Saturday, April 12, 2003

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin:

Forty-two years ago today, at age twenty-seven, Yuri Gagarin went for the ride of his life in Vostok 1. What is not widely known about his flight is that he did not have control of the vessel - that was considered too risky for such a politically important flight, and all commands were issued from the ground. He also ejected from the capsule with a parachute while it was still about 20 miles high rather than riding it all the way down, as the cosmonauts do today. Only recently, with the lifting of most of the secrecy surrounding the Soviet and Russian space programs, have many details come to light, including the fact that he, like his American counterpart, John Glenn, was prohibited from any future spaceflight by a secret executive order, so that the state could exploit his hero status fully without losing him to a space travel accident. One has to wonder what he would be like today if he had not died in a MiG crash a few short years later. The executive order did not limit his activities completely, and Gagarin became a pretty wild character.

In 2000 I was lucky enough to see and touch the enormous globe that Gagarin used to keep in his office - it is about 4 feet in diameter, and sits in a dim hallway outside the planetarium in the Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia. The globe has deep gouges on it over the North Pole because there is a cosmonaut corps tradition that once you are designated for flight, you have to throw yourself on the globe -- and the belt buckles from uniforms tended to cut into the cardboard. The Discovery channel used to have a picture of me kneeling in front of the thing, but they have taken the page away...

Aha - I found it:

Photo: Jane Ellen Stephens/Discovery 2000