By Owei Lakemfa
A spec of humanity, mainly in aviation, on April 12, marked the gagantuan achivement of a “shortish” man, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin. It was the 56th anniversary of his flight into space which no human had achieved before, and his return from outside the earth, which no living being had ever accomplished. Before him, only the human spirit was believed to have left the earth.
Gagarin’s historical feat was a crowning of humanity’s quest for knowledge and to master the world.
Some in ancient times believed that the world was flat. Long after the fact that the earth is spherical had gained ground, it was believed that it is stationary and that the sun, moon and all other planets evolve round it (Geocentrism) Nicolaus Corpernicus, a Polish mathematician and astrologist challenged this, and evolved the theory that the reverse is the case (Heliocentrism).
When Italian scientist, Galileo Galilea did more work on the Corpenicus Theory that the earth and all other planets revolve round the sun, he was told that his theory contradicted the Holy Bible which states in Psalm 93:1, 96:10, Psalm 104:5, 1 Chronicles 16:30 and Ecclesiastes 1:5 that the earth does not move and can never be moved; that rather, it is the sun that moves; rising, setting and returning to its place.
Galileo had responded that he was talking about science not the Bible which dealt with spiritual matters. He was dragged before an Inquisition in February 1616, found guilty and ordered to recant and never again teach or write what is heretical. He recanted, was saved the death penalty but placed under house arrest for life.
Three hundred and forty-five years later, and for the first time, a human went into space and even orbited the earth itself! The feat was a positive fallout of the Cold War. As part of Cold War rivalry, after the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) launched Sputnik 1 – the first man-made satellite in 1957 – the Americans decided to surpass the Soviets by sending a human into space by 1961. That itself was a challenge to the Soviets who on April 12, 1961 sent Gagarin into space. It was a dangerous mission because while the spacecraft, Vostok 1, could take off, there was not yet developed, a brake system that could slow the craft and land it safely. The only alternative was for Gagarin to eject and parachute to the ground.
The son of farm workers, the then 27-year old was determined to move human knowledge and experience forward. He was to say: “Nothing will stop us. The road to the stars is steep and dangerous. But we’re not afraid . . . Space flights can’t be stopped. This isn’t the work of one man or even a group of men. It is a historical process which mankind is carrying out in accordance with the natural laws of human development.”
When the engineers told him everything was ready, Gagarin’s last words on earth were: “Let’s go!”
When he got into space, his craft orbited the earth in 108 minutes attaining a maximum height of 327 kilometres. Taking notes and speaking into the microphones, Gagarin described the earth from space: “I saw for the first time the earth’s shape. I could easily see the shores of continents, islands, great rivers, folds of the terrain, large bodies of water. The horizon is dark blue, smoothly turning to black. . . the feelings which filled me I can express with one word-joy.”
After the orbit, when the engines got over the African continent, they fired him back to earth. At 20,000 feet, he ejected and began parachuting. He landed in the fields of USSR where he startled a woman and her daughter. He called out “I am a friend, comrades, a friend!” They were his first words when he returned to earth. To this the woman replied: ‘Can it be that you have come from outer space?” He replied the dazed woman: “ As a matter of fact, I have!”
Gagarin was to describe this encounter: “When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!”
A startled world welcomed the news. The reaction of America was to scramble Alan Shepard into space on May 5, 1961 in the “Freedom 7” The mission lasted fifteen minutes. Thus he became the first American, and second human to go to space.
Twenty days later, President John. F. Kennedy went before a Joint Session of the American Congress and declared: “I believe that this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”
The world celebrated Gagarin and even the countries who saw his feat as a good propaganda for the Soviet Union, gave him a hero’s welcome.
There were attempts to challenge Gagarin’s feat; the argument was that he had parachuted and not landed back on earth in the spacecraft. But the fact that he had travelled into space, orbited the earth and returned alive, were indisputable; the manner of his return were merely a matter of details.
Like a man who had been to The Land of the Dead and returned, Gagarin said: “To be the first to enter the cosmos, to engage, single-handed, in an unprecedented duel with nature-could one dream of anything more?”
As part of the Space race, America
On February 20, 1962 sent John Glen to space; he orbited the earth three times. That was ten clear months after Gagarin.
It is not unusual for matchless warriors to die on the battlefield. So was it with Gagarin. The Soviets took him off flights; he was the symbol of their space superiority and did all they could to protect him. He was promoted a Colonel, was a Deputy in the Soviet and on February 17, 1968, successfully defended his aerospace engineering thesis on space plane aerodynamics configuration.
Tragically on March 27, 1968, Gagarin and a co-pilot crashed in a MiG jet while on a routine training mission. The Soviets could not control their emotion, and the world wept for the man who led the it into space. He left behind two daughters; Yalena, who is an Art Historian, and Galina, a professor of economics at the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics.
The United Nations later set aside April 12 as the International Day of Human Space Flight. Gagarin became a symbol of the indomitable human spirit.