The man who fell to Earth

The capsule landed empty as Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to travel into space, made a parachute jump at an altitude of 7000 meters. Photograph: Getty Images

The capsule landed empty as Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to travel into space, made a parachute jump at an altitude of 7000 meters. Photograph: Getty Images


50 years ago this week a Russian peasant's son became the world's first spaceman. DAN McLAUGHLINvisits Yuri Gagarin's home town, in the west of the country, where his family recall the cosmonaut's life and early death.

APRIL 12th, 1961, began as another ordinary day for Tamara Filatova. Then her headmistress rushed into the classroom. “Your uncle’s a pilot, isn’t he?” she asked. “Yes,” answered the startled 14-year-old. “And he’s called Yuri Alexeyevich?” The young girl nodded. “Well, let me tell you: he’s in space!”

Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin had just become the first person to go beyond Earth’s atmosphere, making that spring day, 50 years ago next Tuesday, unforgettable for the people of the Soviet Union and millions of others around the world. He had blasted off from the Central Asian steppe, travelled once around Earth in his Vostok capsule and survived a fiery re-entry through the atmosphere to parachute gently to the ground.

His adventure lasted only 108 minutes but transformed the way we think about our planet and our ability to travel beyond it.

“We all thought he was a test pilot. We had no idea he was training to be a cosmonaut. We didn’t even know such a group existed. It was all top secret,” says Tamara, who is now 64, in her office overlooking the house in western Russia where she and Yuri grew up. She has worked in the museum dedicated to her uncle for the past 40 years.

“We knew the Sputniks had gone up, and Laika” – the dog that became the first animal to orbit Earth, in Sputnik 2 in 1957 – “and so on, and we thought that one day someone would go into space. But no one imagined it could happen so soon.”

Radio reports told Soviets of the latest triumph of communism. But, in the Gagarins’ hometown of Gzhatsk, Tamara burst into tears when her headmistress told her about Uncle Yuri. “It was awful. This was a person I loved so much, who meant everything to me. He was my uncle and godfather, but we had grown up like brother and sister. I was so scared for him until they announced that he had landed safely.”

The Vostok re-entry capsule came down in a field near the city of Saratov. A local woman, Anna Takhtarova, her granddaughter Rita and one of their cows stared in bewilderment at the man in the orange spacesuit and huge white helmet. “I’m a Russian, comrades, I’m a Russian,” he told them. Rita asked if he had really come from space. “Just imagine it; I certainly have,” Gagarin replied.

For Gagarin terrestrial life would never be the same again. Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, immediately sent him on another trip around the world, this time to be feted in dozens of countries, to lunch with the queen of England, be hugged by Fidel Castro and be kissed by Gina Lollobrigida as the charming embodiment of Soviet talent, courage and modesty.

Gagarin’s easy smile and relaxed demeanour belied his physical and mental toughness, and after months of arduous and sometimes bizarre tests he had beaten 19 other top military pilots to win the seat in Vostok 1. He had even managed to charm Sergei Korolev, the often fierce Gulag survivor who was the inspiration for and engine of the Soviet space programme, by removing his boots before climbing into the module for the first time, in a simple show of respect for Korolev’s creation.

When Gagarin was strapped into Vostok it was the brilliant Korolev who ran the flight from mission control. He brought the cosmonaut – his “little eagle” – down by parachute into a field near Saratov, where Gagarin had first learned to fly. The charred Vostok re-entry capsule came down on its own canopy a couple of kilometres away.

Instant celebrity brought some rewards to Gagarin, but they took him away for long periods from the things he loved most: his family and flying – although, while the former helped keep his feet on the ground, the latter would kill him just seven years after making him the most famous Russian in the world.

The whirlwind forming around Gagarin also swept up his family, taking them from Gzhatsk to a triumphal parade on Red Square, a celebratory vodka-soaked Kremlin dinner with Khrushchev and then back to the village, where the authorities were hastily building them a new home.

Gagarin played his new role to perfection. He was the worker’s son who, through hard work and dedication, had brought glory to his country and to communism. He was funny, charming, patient and, though never boastful, never missed a chance to praise Khrushchev or remind the US how badly it was losing the space race.

“It was astonishing,” said Gherman Titov, Gagarin’s greatest rival for the seat aboard Vostok, about the sight of him standing with Soviet leaders on Vladimir Lenin’s Red Square mausoleum. “It was only then I realised the importance of the event which had moved all the people. Everyone was glad. The whole world was glad because a man had gone into space.”

The whole world, with the exception of the United States, certainly seemed keen to host Gagarin. He visited dozens of countries, received countless honours and became a magnificent ambassador for the Khrushchev regime. Back home he was made a member of the Supreme Soviet legislature. So many letters flooded into him from around the Soviet Union and the world that he was given his own postcode.

“I must have been three or four when I realised dad was famous,” says his daughter Galina Gagarina, who was barely five weeks old when Gagarin visited space. “There were always lots of people around him, wanting to talk. Dad was very friendly and sociable and could find a common language with anyone. But his work didn’t interfere with family life. He spent time with us; we went out into nature to play and relax and pick mushrooms. He loved sport, and most mornings the astronauts at Star City” – the training centre near Moscow – “would train in a special area in the woods. We would do sport and exercises too: he was strict about that; we had no choice.”

Galina says she and her elder sister, Yelena, did not receive special treatment as daughters of the first man in space. “As more and more rockets went to space the fathers of more and more kids became cosmonauts, or were training to be cosmonauts. We lived like everyone else.”

But life in Gzhatsk was transformed by Gagarin’s flight. The small house the authorities built for his parents, across the street from the one in which Yuri grew up, marked the start of a construction campaign that brought a new hospital, schools, roads, apartment blocks and the Cosmos cinema to town.

OVER THE YEARS much of Gagarin’s legacy withered, along with investment and public interest in the Soviet space programme, and Gzhatsk, which was renamed Gagarin in 1968, returned to being a poor, somewhat isolated provincial town, several kilometres off the Moscow-Minsk highway and served by occasional, grindingly slow trains from the capital.

Most visitors to Gagarin come to see the family’s two small houses, which are now museums. Examples of his father’s carpentry and his mother’s needlework fill the house where he grew up; the newer building contains photographs and memorabilia of his flight. Outside, the Volga car he received as a reward from the Kremlin sits gleaming in a huge glass case.

Last week workmen were slapping paint on flaking buildings and bridges and fixing pot-holed streets in preparation for anniversary celebrations in Gagarin. “Yuri’s responsibilities on Earth were heavier than the G-forces going into space,” says Filatova, his niece, who witnessed the town’s sudden rise to fame and steady decline.

“Lots of people asked him for help, and he did whatever he could for them, and for Gzhatsk, which developed a lot after his space flight. When he managed to come home he never said, ‘No, go away, I’m with my family.’ He had time for everyone. A real man doesn’t talk about how tough things are, and he didn’t want to worry his mother or the rest of us. He was always happy, an optimist.”

But all the travelling and public and political responsibilities did take their toll. There were tales of excessive drinking and the occasional fling, though nothing that would distinguish him from millions of other Russian men. What was perhaps hardest for Gagarin was to see his old comrades training and going to space for longer missions while he was now earthbound, considered too famous and too precious for such risky adventures.

In October 1964 Leonid Brezhnev and his clique ousted Khrushchev, and Gagarin lost an ally in the Kremlin. Fifteen months later Korolev died during a supposedly routine operation, stripping the space programme of its engine and inspiration, and robbing his “little eagle” of a friend and mentor.

When Gagarin did manage to push himself back into the space programme the mission ended in disaster. Gagarin was the reserve pilot for Vladimir Komarov’s maiden manned Soyuz flight, in April 1967. Plenty of people, including the two fliers, knew the vehicle was riddled with problems, but the politicians decreed that it would fly on International Solidarity Day. It did not return safely to Earth. A host of systems failed, leaving Komarov trapped and helpless in the vehicle, knowing for hours that he faced certain death, as it hurtled back through the atmosphere before slamming into the Russian steppe.

The accident hit Gagarin hard, and further damaged his chances of ever going back into space. He was now deputy director of cosmonaut training at Star City, and was studying hard for a university diploma, and his girls were growing up fast.

The last time Filatova saw her uncle was in December 1967, when he came to Gzhatsk with friends from Star City for what had become an annual holiday moose hunt. “It was supposed to be men only, but I begged him to take me,” she remembers. “He agreed, but we just sat in the hide and talked and giggled. Of course he didn’t shoot anything – we were making too much noise – but we had a wonderful time.”

GAGARIN WAS SUPPOSED to return to Gzhatsk on March 30th, 1968, to celebrate his father’s birthday. But on March 27th, at the age of 34, Gagarin finally got himself back in a MiG jet. He had not flown for five months and had spent little time in the air in the preceding years. He took off for the final time from Chkalovsky airbase, close to Star City, accompanied by the hugely experienced Vladimir Seregin, who would help Gagarin reacquaint himself with an old version of the jet in preparation for flying the latest model.

“A family friend came to take me home from school,” says Galina Gagarina. “I remember it well even though I had only just turned seven. And then all the ceremonies and the burial of the ashes in the Kremlin wall. It was a terrible time.”

Filatova was studying in Moscow when she heard her uncle had crashed. “It came from Tass, just like news of his space flight,” she says. “It felt like my own life had ended. It was impossible to believe he had gone. His whole life was ahead of him. He was so happy to have just received his diploma; he was dreaming of flying to the moon . . . I went out to Star City and everything happened as if in a film. I was numb.”

The official report found that Gagarin’s plane crashed after striking a weather balloon. Some people think a near-miss with another jet caused the accident, or a problem with the ageing MiG, or a mistake by its pilots. Predictably, others have suggested KGB or CIA sabotage or alien abduction.

Gagarin was buried on his father’s birthday; Gzhatsk was renamed “Gagarin” soon afterwards in his honour. Filatova still works at the museum dedicated to her uncle; Gagarin’s eldest daughter, Yelena, is general director of Moscow Kremlin Museums; and Galina is a professor at Moscow’s prestigious Plekhanov Russian University of Economics.

Valentina, the 75-year-old widow of the world’s first spaceman, still lives quietly in Star City, “in a nice flat living like an average pensioner. She likes to read and walk and look after her little garden”, says Galina. “She is a private person. She gets a pension from the state and she is healthy. She has what she needs.”

Gagarin’s 21-year-old grandson, Yuri, is studying public administration at Moscow State University. “I am very proud of my grandfather, although I am more of an earthman than a spaceman,” he says with a laugh. “But maybe one day, if I make lots of money, I will go up there as a tourist. After all, it must be something special to see our world from space.”

The ascent of man: Gagarin's historic flight

“I glanced at my watch. It was seven minutes past nine Moscow time. I heard a shrill whistle and a mounting roar. The giant ship shuddered, and slowly, very slowly lifted from the launching pad.” So Gagarin wrote in his account of man’s first flight into space.

After nine minutes Gagarin was in orbit. The sun blazed into the gently turning spacecraft, and when it crossed to the dark side of Earth more stars than Gagarin had ever seen shone in an inky blackness. For the first time a man looked down from space, and saw a blue halo around our planet, and the “gold dust” of illuminated cities.

Seventy-nine minutes after lift-off Vostok re-entered the atmosphere. Then a module failed to detach from Gagarin’s re-entry sphere. The craft tumbled end over end, and radio contact was lost. Gagarin was a helpless passenger. But the recalcitrant cable burned away, and soon Gagarin saw the familiar blue sky of Earth. Several kilometres above ground Gagarin ejected, as planned, and he and Vostok drifted down on their parachutes.

Giant steps: 50 years of space travel

The daring flights of American and Soviet astronauts were not the start of a new era: they can now be seen as something of a dead end, or as a sideshow to less spectacular but more practical missions. I was part of the space race that Yuri Gagarin represented. I emigrated from Dublin to help Nasa complete the Apollo 11 moon landing “before the decade was out”, as demanded by President Kennedy a month after Gagarin’s historic journey.

In my 2007 book, ‘Spies in the Sky’, I ranked the most important missions of the first 50 years of the space age. The Gagarin flight and the moon landings it triggered came at best fourth. Above them I rated the exploration of the solar system and the cultural changes wrought by satellite TV, which have shrunk the world into a global village. Right at the top I put the use of spy satellites to monitor nuclear weapons.

Spy satellites were the main show alongside which Gagarin’s sideshow flight took place. In the 1950s information about Soviet weaponry and deployments came mainly from defectors, with crumbs of information from radars in neighbouring countries and an occasional risky aircraft overflight. Spy satellites allowed US officials to take decisions based on hard evidence, and led to the signing of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties in the 1970s.

The team that put Gagarin into space was led by a charismatic figure whose name was kept secret until after his death. Sergei Korolev was a pioneering rocket engineer, a genius at managing large high-tech developments and a consummate manipulator of bureaucrats. The Soviet lead in the space race received a fatal blow when, in 1966, he died during surgery.

Gagarin’s fame was only ever matched by that of one other space traveller: Neil Armstrong. After he stepped from Apollo 11 on to the moon’s surface in 1969, there was talk of sending humans to Mars, but the exorbitant costs inevitably pushed that dream into the far future. The US space shuttle was supposed to cut the cost of getting into orbit, but its complexity meant the reverse was the case. Its high cost has prevented any serious debate about what humans could usefully do in space.

China and India are now repeating the US-Soviet space race, demonstrating the impetus that competition gives such endeavours compared with the hugely costly International Space Station, a collaboration between the US, Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe that lacks any clear objective.

With the iconic but expensive shuttle due to retire this year, the US has begun to do what it does best: harness entrepreneurial spirit, in this case to develop new rockets. The front runner to replace the shuttle is the Falcon 9, developed by a Silicon Valley billionaire named Elon Musk. After 50 years Nasa has become heavily bureaucratic, and these private-sector ventures seem the best chance for the US to re-establish itself as the leader in space.

The spy satellites that helped prevent nuclear war in the 1960s have not gone away. As I describe in my new book, ‘Watching Earth from Space’, 10 countries now have military surveillance satellites, most of them taking advantage of modern compact electronics to hold down costs. The US military certainly takes advantage of modern electronics, but it builds spacecraft that have so many features that they remain large and costly. The National Reconnaissance Office, the US spy-satellite agency, launched “the largest satellite in the world” last November. Once in orbit it unfurls antennae the size of a football pitch – hence the “largest satellite” accolade – to pick up faint radio signals, such as those from mobile phones.

Gagarin would be 76 this year. How sad he is not here to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his space flight and to see what has become of the frontier he was the first to encounter.

Pat Norris

Pat Norris managed Apollo navigation at TRW, an aerospace company, in Houston from 1967 to 1970. Spies in the Sky and Watching Earth from Space are published by Springer Praxis

A star is born: How Gagarin became a pilot

Yuri Gagarin’s journey from a remote Russian village to the Vostok launch pad, in Kazakhstan, was almost as extraordinary as the flight that made his name.

He was born in 1934 in Klushino, about 200km west of Moscow, to two workers on the local collective farm, Alexei Gagarin, a carpenter and odd-job man, and Anna, who herded and milked cows. They are remembered as industrious and disciplined, qualities they instilled in their four children.

When Yuri was seven Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Klushino area was over-run, and German soldiers threw the Gagarins out of their house, forcing them to live in a bunker, where they endured occupation and then fierce fighting and falling bombs as the Red Army finally drove back the invaders.

Gagarin would later pick out a formative episode when a Soviet plane landed near his village to collect the pilot of a stricken aircraft; he and the other local boys had “wanted to fly, to be as brave and handsome as those pilots”.

After the war the Gagarins used beams and planks from their shattered home to build a small house in the nearby town of Gzhatsk.

At 16 Yuri left for Moscow to work as an apprentice at a steelworks, then studied at a new technical school in Saratov, on the Volga, where in his spare time he started flying at a local club. This, he said, filled him “with pride and gave meaning to my whole life”.

The talent Gagarin showed at the flying club helped him enter the Orenburg military flying school, where he honed his skills, flew his first jets and again scored high marks – once he had put a cushion under his seat to solve his visibility problem. Gagarin graduated in November 1957, a month after the Soviets had stunned the world by making Sputnik 1 the first man-made object to circle Earth.

In 1959 the head of the country’s space programme, Sergei Korolev, who had survived wrongful and brutal imprisonment in a Siberian labour camp, dispatched secret teams to airbases across the Soviet Union to find the pilots best suited to becoming the world’s first spaceman. After countless medical and psychological tests, Gagarin was summoned from his fighter base in the Arctic to a training centre near Moscow that would grow into Zvyozdny Gorodok, or Star City.

What may ultimately have secured Gagarin’s place in history was the harshness of his upbringing. He was from peasant stock, like Khrushchev, making him ideologically perfect to show the bourgeois West what the Soviet system could achieve.