroes, Gagarin is a tragic figure.
His death during a training flight in 1968 at the age of 34 remains a mystery because authorities never released the full report of the investigation into the causes of the accident.
Partial records suggest his MiG-15 fighter jet collided with a weather balloon, but in the absence of transparency, alternative theories abound.
One holds that Gagarin was drunk at the controls; another that he was eliminated by the Kremlin which feared his popularity.
More than 40 years later, many Russians have yet to come to terms with his death.
"How could the top cosmonaut, such a young and kind man, die like that so suddenly?" says historian Zheleznyakov.
"People are still trying to get over it."
Liftoff! Pioneers of space
He was one of several stars of the Cold War space race between the Soviet Union and the United States who would became heroes to millions.
But the technology that sent them into orbit had less glorious origins in the dying days of Nazi Germany.
- The Germans -
Many of the key rocket scientists behind both the American and Soviet space programmes were Germans, who had worked on Adolf Hitler's "secret weapons", the V-1 and V-2 rockets.
Some 1,600 German rocket experts were secretly taken to the US in the dying days of World War II, while the Russians rounded up about 2,000 in one night at gunpoint and sent them to work in the Soviet Union.
Wernher von Braun
The inventor of Hitler's V-2 rocket -- the world's first guided ballistic missile -- was the architect of the US Apollo programme that would put a man on the Moon.
Brought across the Atlantic with his brother Magnus, he came up with the Saturn V rocket that powered the American lunar missions. He died in 1977 still advocating manned missions to Mars.
Kurt H. Debus
A friend of Von Braun, Debus was Hitler's flight test director for the V-1s and V-2s.
In 1952, he began the building of rocket launch facilities at Cape Canaveral in Florida and was later director of operations of what would become the Kennedy Space Centre, overseeing the flight by the first US astronaut Alan Shepard and the Moon missions.
- The Soviets -
The first man in space, Gagarin was chosen from 3,000 candidates.
He completed a single 108-minute orbit aboard Vostok-1 on April 12, 1961 after declaring "Let's Go!"
He died in 1968 at the age of 34 in a still unexplained plane crash.
Gagarin's understudy for the historic 1961 flight, Titov, never got over the disappointment.
Four months later, he orbited the Earth 17 times on Vostok-2. He was elected to the Russian parliament in 1995.
The then 30-year-old made the first spacewalk in history from Voskhod 2 in 1965.
It lasted 12 minutes and nine seconds and nearly killed him as his spacesuit inflated due to the lack of atmospheric pressure. He had to bleed off some of the oxygen, risking death.
Leonov later took part in the groundbreaking Apollo-Soyuz mission that opened a new era of space cooperation between the Soviets and the US in 1975.
The first woman in space, she spent nearly three days in orbit in June 1963.
She had to overcome a host of problems during the flight, which were not revealed until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
She remains the only woman to have carried out a solo mission.
Chief Soviet rocket engineer Korolev clocked up successes from the launching of Sputnik 1 to Gagarin's historic flight. His role was only disclosed after his death in 1966.
Komarov became the first person to die in space on April 23, 1967 after a 26-hour flight on Soyuz 1.
A parachute failed on re-entry, causing his craft to plummet to Earth.
- The Americans -
The first American in space, Shepard's flight on Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961 was suborbital, rising to an altitude of 116 miles (186 kilometres).
He later commanded the Apollo 14 in 1971 and became the fifth person to walk on the Moon, where he played golf.
The first American to orbit the Earth in February 1962, he was later elected as a US senator, serving until 1999.
In 1998, at the age of 77, Glenn became the oldest person to go into space when he journeyed aboard the space shuttle Discovery.
In June 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to be sent into space, on the space shuttle Challenger.
She also took part in a 1986 commission that investigated the loss of the vessel. She died of cancer aged 61 in 2012.
Armstrong was the first human to set foot on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Despite slightly fluffing his line -- "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind" -- it has since been etched in history.
His fellow crew members were Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, who followed 20 minutes later, and Michael Collins, who remained alone in lunar orbit.
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