On April 12, 1961, the Vostok satellite ship with a man on board was launched into outer space for the first time in the history of mankind
The neighbour Aunt Panya wearing galoshes on her bare feet and an old wadded jacket ran like crazy across the birch grove shouting: “The man has flown!”
I didn’t understand what she meant at first. I flew at that time too, on a swing though. But suddenly it hit me: “A man flew into space!” Having jumped off the swing, I rushed head over heels home: A human has travelled into space!
My grandmother was sitting next to the radio. She was completely petrified:
– That’s Yura. He flew into space. Our Yura, a Gzhatsk pal from Klushino … I remember his mother Anya, very well. She used to work on a dairy farm. Unbelievable, Yura Gagarin has gone to space! How will he breathe there?
My dear grandmother, Ksenia Ivanovna, a poor peasant woman and a “graduate” of a parochial school unexpectedly turned out to originate from the same area as “cosmonaut number one”. She remembered him as a mischievous boy with dimples on his cheeks. And suddenly he became the main national hero! Pride and fear competed in my grandmother’s mind that suddenly discovered a near cosmic existence. Looking around timidly, she even crossed herself slightly, something she hasn’t done since her early youth, when her headscarf got stolen from her during a Sunday service near Gzhatsk.
Pride definitely won over fear, and not only for my grandmother. Because April 12, 1961 became the happiest day in the life of Russians, who called themselves simply Soviet people. Proud people.
A day later, my mother and I went from Zagoryanka near Moscow to Moscow. We had a purpose. We knew that “our Yura” – this is how people began calling Gagarin, as if everyone in the USSR agreed – was supposed to fly to “a pre-planned place” in the capital after landing, as it was written in all the newspapers. The streets were overcrowded with triumphant people. No one was forced to this spontaneous manifestation (as some not very scrupulous Western media will claim subsequently). People voluntarily gathered there in order meet and greet their leader. And how! To see Gagarin passing by in an open car, they climbed lampposts, trees, the roofs of buses…
We raised our heads to the sky. A helicopter patrolled there scattering small red flyers. These were greetings to Gagarin obviously printed in a rush. Each of them pictured a dull, black-and-white photograph of Gagarin not in a spacesuit and not even in a helmet but in a leather flight cap, for some reason. I caught one of the leaflets, as if it was a crimson leaf torn from a maple tree. And treasured it for a long time in the cherished chest until it became completely dilapidated and crumbled into dust.
Strange thing: I remember this day in detail. The guys are chanting: “We also want to go to space.” The poet (I think it was Semyon Kirsanov, so said my mother, a professional writer herself) is climbing onto some kind of pedestal, reading his newly written poems dedicated to Yura.
Then the long motorcades of Zils and Chaikas appeared on Leninsky Prospekt coming from Vnukovo Airport. We saw Gagarin only for a minute – no, only for ten seconds, but he waved his hand to us … These moments were enough to experience limitless happiness. To connect with something glorious, inexpressibly beautiful – the Victory, our common Victory. One more…
An incredible fiesta of an incredible country after the most terrible of wars that paved human’s way to space just twelve years later and sent the first man to the stars sixteen years later. The people who built plants and cosmodromes on the ruins of bombed-out cities, in the bleak steppe and on wastelands, depriving themselves the most necessary things, who worked frantically, this people knew: the sky of their country needs reliable protection, and it can be created only by mastering the path to the stars.
It was only possible with joint efforts of the entire nation, which became united from the Baltic to Sakhalin after the Victory over fascism. And Yuri Gagarin appeared as the messiah of the new time becoming our pioneer of the universe, our symbol for centuries.
My professional life has developed in such a way that in Russia and France I was lucky to meet and sometimes be friends with many wonderful people who have devoted themselves to space exploration. These are rocket designers and scientific journalists, specialists in extreme medicine and, of course, conquerors of the universe: German Titov, Alexei Leonov, Valery Kubasov, Jean-Loup Cretin, Patrick Baudry… Amazing people, one of a kind!
“And Sergei Pavlovich Korolev himself once set the tone for the exceptional selection,” told me my old friend, a brilliant journalist, writer, and playwright Vladimir Gubarev. – The chief designer at first selected journalists that were to write about space. He selected five or six young reporters with a technical education and gave them – or rather, us – access to Baikonur. Korolev had a complex perception of space exploration, and Yura was his favourite.”
“Just like Gagarin we selflessly believed that the era of the conquest of space has begun and that nothing will prevent us from continuing our stellar campaign,” recalled Valery Kubasov in a conversation with me (the historical “handshake in space” of Soviet cosmonauts and American astronauts is associated with him and Alexei Leonov: “Soyuz – Apollo”). – I was in the first group of engineers who joined the established squad of cosmonaut pilots, set up by Korolev.
Not long before he died Sergei Pavlovich gathered us at the base in Podlipki, near Moscow, and said: “We must prepare for a flight to Mars. Who’s ready?” Immediately, all hands were thrown up at once. But Korolev was in no hurry: “I warn you, this can be a one way ticket only … There may not be enough fuel for the return. So, there is still chance to recede.” Believe it or not, only one person has refused. He said that he had two children … Everyone else were ready to fly even to Alpha Centauri, just to facilitate human knowledge of the cosmos.
“I know, ‘well-wishers’ claim I envied Gagarin for becoming the first human in space. Nonsense! Yes, I had healthy ambitions, like every strong and energetic young man” – German Titov once opened up to me. – “But Yura was my friend, although we competed during tests on simulators and in laboratories. And if it was Gagarin who had the honour of being the first in space, this means it was destined …
That was his fate and he well deserved it. I remember that we were met in the Kremlin by Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, the head of the meetings and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He asked: “When will you fly to the moon?” We answered simultaneously: “Anytime, whenever it’s required.”
Neither Gagarin nor Titov, fortunately, lived to see the time when businessmen would start selling off plots on the Moon to the rich and playboys! What can you do: “We are all weak, we are all human” – it is said in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Some conquer space, risking their lives, others speculate on it … However, nothing can spoil our Cosmonautics Day.