Yuri Gagarin


Yuri Gagarin: Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin become an international symbol, when he became the first man to travel into space 50 years ago. In his first interview with Western media, his daughter Elena Gagarina tells how his historic mission to change their lives forever.

"I wanted desperately to fly in space again. It is appreciated that the first flight, but it was so fast!

"He was going to have a cosmonaut and pilot, and he was unhappy that he is not allowed to fly again."

Elena Gagarina was two when his father flew into orbit.

Until then, the family had lived in Murmansk is the basis for the Arctic Circle, where his father was a test pilot.

One day in 1959, hiring a band came to the air base to select candidates for the first cosmonaut training program.

Of the 2,200 drivers tested in Russia, 20 is passed.

For 11 months, students cosmonauts were subjected to a very stressful, to test their mental strength and physical limits of human endurance, because nobody had any idea what would happen to men in space.

"One of the isolation room of technical training," says Elena.

"The cosmonauts were placed in a small sealed room with no windows.

"They could not bear to watch, and they had no idea how long they would be there.

"Sometimes they were there for 21 days, with temperatures rising to over 50C to 50C or drops, she said.

Group of 20 trainees from six selected for the final period.

Yuri Gagarin knew two days before the flight was elected to the first.

Ellen asked if the personality of his father was a factor in his choice - and if his famous smile was a part.

"Yes was outgoing and attractive," he said.

"But all six drivers in the first group of cosmonauts was incredibly well educated, even educated, because nobody knew what the effects of space would be on the human body.

"All the cosmonauts were first trained to make decisions very quickly.

"My father was particularly rapid responses in difficult circumstances and I think that is what has finally ruled in her favor, she said.


Start Quote

Of course he knew that he might not return”
Elena Gagarina

"But he was also exceptionally fit. He was 27, and he didn't know what it meant to feel internal pain.

"He would say to us that he couldn't imagine what it felt like to have something wrong inside.

"He was also phenomenally calm and mentally disciplined. For example, if he came home during the day and was tired, he'd say, 'I have 40 minutes to sleep, I am very tired'.

"He then slept for 40 minutes and woke up on the dot, without needing an alarm clock or anyone to wake him."

Gagarin's life, and those of his family, were to change for ever after his safe return to earth on 12 April 1961.
Goodbye letter

The flight had been a lot less smooth than news reports of the day suggested.

He did not land, as reports stated, inside Vostok 1, but had to eject from his space capsule at a height of seven kilometres above the earth and parachute to the ground.

Cables linking two parts of his spacecraft failed to separate as planned during re-entry.

For 10 minutes he was spun wildly around, almost losing consciousness, as the capsule's outer layer began to burn and temperatures inside rose dangerously.

"We know now how dangerous it was from documents and transcripts that have been published," said Elena.

"But he never told us in details about the difficulties. Of course he knew that he might not return.

"My mother knew what he wanted to do, and when he was leaving for Baikonur, he told her what he was going to do.

"But he didn't tell her the actual date.

"He told her the flight would take place a few days after the real dates so she wouldn't be worried," she recalled.

I asked Elena whether her father had prepared the family for the possibility that he would not return, and whether he had left any messages for her mother (who by that time had had a second daughter, Galina, who was only a month old).

"Yes and no," Elena said.

"He wrote a letter to my mother saying that it was likely he wouldn't return, because the flight was extremely dangerous, and that he didn't want her to remain on her own if that were the case.

"But he never gave her the letter. She found it by chance among his things when he came back. He hadn't wanted her to find it, and begged her to throw it away. But of course she kept it."
Space celebrity

The son of peasant farmers, Gagarin had gone up into space unknown, and came back as the most famous man on earth.

His flight made him a national hero and worldwide celebrity, and he travelled widely afterwards to promote the achievements of the Soviet Union - including to Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Finland, the UK, Iceland, Cuba, Brazil, Canada, Hungary, and India.

He was always modest, charming and winning - with a magnetic smile and a ready wit that captivated even the most sceptical audiences, worried that his appeal would translate into softening towards the communist state.

Even the British government felt baffled about how to receive him when he arrived in Britain in July 1961.

He had been invited, not as an official guest of the government, but by the National Union of Metalworkers in Manchester, since Gagarin first trained as a foundryman before becoming a pilot.

But the overwhelming welcome given to him by the British people - who were quite able to distinguish between the exploits of a genuinely brave man and the political system from which he came - meant that the government felt it necessary to tack on an extra two days to his visit, so that he could be officially welcomed by the prime minister in London and have a hastily arranged lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

"It meant of course that our lives changed forever," said Elena.

"It was extremely difficult for my parents to have a private life at all. They had so little opportunity to be with one another in a private capacity after the flight.

"And though he liked travelling - especially if it was in connection with airshows - he would have liked to have been able to travel by himself sometimes, not with the official mission, and to be able to see more and to know more.

"But it wasn't possible. Even if he planned something for himself, he was mobbed by people wanting to see him, and to talk to him, and to touch him. He realised it was part of his job, and he couldn't refuse."
Deprived childhood

Though he longed to fly again, he was banned from further flights due to his status as a national hero.

The fame and constant attention was an enormous pressure - greater perhaps than any exerted on him during the pre-flight days.

He went on to train several other cosmonauts, and enrolled at the prestigious Zhukovsky Institute of Aeronautical Engineering.

As a child, his schooling had been interrupted by the German occupation of Russia, and for three years, from 1941-44, he and his family had endured hardship almost unimaginable to us today.

They had been thrown out of their house by the occupying German army, and had lived in a dug-out in the garden for three years, with almost nothing to eat. Two of his siblings were deported to work in German labour camps.

At the Zhukovsky Institute, he showed his academic brilliance by designing a fixed-wing spaceship not dissimilar to the shuttles that the Americans would go on to design.

He graduated with honours in February 1968.

In March that same year, on a routine test flight in a MIG-15, his plane crashed, killing him and his co-pilot outright. He was 34.

His funeral took place on 30 March 1968, and his remains are buried in the Kremlin wall.

"He was part of a generation that was robbed of a great many opportunities due to the war," Elena said.

When war ended, he was avid to learn as much as possible, and seize every opportunity available to him.

"He was curious and interested in everything: history, literature, art, as well as engineering, sport and science. He loved reading and had a very good memory.

"His childhood privations obviously shaped him to some extent, and he spent 20 hours a day working throughout his adult life.