Yuri Gagarin: Sixty years on, legend of cosmonaut lives on 

Moscow, Russia – Sixty years after becoming the first person in space, few people in Russia are more widely revered than Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

His cheerful smile can be seen on murals all over the country. He sits on a pedestal 42.5 meters (140 feet) above the traffic on Moscow's Leninsky Avenue, arms at his sides, as if zooming into space. He's also a famous tattoo theme.

The Soviet Union may be dead, and Russia's glory days in space are long gone, but Gagarin's legend lives on as a sign of Russian achievement and a source of national pride for a Kremlin willing to instill patriotism.

"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."

On the anniversary of Gagarin's groundbreaking flight on April 12, 1961, regarded as Cosmonautics Day in Russia, Russians of all ages lay flowers at monuments to his achievement around the country.

His tale of emerging from humble beginnings to becoming a space pioneer, as well as the mystery surrounding his death, continues to pique people's interest.

Gagarin was a figure who fueled the imagination, according to historian Alexander Zheleznyakov.

"He transformed us from a simple biological species to one that could imagine an entire universe beyond Earth."

Humble beginnings 

Gagarin, the son of a carpenter and a dairy farmer who lived through the Nazi occupation, studied as a steelworker before becoming a military pilot and then, at the age of 27, spent 108 minutes in orbit as his Vostok spacecraft made one lap around the World.

He was praised for his strength and professionalism and was regarded as the ideal Soviet man, but his legacy was also infused with stories of camaraderie, courage, and passion for his two daughters and wife Valentina Gagarina.

Long kept a mystery, Gagarin wrote his wife a heartfelt goodbye letter in case he died during his search.

"If something goes wrong, I ask you -- especially you -- Valyusha, not to die of grief. For this is how life goes on," he wrote in the letter. 

In an interview with AFP in 2011, cosmonaut Boris Volynov recalled a man who, despite having the same rights as the Soviet elite, spent hours on the phone trying to get treatment or a hospital bed for his less fortunate friends.

When Gagarin came to Earth, he found himself at the forefront of propaganda machinery highlighting the supremacy of the Soviet model.

According to biographer Danilkin, Gagarin was used by the Soviet officials not only as an example to the rest of the world but also to persuade Soviet civilians who had suffered through World War II and Stalin-era repressions that "the efforts of the previous decades were not in vain."

President Vladimir Putin, he says, has appropriated that tradition to reinforce his own grip on power, supporting Soviet wins to generate support for his 20-year reign.

"The current authorities methodically appropriate popular cults: first that of victory during World War II, then the conquest of space," Danilkin says.

Tragic hero 

Gagarin, like all great Russian heroes, is a tragic figure.

His death, at the age of 34, during a training flight in 1968 remains a mystery since state investigators never published the final report of the inquiry into the causes of the crash.

Partially available documents indicate that his MiG-15 fighter jet crashed with a weather balloon, but in the lack of clarity, alternate possibilities abound.

One theory maintains that Gagarin was intoxicated, while another contends that he was killed by the Kremlin, which feared his fame.

Many Russians are yet to come to terms with his assassination, more than 40 years later.

"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."

60 years after Gagarin, Russia lags in the space race
A station on the moon! A mission to Venus! A next-generation spacecraft!

Sixty years after launching Yuri Gagarin into orbit on April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union appears to have ambitious extraterrestrial aspirations, but its capacity to achieve them is more grounded.

Project after the project is unveiled and then postponed, as grand plans are hampered by financing concerns or bureaucratic inertia. Meanwhile, the Kremlin's emphasis is fixated on military projects rather than space exploration.

The project to upgrade Russia's aging Soyuz spacecraft, a workhorse that has been ferrying astronauts into space since the 1960s and is now used for trips to the International Space Station, is one example.

RKK Energia, the firm that builds the Soyuz, was awarded a development contract for the project.

Standing in a museum at Energia's headquarters commemorating Soviet space achievements, Alexander Kaleri, head of the company's flight center, declares that the upcoming capsule will be "bigger, with more powerful engines, and more spacious than the Soyuz."

Nevertheless, Kaleri, a former cosmonaut who has flown into space several times and spent years in the International Space Station and Mir space stations agrees that the idea is far from being a reality.

"The goal is to carry out a first unmanned test flight by 2023. For now, we are starting by testing models for the capsule, it's a fairly long process."

Stagnating projects 

The lengthy development, according to Russian space expert Vitaly Yegorov, is not surprising given "technical difficulties, Western sanctions against the Russian space industry, and a lack of funding" for the space program.

There is also no "urgent need" for a replacement because the Soyuz is still flying, Yegorov claims.

Other programs have also stalled, such as the next-generation Angara-A5 rockets, which have been in progress since the 1990s but have only flown in test mode twice, in 2014 and 2020.

The Nauka laboratory module for the International Space Station, which started construction in the 1990s, has also had a series of setbacks that have stopped it from reaching orbit.

Despite these setbacks, Russian space agency Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin, a nationalist politician and former diplomat continue to make bombastic statements regarding future ventures.

He's revealed plans to return samples from Venus and to construct a rocket capable of making 100 trips to space and back.

Following Russia's withdrawal from the US-led international Lunar Gateway project, which calls for the launch of the first modules in 2024, Moscow and Beijing announced proposals for a rival space station in March, but without a timeline or budget.

According to a former Roscosmos official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Rogozin's plans are clearly unrealistic.

The Roscosmos chief promises President Vladimir Putin "that they will go to the Moon, Mars or Venus," the official said. "But his promises extend into the 2030s when neither of them will be in power."

The issue for Roscosmos, according to Russian space expert Vadim Lukashevich, is that Putin's mind is not on space exploration when it comes to scientific ventures.

"Military projects, especially missile production, are a top priority for the Kremlin," he said.

A missile obsession? 

Putin often boasts about Russia's hypersonic missiles, which he claims can hit an enemy like a "meteorite."

You can see how inspired Putin is when he speaks about new arms and missiles, Lukashevich says.

So, while Russian defense spending has increased dramatically over the last two decades, Roscosmos' budget has been decreasing year by year.

Rogozin revealed last year that the space industry's overall budget of 1.4 trillion rubles ($18.4 billion, 15.6 billion euros) for 2016-2025 will be cut by 10% over the next five years.

And, as Russia's space industry stagnates, its rivals, including the private sector, are advancing.

Russia lost its monopoly on ISS launches last year when reusable rockets from Space X, owned by US billionaire Elon Musk, sent NASA astronauts to the station.

According to Yegorov, Roscosmos is wary of collaborations with private corporations, believing that they will syphon off the "state space budget and contracts."

Meanwhile, the industry is plagued by corruption, with numerous controversies surrounding the building of the latest Vostochny launch pad in the Far East.

"There isn't a single space corporation left whose officials haven't been replaced or jailed," laments the ex-Roscosmos employee.

"Today, the industry is run by outsiders with no background in space technology."

Five facts about Yuri Gagarin's journey into space

On this day sixty years ago, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, securing Moscow's victory in the race against Washington and ushering in a new era in the history of space exploration.

Much information about the historic mission was kept hidden by the Soviets for years, so his path has been shrouded in myth decades later.

Here are five facts about Gagarin's legendary flight:

'All right, let's go!'

Gagarin, a professional steelworker turned military pilot, was chosen from among thousands of applicants to go through the rigorous training needed for a space flight.

Apart from performing admirably in his studies, Gagarin, then 27, is said to have distinguished himself by removing his shoes before entering the Vostok spacecraft designated for the mission, as is customary in Russia when entering a home.

On April 12, 1961, as Gagarin's flight took off from Kazakhstan's Baikonur spaceport, he exclaimed his now-iconic catchphrase, "Poekhali!" (Let's Go!).

It's a dangerous enterprise

The Vostok flew for only 108 minutes, completing one loop around the Earth.

When Gagarin returned home safely, the success of his mission overshadowed the fact that not everything went as planned.

Among a slew of technological hiccups, his spacecraft reached orbit at a higher altitude than expected.

If the spacecraft's braking system had failed, Gagarin would have had to wait for it to begin descending on its own.

While the Vostok had enough food, water, and oxygen to last 10 days, the higher altitude meant the wait would have been much longer, and Gagarin would have run out of supplies.

Fortunately for the Russian cosmonaut, the brakes functioned properly.

Suspicions of spies

Gagarin, on the other hand, landed miles away from his intended landing site, ejecting from his capsule over the Saratov area of southern Russia.

He landed in a field and the first thing he noticed was a little girl and her grandmother digging up potatoes.

He tried at first to persuade them that he was not a foreign agent, despite wearing a white helmet and an orange spacesuit in the midst of Cold War tensions.


According to legend, Gagarin asked the bus driver who was transporting him to the launchpad to pull over so he could relieve himself before urinating on the back right tire.

For years, Russian cosmonauts performed the rite before launching into space, but the decades-old superstition could be forced to retire: the latest version of the Russian spacesuit unveiled in 2019 lacks a fly and is too heavy to detach quickly.

The man behind Gagarin

Although Gagarin became a household name in the Soviet Union, for many years no one knew about the country's space program's mastermind: Sergei Korolyov.

The Soviets even turned down a Nobel Prize for their "Chief Designer," determined to keep his identity hidden. His identity was not revealed until after his death in 1966.

Under Korolyov's leadership, the USSR not only sent the first human into space but also the first woman, as well as the first spacewalk.

Russian scientific achievements

Russia has a long tradition of technological invention, ranging from the Sputnik satellite to the coronavirus vaccine of the same name.

On the 60th anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man in space, here are some of the country's most important scientific and technical accomplishments:

Satellite Sputnik

On October 4, 1957, Russia launched the first artificial satellite, which was one of the most important modern developments.

At the time, the beep-beep sent back to Earth from Sputnik-1 signaled the launch of the Cold War space race between the Soviet Union and the United States.

An intercontinental ballistic missile launched into orbit, forcing Washington to recognize that Moscow might hit its territory.

In the early years of the race, the Soviets held their advantage. They claimed the first manned space flight by Gagarin on April 12, 1961, the first spacewalk by Alexei Leonov four years later, and the first lunar probe in 1966.

However, the US beat them to the moon with the first manned landing in 1969.

The AK-47 rifle

Ten years before Sputnik, Russia developed a more sinister weapon: the Kalashnikov assault rifle, also known as the AK-47 and designed by Soviet military engineer Mikhail Kalashnikov.

With over 100 million Kalashnikovs in use today, the weapon has become popular due to its low cost and dependability in harsh conditions ranging from frozen tundras to dusty Middle Eastern environments.

The weapon also became a symbol of anti-colonial movements, and it still adorns Mozambique's flag, reflecting the fight for national sovereignty.

Kaissa and Tetris

Tetris, invented in Russia, is less lethal, but it is just as common around the world.

Alexei Pajitnov, a software engineer whose stated goal was to make people happy through computers, invented the tile-matching video game in 1984.

Russia also used software to revolutionize an existing game: chess.
The chess superpower, who retained the world title as the Soviet Union from 1948 to 1972, invented the chess computer software Kaissa, which won the world computer chess championship in 1974.

Arms that travel at hypersonic speeds (faster than sound)
However, military technology has long been the bread and butter of Russian developments.

Recently, Russia has claimed to have led the way in developing hypersonic missiles that can travel faster than the speed of sound, rendering current missile defense technology obsolete.

In 2018, Vladimir Putin unveiled the Avangard nuclear hypersonic missile system, which he characterized as "invulnerable."

According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the development of the satellite was a technical achievement comparable to the launch of Sputnik.

Vaccine Sputnik V 

Returning to Sputnik, Russia registered the world's first coronavirus vaccine, dubbed Sputnik V, in August 2020, in the midst of the world's worst pandemic in a century.

While the fast-track technique drew controversy both at home and abroad, a leading medical journal later stated that it is safe and highly successful.

The vaccine has been approved for use in a number of countries

Space exploration milestones

We look at ten main dates in space exploration, from Yuri Gagarin to the first man on the Moon and the robot that landed on a comet.

Sputnik was launched in 1957

On October 4, 1957, Moscow launches the first satellite, Sputnik 1, ushering in the Cold War fight for the cosmos.

The beach ball-sized aluminum sphere orbits the Earth in 98 minutes and returns the first message from space, clear "beep-beep-beep" radio signals.

Sputnik 2 carried the first living being to completely orbit the Earth, a small street dog named Laika, a month later. After a few hours, she died.

1969: First Steps on the Moon

On July 21, 1969, US astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the Moon, with Buzz Aldrin following him about 20 minutes later.

As part of NASA's Apollo program, ten American astronauts walked on the Moon between 1969 and 1972.

1971: The first space station is launched.
On April 19, 1971, the Soviet Union launches the first orbital space station, Salyut 1.

Mir, another Russian space station, follows. After 15 years in space, it is returned to Earth in 2001.

In 1998, work begins on the still-operational International Space Station (ISS). It is the largest man-made device in space, orbiting Earth 16 times a day.

Mars was discovered in 1976

On July 20, 1976, the US spacecraft Viking 1 successfully lands on Mars and returns photographs of the Red Planet.

Between 2004 and 2018, the robot Opportunity explored Mars, though NASA's Curiosity Rover is still active there.

A total of 40 missions are sent to Mars, with more than half of them failing.

1981: Launch of the Space Shuttle

On April 12, 1981, the US space shuttle Columbia, the first reusable manned spacecraft, launches for the first time.

It is preceded by Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour, which will represent the International Space Station until the shuttle program ends in 2011.

Since then, the United States has relied on Russia to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station.

Two US space shuttles were lost in flight, killing 14 astronauts: the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003.

Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990

Hubble was the first space telescope to be launched into orbit on April 25, 1990, at a height of 547 kilometers (340 miles).

It revolutionizes astronomy by allowing scientists to study planets, distant stars, and galaxies without interference.

Tourism in 2001

Dennis Tito, 60, an Italian-American multi-millionaire, becomes the world's first space tourist on April 28, 2001. It costs Russia $20 million to spend eight days on the International Space Station.

Seven space tourists have flown to the International Space Station on Russian flights.

SpaceX, a US corporation, intends to launch its first space tourism flight at the end of 2021.

SpaceX was founded in 2008

In September 2008, SpaceX became the first private company to successfully launch a rocket into Earth's orbit.

In May 2012, the Dragon cargo ship becomes the first commercial spacecraft to visit the International Space Station (ISS) on a NASA flight.

Since then, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket has dominated the satellite launch market.

Following the flights in 2020, SpaceX has scheduled two more manned missions to the ISS for NASA in 2021, including one from Florida on April 22 with French, American,, and Japanese astronauts.

Comet landing in 2014

On November 12, 2014, the European Space Agency launches Philae, a tiny robot, to a comet more than 500 million kilometers from Earth. The first comet lander is part of a mission to investigate the Solar System's origins.

The unmanned US spacecraft Voyager 1, launched in 1977 and still flying, is the man-made object that is the furthest away from Earth.

It entered interstellar space in August 2012, some 13 billion miles from Earth.

2021: From the Moon to Mars

NASA considers the Moon to be a refueling stop for missions to Mars. It intends to send the first female astronaut to the Moon by 2024.

On February 18, Perseverance became the fifth rover to land on Mars, laying the groundwork for NASA's first attempt at powered, controlled flight on another planet.

With inputs from AFP. 

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