This is the story of a man and his young protegé who altered the course of history in 1961, even though the world knew almost nothing about them. The younger man’s great achievement, celebrated to this day, took him less than two hours to complete, yet required his courage and commitment over a period of years. A happy and triumphant superstar at the age of 27, his toughest challenge was to recover his sanity and self-respect in the glare of the global fame that came afterwards. Meanwhile, his protector and boss, Russia’s greatest rocket genius, was forced into the shadows of obscurity by the State authorities.
In 1938 Russian aircraft engineer Sergei Povlovich Korolev was developing simple rockets at an army laboratory in St. Petersburg when he fell victim to Stalin’s terror purge. He was beaten, then imprisoned in a freezing Siberian labour camp. Three years later, on the verge of death, he was ordered to Moscow. Hitler’s armies had invaded andStalin suddenly needed engineers. In 1945 Korolev was sent into the German heartland, where he found to his dismay that Wernher von Braun’s V2 rocket bomb had already outstripped his wildest ambitions.

But by 1957 Korolev had created ‘Raketa-7,’ the first intercontinental ballistic missile. It was designed to drop nuclear bombs onto America, but Korolev knew it could also reach into space. On October 4, 1957 he launched Sputnik into orbit. A month later Sputnik II went up, carrying the dog Laika. Korolev then told the Red Army generals he could build a satellite to snoop on the West, but first he would have to enlist a pilot with excellent eyesight to look out of the satellite’s window and check on what the spy cameras might see. The generals believed him, and in October 1959 a squad of ‘cosmonauts’ was formed. From among that small cadre of hopeful candidates, Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin was selected to become the world’s first human space voyager. The consequences of his successful flight are still being felt today.

In the wake of Gagarin’s triumph—and almost exclusively because of it—America felt compelled to bid for the moon. Korolev’s strength of personality enabled him to bend the clumsy Soviet industrial system to his own ends. The moon was his dream, too. Only in recent years has it become clear just how hard he (and other elements within the sprawling Russian rocket sector) really did try to beat Apollo to that famous lunar touchdown.

On January 14, 1966 Korolev died at the age of 59 during what should have been a routine stomach operation. He had designed Soyuz, Russia’s workhorse capsule which is still in use today. He had also embarked on a giant lunar booster, the N-1. After 1966 his legacy was in the hands of weaker administrators. Who knows what might have happened if he had lived a few more years? As for Gagarin: had he lived a little longer, he would have become, to our generation, so much more than merely a famous name repeated in history classes.

Yuri’s Day illustrates a merging of incredible events in glorious comic style…

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