Hero of the Soviet Union

Hero of the Soviet Union

A Story by toritto

He was a scant 5’2″ inches tall, the son of a carpenter on a Soviet collective farm.  His mom also worked; she as a dairy farmer.  Born in March 9, 1934, he was the third of four children.

Like millions of Soviet  citizens, the family suffered during the Nazi occupation of Russia during World War II.  His town was occupied in November 1941 during the German advance on Moscow and a German officer took over their home. The family were allowed to build a mud hut approximately 10 ft. X 10 ft. on  land behind their house, where they spent twenty-one months until the end of the occupation.  His two older siblings were deported by the Germans to Poland for slave labour in 1943 and did not return until after the war.

In 1950, aged 16,  he began an apprenticeship as a foundryman at a steel plant in Lyubertsy, near Moscow, and enrolled at a local “young workers” school for seventh-grade evening classes.  After graduating in 1951 from both the seventh grade and the vocational school with honors in mouldmaking and foundry work, he was selected for further training at the Saratov Industrial Technical School, where he studied tractors.  While in Saratov, he  volunteered at a local flying club for weekend training as a Soviet air cadet;  he trained to fly a biplane, and later a Yak-18.   He earned extra money as a part-time dock laborer on the Volga River.

In 1955, he  was accepted to the 1st Chkalovsky Higher Air Force Pilots School, a flight school in Orenburg.   He initially began training on the Yak-18 already familiar to him and later graduated to training on the MiG jet in February 1956.  He needed to sit on a cushion in the aircraft to improve his visibility because he was so short.  He was promoted to Senior Lieutenant and by this time had 265 hours of flying time.

Our short young pilot now expressed an interest in the Soviet space program.  As a comparison, John Glenn had 9,000 hours, including 3,000 hours in jets as well as combat experience when he joined America’s space program.

By now you may have surmised that our young man was Yuri Gagarin.

Yuri’s name was sent in for consideration along with 153 other Soviet pilots.  All were given thorough physicals and psychological tests in Moscow and 29, including Yuri  were short listed.  All had to be less than 5’7″ in height in order to fit into the Soviet space craft being designed.

The first twelve potential pilots,  including Gagarin were chosen on 7 March 1960.   Gagarin began training at the Khodynka Airfield in downtown Moscow in March 1960. The training regiment involved vigorous and repetitive physical exercises which Alexei Leonov, a member of the initial group of twelve, described as akin to training for the Olympics Games.   In April 1960, they began parachute training and each completed about 40 to 50 jumps from both low and high altitude, over both land and water.

Gagarin was also subjected to experiments that were designed to test physical and psychological endurance including oxygen starvation tests in which the cosmonauts were locked in an isolation chamber and the air slowly pumped out. He also trained for the upcoming flight by experiencing g-forces in a centrifuge.  Psychological tests included placing the candidates in a chamber in complete isolation; Gagarin was in the chamber from 26 July -  5 August  In August 1960, a Soviet Air Force doctor evaluated his personality as follows:

“Modest; embarrasses when his humor gets a little too racy; high degree of intellectual development evident in Yuri; fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his sharp and far-ranging sense of attention to his surroundings; a well-developed imagination; quick reactions; persevering, prepares himself painstakingly for his activities and training exercises, does not feel constrained when he has to defend his point of view if he considers himself right; appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends.”

A number of the candidates had no higher education; Yuri only completed the7th grade.  He was enrolled in correspondence  program at the Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy. Gagarin enrolled in the program in September 1960 but did not earn his specialist diploma until early 1968.

Nonetheless, Gagarin was a candidate favored by his peers to make the first manned space flight.  When they were asked to vote anonymously for a candidate besides themselves they would like to be the first to fly, all but three chose Gagarin, believing that he was most focused and was demanding of himself and others when necessary.

At the State Commission meeting on April 8, Yuri Gagarin, the son of a carpenter with a 7th grade education was formally nominated as the primary pilot of Vostok I.

Just 4 days later, n 12 April 1961, at 9.07 am Moscow time the Vostok I spacecraft lifted off  from Baikonur Cosmodrome.  Aboard wasYuri  Gagarin, the first human being to travel into space.

There were no solemn words in the casual departure chatter:

  “Preliminary stage … intermediate… main… LIFT-OFF!  We wish you a good flight! “

“Lets go! Goodbye, until we meet soon, dear friends.”

Gagarin’s farewell using the informal phrase Poyekhali!  later became the popular rallying cry in the Eastern Bloc that was used to refer to the beginning of the Space Age.

Over the course of 108 minutes, Vostok 1 traveled around the Earth once, reaching a maximum height of 203 miles (327 kilometers). The spacecraft carried 10 days’ worth of provisions in case the engines failed and Gagarin was required to wait for the orbit to naturally decay. But the supplies were unnecessary. Gagarin re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, managing to maintain consciousness as he experienced forces up to eight times the pull of gravity during his descent.

Vostok 1 had no engines to slow its re-entry and no way to land safely. About 4 miles up, Gagarin ejected from the spacecraft and parachuted to Earth. In order for the mission to be counted as an official spaceflight, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the governing body for aerospace records, had determined that the pilot must land with the spacecraft. Soviet leaders indicated that Gagarin had touched down with the Vostok 1, and they did not reveal that he had ejected until 1971. Regardless, Gagarin still set the record as the first person to leave Earth and travel into space.

Upon his return to Earth, Gagarin was an international hero. A cheering 12 mile parade attended by millions  concluded before hundreds of thousands of people  in Red Square.  At the conclusion he was he was bestowed the Hero of the Soviet Union and the  Order of Lenin.  A national treasure, Gagarin traveled around the world to celebrate the historic Soviet achievement.

When he returned home, Gagarin became a Deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union (the highest legislative body in the USSR) and was appointed Commander of the Cosmonauts’ Detachment. Because the Soviets did not want to risk losing such an important public figure, they were hesitant about allowing Gagarin to return to space however he continued to make test flights for the Air Force.

On March 27, 1968, Gagarin was killed (along with another pilot) while test-piloting a two seater MiG-15.  He was survived by his wife, Valentina Ivanovna Goryacheva, and two daughters.

NASA’s crew of Apollo 11, the first mission to put people on the moon in July 1969,  left behind a commemorative medallion bearing Gagarin’s name and a mile wide crater on the far side was named after him.

In 2012, a statue of him was unveiled at the site of NASA’s original spaceflight headquarters on South Wayside Drive in Houston, a gift from various Russian  organizations.

The town were he was born changed its name to Gagarin.  There are hundreds of streets, squares and buildings named after him all over Russia.

He was memorialized in music; a cycle of Soviet patriotic songs titled The Constellation Gagarin. The most famous of these songs refers to Gagarin’s “poyekhali!” in the lyrics:

“He said ‘let’s go!’ and he waved his hand.”

Not a bad legacy for a foundryman and part time dock worker.

“First Man.”

© 2019 toritto

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Added on July 17, 2019
Last Updated on July 17, 2019
Tags: yuri gagarin, first in space