The First Spaceman

April 15, 2011

Rheanna Sand


So many stars died at 27: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain all met their end at that fateful age. Few know, however, that there is a man in science history who could have joined that club - the original rock star of space flight, Yuri Gagarin.

Born and raised on a collective farm in western Russia, and later suffering from World War II atrocities, Yuri Gagarin worked his way into the Soviet Air Force. After reaching the rank of Senior Lieutenant, Gagarin was one of 20 chosen for the Soviet space program. He made it to the final six, jockeying for the lone spot inside the Vostok I, the capsule that would carry the first human into orbit.

Let's face it - if this happened today, it would be a reality show hosted by Jeff Probst and the participants would have to swim through underwater mazes and then do a Mia Michaels number and beg America to vote for them. But back then, things were a little more... humble. The 5' 2" farm boy from Klushino was chosen for the mission, and on April 12th 1961 he became the first human to ever see Earth from space. That and the weightlessness were the exciting parts (you can hear it in his voice in this newly released movie recreating the flight from a mix of archival and new footage) but the re-entry was brutal.

Upon hitting the atmosphere, a pair of cables are supposed to release the descent module from the service module. This didn't happen, and for ten agonizing minutes, the first spaceman thought he was seeing his last moments. But the cables finally burned through and the decent module plummeted toward Earth at two to three times the G-force experienced by today's astronauts. After landing in a field, Gagarin managed to climb out of the scorched capsule and was, as the story goes, offered milk and bread by an astonished farmer.

Yuri did not perish that day, but sadly he did meet his fate a mere seven years later in a jet crash. Controversy swirled for years surrounding the role of Brezhnev and the Soviet government in his death, but recent evidence has been released that suggests he violently swerved to miss a weather balloon and lost control of his craft. What the truth is, we'll never know.


Not as flashy as dying at 27, but most definitely still badass.



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