Back in the early 1960s, like many children, I was very excited and inspired by the Space Race. The very idea of space rockets, space men and journeys to the moon and near planets looked both possible and wonderful. Yury Gagarin’s first manned space flight was the stuff of legend and fired my young imagination. The future of space travel looked truly bright back then, at least from the point of view of one small child.
Yury Gagarin was born in the village of Klushino near the town of Gzhatsk in the Smolensk Region on 9 March 1934. Gzhatsk was renamed Gagarin in 1968 in his honor. His parents, Aleksey and Anna, worked on a collective farm, and, though generally considered heavy manual laborers, were educated and intelligent people. Gagarin’s mother was a well-read woman; his father, a carpenter, preferred to be discreet about his skills to avoid Stalin’s purges against private proprietors. As his parents spent most of their time at work, Gagarin owed much of his upbringing to his elder sister.
On 12 April 1961, Gagarin became the first human to fly into space. At 9:07 am, he was launched into orbit aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Every move he made and every word he said that day was to become legendary and sacramental. When responding to the ground control if he was ready, he said, “Poekhali!” meaning “Let’s get going!/Off we go!” in Russian. During his flight, Gagarin famously whistled the tune of the traditional aviation hymn, “The Motherland Hears, The Motherland Knows.” The first report he sent to the ground control was, “The earth is blue. […] How wonderful. It is amazing.”
On 27 March 1968, while on a routine training flight from Chkalovsky Air Base, he and flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin died in a MiG-15UTI crash near the town of Kirzhach. The bodies of Gagarin and Seryogin were cremated and the ashes were buried in the walls of the Kremlin on Red Square.