Saturday, April 12, 2008
And we have come to another April 12, and it is time to raise the vodka glass for a toast to Yuri Gagarin, the first human being in space. Gagarin was selected as one of the first class of 20 cosmonauts chosen under the guidance of Chief Designer Sergei Korolev, who called the men his "little eagles." "Little" was true in another sense: the Vostok capsule was even more cramped than its American rival, Mercury, and Gagarin's height of 157 cm came in handy. Gagarin's 108-minute flight on this date in 1961 covered less than one orbit, but he was nonetheless first. Gagarin never returned to space, in part because the USSR would not risk a national hero. It's a little-known fact that cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova once told an audience in Cuba that Gagarin would command a crew on the first lunar flight (with that crew including Tereshkova), but this seems to have been strictly propaganda. Gagarin died in a crash on a training flight in 1968. (The exact cause remains in dispute, and likely always will.) Among the many monuments the Soviets raised to him is one that I can't help but think he would be embarrassed by: a statue of the cosmonaut, looking more like some stylized superhero, placed atop a pillar in Moscow and towering 40 meters above Gagarin Square.