Surprisingly, it appears Yuri didn’t have a camera with him on his famous flight. In fact, there is a logical reason for this: Sergei Korolev, the mastermind of the Soviet space programme, only got permission for a manned flight by insisting that he needed some human eyeballs to check if there was even anything you could usefully photograph from space, before spending money on developing expensive spy satellites. Continue reading
It’s hard to say ‘Goodbye’
The trouble is, I really got to like Yuri. The more I have learned about him, the more I envy those who had a chance to meet him in real life. I’m not someone who is comfortable with hero-worship, but then, Major Yuri Gagarin doesn’t seem to be that kind of hero. He seems to have had an inner core of frankness and straightforwardness that appealed to everybody he met.
Not much that was good came out of the Cold War, and it is easy to forget today how much it weighed on everybody’s spirits at the time. Gagarin seemed almost to be able to step out of the propaganda machine, even in his Soviet Major’s uniform, and to say to people ‘There are bigger things than those that divide us.’
It was a testament, not to my work, but to Yuri’s status and personality, that I arrived home one day last year to find first a Russian and then a Ukrainian TV news crew wanting to talk about the book.
It is encouraging to find that he is still recognised as a major figure in the former USSR, but in the West, his name has been too much dimmed by time and the after-effects of propaganda.
If Yuri’s Day helps in any way to bring his story to another generation, on both sides of the former Cold War divide, it will perhaps have been another small step out from under the shadow of that conflict, and into a world that he saw for the first time, and which the Apollo astronauts who followed after him showed us in the famous ‘Blue Planet’ photograph taken from the Moon: That we really are ‘all in this together’, and that if all the effort of space exploration leads to nothing else than that realisation, it may still prove to be the most valuable thing mankind has ever done.
The journey that Yuri began continues today.
No longer enemies, Russia and America have joined forces in space – along with Canada, Japan, Brazil, and eleven countries across the European Union.
They have created the International Space Station – our first permanent settlement on “the road to the stars.”
We hope you have enjoyed our telling of this significant party of the journey in Yuri’s Day.
I confess. I had no luck tracking down the nose number of the Mig15bis in which Yuri took his final, fatal flight. So I made one up. If anyone asks, tell them I did it to confuse the CIA.
How to end it? The full circumstances of the crash are still obscure, so to show it in any detail seemed wrong. I had been working all through the book with the idea of time ticking by. Datelines and even minute by minute times thread all the way through the story, heightening tension. Continue reading
It’s almost over. And yet there is still so much to tell in the extraordinary tale of Yuri Gagarin and the First Flight. A very brief selection of images had to stand for years of major events. The Soviet space program goes on to achieve many landmark missions in the conquest of space before the Americans, themselves driven on by the stiff Soviet competition, achieve the first of a series of manned landings on the Moon.
The final collapse of the Soviet Union was an exhilarating, but also a disturbing time in Western Europe. If something that big and powerful could seemingly crumble away, it made one ask uncomfortable questions about other great institutions. In the aftermath, as the propaganda war faded into silence, we also began to learn much more about the creativity as well as the failures of the Soviet state.
I vividly remember seeing a haunting press photo of what appeared to be the nose of a NASA Space Shuttle protruding from a ruined hangar. It looked like dystopian science fiction. This was my first encounter with Buran, the Soviet space-plane. In a way, it was a glimpse into an alternative universe. Although superficially similar it was not a copy of the NASA craft. Quite a large number of them were built, and a few successfully flown, unmanned, under fully automatic control. We also began to learn more about Korolev’s astonishing but flawed N1 moon-rockets, and just how close the Soviets had come to beating the Americans to the Moon.
It was fascinating to discover, late in the project, and just in time for inclusion, an official image of Yuri and some of his colleagues, posing with a wind tunnel model of Buran, and to learn that Yuri himself had done theoretical work on the design of re-useable space-planes.