Nothing holds such great mysteries like outer space. All civilizations, no matter their geographical location or belief system, have searched for answers hidden within the clusters that adorn the night sky. Ancient Egyptians, Aztecs, Incas, Greeks and Indigenous Australians sensed in a way that the nocturnal scenery upon their heads and before their eyes was more than extraordinary.
During its first steps, humanity discovered myriads of astral bodies twinkling down from the vault of heaven. Their bright and constant presence made them believe that these astral bodies could influence their lives on Earth. This gave birth to constellation patterns, gods and other natural forces whose powers lacked coherent explanation; celestial manifestations were thought to be divine.
Several tales and myths tell stories about leaving Earth and embarking on a journey into the darkness that reigns over the night sky. For centuries, the driving force of human curiosity fed on the oral, pictorial and written tradition that envisaged any endeavor to reach the skies as an impossible undertaking for men and women. Only deities with a power and force superior to human capabilities could reach for the stars, and this remained a widespread belief for many centuries until we grew bold and decided to touch the inky black sky.
Yuri Gagarin was born on March 9, 1934 in Klushino, a small village located in the eastern area of Moscow. The Gagarin family lived in a plain with plenty of grassland, which provided the ideal conditions for sowing and harvesting. Gagarin’s parents were farmers, like most of the people from the village.
With only 6 years of age Gagarin was exposed to the ruthlessness of the Second World War. From his home in Klushino, he would stare in awe at the military aircrafts of enemies and allies. By the end of 1941, he experienced first-hand the horror of military conflict: the Nazis reached his hometown and his two older brothers were sent to forced labor camps. Meanwhile, he and his sister took shelter in a bunker for nearly two years until Klushino was released.
Amidst the growth frenzy of an immense nation that was determined more than ever to prove to the rest of the world its might, Gagarin enrolled into the Orenburg Military Aviation School of Pilots. In 1957, the Soviet Space Program carried out its first exploration missions, achieving stunning success. Moving ahead of the United States in the space race, they became the first ones to put a satellite and a living being into orbit with a month’s difference.
In 1959, newlywed Gagarin volunteered to participate in what would be the next step of the ambitious Soviet Space Program. This next step was the Vostok shuttle, which finally took mankind beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. More than 3,000 pilots and experts in aeronautics submitted their applications, but Gagarin passed trial after trial outsmarting all of them. As the physical, psychological and theoretical trials became tougher, the initial 3,000 lowered to 100, then to 20 and finally, to 6 volunteers who did their best to become the first man to travel to outer space.
Despite worldwide incredulity and doubts from the Soviet population, the launching took place in April 12, 1961, accompanied by fair weather conditions. Just before 6:00am, Gagarin bid farewell to his wife and thanked all the Soviet engineers before boarding the mission’s shuttle, Vostok 1. Trying to hide his nervousness behind an optimistic attitude, Gagarin said a few last words before getting into the shuttle’s capsule:
“Dear friends, both known and unknown to me, fellow Russians, and people of all countries and continents, in a few minutes a mighty spaceship will carry me into the faraway expanses of space. What can I say to you in these last minutes before the start? At this instant, the whole of my life seems to be condensed into one wonderful moment. Everything I have experienced and done till now has been in preparation for this moment. “
At 6:07 in the morning, Vostok 1 began its historic journey to outer space. Gagarin’s task was to report what he saw and the way he felt through a broadcast device. His observations would later help us understand human behavior beyond the terrestrial atmosphere, which was still a hostile environment even for the most sophisticated of technologies of that time.
Although his account of the journey was jealously guarded by the Soviet state machinery, the phrase which captured Yuri Gagarin’s wonder at the majesty of Earth’s Orbit stays alive. Not only does this phrase expresses his feelings towards the vastness of the Universe, but also suits the time we live in:
“Mankind, let us preserve and increase this beauty, and not destroy it.”
After orbiting around the Earth for 108 minutes, Gagarin returned to the terrestrial atmosphere and landed in a settlement in the Province of Saratov, where he was found by an elderly woman and her granddaughter. Only few days hold centuries of history, and that April 12 is one of them.
From that moment on, the world forgot about the little boy who was raised by farmers and whose life had been on the line during the Second World War, and the young man who dreamed about flying in fighting aircrafts. After returning alive and well, Yuri Gagarin became the Soviet Union hero, receiving countless awards and honors. In addition, he became the first man to live the dream that was only a science fiction fantasy a century earlier.
-Translated by Andrea Valle Gracia