55 Years Ago, Yuri Gagarin Became the First Human in Space

55 years isn’t long, but look back at the technology and politics of the first human spaceflight and it seems like a different planet.

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Apr 12 2016, 4:25pm

Image: Fyodor Nosov/Wikimedia

To this day, before boarding the Soyuz capsule, Russian cosmonauts will pop the fly on their spacesuits and piss all over the rear wheel of a bus. Female cosmonauts, not to miss out on all the egesta fun, have even been known to throw a vial of their own pee across the tyre to show willing. The bus is the one taking them to the launch pad, and the root of this idiosyncratic liquid ritual? None other than Soviet hero and space pioneer Yuri Gagarin.

It is exactly 55 years ago today that Gagarin climbed into the Vostok spacecraft to complete the first manned orbit of the Earth, apparently after making a quick pit stop to relieve himself right there on the tarmac. On 12 April 1961, Gagarin well and truly put the Soviets in space. This was a man who embodied an ideology, risked his life to prove a point to the Americans and, as a result, played a key role in space race glory for the Soviet Republic. The date is now recognised as the International Day of Human Space Flight.

A Soviet stamp depicting Gagarin and the capsule from the Vostok 1 he flew in. Image: BUCHAKA ALEXANDER/Shutterstock

Born in the village of Klushino, west of Moscow, Gagarin is described by fellow cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in a recent BBC documentary by Michael Lachmann as being "of peasant background." His parents worked on a collective farm, as bricklayer and milkmaid. It was a childhood not just 327 km below Gagarin's eventual Vostok altitude but a lifetime away from the high-tech world he'd go on to call his own. According to Paul Rogers, writing in the Independent, at 16 the already technology-hungry Gagarin enrolled in an apprenticeship at the Lyubertsy Steel Plant near Moscow and went on to study tractors at the Saratov Industrial Technical School.

But the glamour didn't, of course, end with tractors. After graduating from technical college, Gagarin was drafted into the Soviet army, joining the First Chkalov Air Force Pilot's School in Orenburg and eventually rising to the rank of Senior Lieutenant.

"Korolev considered things we didn't even see; how he looked, what his smile was like"

In 1960, Yuri Gagarin was chosen with 19 other pilots to take part in the Soviet space program. This, as any European schoolchild will tell you, was one of last century's greatest military acts of sublimation—using space to try and disguise the knuckles and bruises of real Cold War hostility.

When the time came to choose the man to undertake this pioneering 108-minute voyage around the planet, Gagarin was chosen, at least according to fellow cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, because he looked the part. "As engineers we felt the more clever and better educated man was [Gherman] Titov," says cosmonaut Georgi Grechko in the Lachmann film, sitting resplendent with his military flat-top haircut now faded white. "But [chief engineer Sergei] Korolev considered things we didn't even see; how he looked, what his smile was like. We just didn't realise they were necessary. But Korolev was absolutely right."

Gagarin visiting a zoo in Berlin and feeding a baby tiger in 1963. Image: Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia

Gagarin may have been short—at just 5'2" tall he claimed the inside of the Vostok was "far roomier than in the cabin of a jet plane"—but he nevertheless had presence. He looked Soviet, and very happy about it. In fact, watching newly-colorised footage of Gagarin on his way to the Vostok craft in the new BBC documentary, you can see the cosmonaut's charisma as clearly as the honking orange spacesuit. He pretty much open mouth kisses his comrades, in their wool coats and heavy-rimmed black hats, as he trundles towards this history-changing mission. "All my life seems like one beautiful moment," the subtitles state. "All these years, everything I've done, has been for the sake of this moment."

Hearing this, I realise that what powered Gagarin into orbit wasn't just the brilliant mind of lead Soviet rocket engineer Sergei Korolev, the thundering power of the R-7 rocket, or the money poured into the endeavour by First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, but Soviet ideology. There is a pride, a zeal, and a sense of self-sacrifice behind that first orbit. Gagarin wasn't just going where the unlucky street dog Leika had gone before him—he was carrying the hopes and aspirations of an entire political ideology. And political competition, married with Soviet pride and human ambition, is a terribly incendiary fuel.

Coming back to Earth, both technically and emotionally, was never going to be easy. For one, the straps that were supposed to release Gagarin's landing capsule didn't, well, release, sending the entire craft into a furiously dangerous spin. According to Lachmann's documentary, Gagarin reported seeing flames shoot past the window and smelled burning inside the cabin. Finally, luckily, the straps were burnt away by the friction in the atmosphere and at 7,000 metres Gagarin ejected and parachuted out of the capsule onto the heavy clay soil south of Saratov, near the Volga river.

Gagarin in Warsaw. Image: Wikimedia

But the personal adjustment of life on earth was, apparently, just as fraught. According to a biography of Gagarin by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony, the scar above Gagarin's eyebrow came as a result of jumping off a two-storey balcony after being caught by his wife with a nurse known as "Anna." Gagarin also drank during his post-orbit around-the-world publicity tour—BBC footage shows him accepting glass after glass of champagne.

Nevertheless, he was treated as a hero, interviewed endlessly, and paraded (often on top of cars) from India to Cuba, with Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Finland, the UK, Iceland, Cuba, Brazil, Canada and Hungary along the way. Go to the Observatory in Greenwich and you can, to this day, enjoy a lacklustre cup of tea under a frankly clown-like sculpture of Gagarin waving his arms above a circling star in what looks like a Tudor onesie. He was a hero not of war, but of science.

For me, there are two images of Gagarin that speak volumes about what the Soviet cosmonaut meant to technology, politics and human endeavour. The first is of Gagarin, shaking hands with Kruschev after that first manned orbit of planet Earth in April 1961 wearing an apparently borrowed major's coat—he had been promoted, in his absence, as he whizzed thousands of metres above the Earth at a speed unfathomable to the human heart, and didn't have the right uniform to wear for the position on his return. This is something close to the Soviet ideal of humility and success, if ever I heard it.

The second is of Gagarin's ashes, after he died in a routine training flight from the Chkalovsky Air Base in 1968, being interred in the very walls of the Kremlin in Red Square—literally poured into the bricks and mortar of a regime that prided itself on mechanical engineering, collective endeavour, and the sublimation of the individual to the greater whole.

Fifty-five years may seem short; a mere half-lifetime ago. But think of the scientific, technological, and political changes that tore through our atmosphere since Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth it seems, well, like an entirely different planet.