First in space, humble on Earth

SUN JOURNAL

Hero: Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth 40 years ago tomorrow, with a personality as impressive as his feat.

April 11, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Forty years ago tomorrow, on April 12, 1961, Soviet Air Force Lt. Yuri Gagarin was about to become the first man in space. Andrian Nikolaev was selected to join him on the bus ride out to the launch pad. Though Gagarin wasn't given to solemnity, he turned as he got off the bus to give Nilolaev a farewell kiss.

Gagarin forgot he was wearing his helmet, and he smacked Nikolaev across the nose.

With that, the Space Age began.

It was a time of adventure, pluck, ingenuity and enthusiasm. The Space Age also took the Cold War into the cosmos, and at the beginning no one doubted that the Soviet Union had the upper hand. Nikolaev, who in 1962 became the third Soviet cosmonaut to go into space, says they were all heroes in those days - on both sides of the Space Race - and they were unhobbled by the bureaucrats who have since come to rule both the Russian and American programs.

And Gagarin, he figures, was the biggest hero of them all.

His spacecraft, the Vostok (which means East), took off from Baikonur, in Kazakhstan, at 9 a.m., and made one 108-minute orbit of Earth. After re-entering the atmosphere, the Vostok came to rest in a field near the Volga River.

Gagarin climbed out of his scorched spacecraft and found himself on the Lenin's Path Collective Farm, near the town of Engels. As Yevgeny Riabchikov recounted in an early, semiofficial history of the Russian space program, a woman and her daughter were standing in the field next to a spotted calf, staring at him.

"Have you really come from space?" asked the woman, Anna Takhtarova.

"Just imagine - I have," Gagarin said.

"Would you like something to eat?"

A small crowd of farmhands had gathered around him by the time the search team from Baikonur arrived, several hours later, and the gregarious cosmonaut was in his element, grinning and bantering with his countrymen.

Nikolaev was with the team that flew to greet him. "Except that he was there first," Nikolaev says, "so it was really him greeting us."

They embraced. This time Gagarin had taken his helmet off. He peered quizzically at Nikolaev and asked what that bump was on the bridge of his nose.

"I told him," says Nikolaev, "`It's the autograph of the first cosmonaut.'"

Gagarin was flown to Moscow on a plane that made several celebratory passes over the city before landing at Vnukovo airport. Walking along the red carpet unrolled for him, he realized one of his shoes was untied but managed not to trip. He went in a procession to Red Square to be greeted by boisterous crowds, followed by a reception at the Kremlim. "Yuri," said Sergei Korolyov, chief designer of the Soviet rocket program, "is the personification of the eternal youth of the Russian people."

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was born March 9, 1934, in a village called Klushino, near Smolensk, near the border between Russia and what was then the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. His father was a carpenter. When the invading Nazis rolled through in 1941, they took Yuri's brother and sister away to work in Germany, an experience they survived.

After the war Gagarin went to several trade schools, intent on getting a job in a foundry. But while studying in Saratov, he and several students visited a flying club - and pretty soon he was in aviation school and on his way to becoming a military pilot.

Nikolaev remembers how, in 1959, the first corps of cosmonauts was chosen. At airfields across Russia, a few young men were called in by their commanders. In his case, it was in Smolensk. His colonel was flanked by two medical officers he had never seen.

"They have looked through your records," the colonel told Nikolaev, then a 31-year-old senior lieutenant, "and have decided that you're physically suited for the newest, most modern equipment."

Without any further elaboration, the colonel asked him if he was willing to go to Moscow.

"What kind of pilot," Nikolaev replied, "doesn't want to fly higher, farther, faster?"

Forty young men were invited this way. Seven were selected - including Gagarin. One declined; the rest went into training.

"Gagarin," says Nikolaev, "was a good mixer. Very simple. None of the six of us knew who would be the first in space. Any of us could have gone. But he attracted people - in his mood, in his behavior, in the way he related with others. I always kept quiet, but he was very curious. Always asking questions. Even before he was officially appointed, we decided among ourselves that he ought to be first."

Nikolaev today is 73, an adviser to the Russian Duma on issues relating to the space program. At one time he was married to another early cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova, but after the birth of their daughter they divorced. He doesn't like to talk about the marriage, except to say that it was Gagarin who first suggested it to him.

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