Julia Tcharfas, Curatorial Assistant for our upcoming Cosmonauts exhibition, reflects on over fifty years of manned space flight.
I am thrilled to be part of the Science Museum team working on a new exhibition celebrating the achievements of the Russian space programme. Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age will bring together many unique artifacts that have never before been seen outside Russia, exploring some of the most remarkable and important stories from the dawn of the space age to Russia’s present leading role in space science and exploration.
Telling the story of the Cosmonauts is an important reminder of the remarkable achievements made by humans in little more than a century of scientific experimentation, cosmic speculation and daring risks. For someone of my generation, these achievements are regarded as an everyday reality. Humans now maintain a permanent presence, living and working in orbit, and so far over 500 international citizens have traveled to space, including cosmonauts, astronauts, taikonauts, as well as engineers, doctors, biologists, teachers, politicians, and even tourists. Every one of these space travelers owe their experience to the early work of the Russian Cosmonauts, and perhaps to one special pilot in particular.
53 years ago, on this day, April 12th, 1961, the Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin inaugurated the era of manned spaceflight when he travelled into outer space in a rocket, completing a single orbit around the Earth in 108 minutes.
Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin aboard the Vostok spacecraft. Credit: Ria Novosti
Gagarin had been especially chosen from a group of 20 Russian pilots to be the world’s first cosmonaut. The decision was highly symbolic and political, and Gagarin’s working class upbringing and photogenic smile were just as important as his ability to withstand the extreme conditions of spaceflight.
The first 20 Soviet Cosmonauts. Yuri Gagarin is sitting to the left of Sergei Korolev the Chief Designer of the Soviet space programme. Credit: RIA Novosti
He was 27 years old the day of his legendary flight, dressed in a bright orange spacesuit and a helmet inscribed with ‘CCCP’ painted in red. The painted letters were a last minute addition, marking Gagarin as a Soviet citizen so that he would be recognized when found on his return.
He took off with the words ‘Poyehali!’ (Let’s go!).
Gagarin’s rocket was an adapted missile, called R-7 or ‘Semyorka’. The rocket carried his ‘Vostok’ spacecraft, which translates as ‘East’ in Russian. Vostok included a ball-shaped descent module – nicknamed the ‘tin can’, which Gagarin was strapped into and then shot into orbit like a cannon. With the passing years it seems astounding that such a seemingly rudimentary vessel enabled the first man to go to space.
As the news of the launch spread, people poured into the streets to celebrate the epic moment. My parents, who were children in the Soviet Union at the time of the launch, remember the day with great clarity. My mother recalls that the moment the news was announced people jumped to their feet and began to run. ‘Everyone was running and screaming, “We are flying!”’
In a way, the Soviet Union’s achievement turned fantasy into reality, for a moment transcending both the Earth’s atmosphere and the Cold War political climate of the era. Watching the cloud forms through his window, Gagarin told his ground control unit how beautiful the Earth looked.
Despite the worldwide attention, Gagarin’s flight had been shrouded in secrecy, especially his landing, the details of which were not released until the 1970’s. Most of the world was told that Gagarin was inside Vostok-1 in a complete process from take-off to landing. In fact, he came down by parachute separate from the descent module, landing safely on his feet. He famously greeted the first people he encountered with:
‘I am a friend, comrades, a friend.’
Gagarin returned to Moscow as a worldwide celebrity. Everybody wanted to hear what he had seen and felt. Invitations from many countries of the world began to pour in. Gagarin toured the world, always being welcomed with lavish parades and gifts. Along with his personal reputation, the event was commemorated by a myriad of monuments, art works, images, symbols, books, and memorabilia, which proliferated well beyond the Soviet Union. Some of those objects will be displayed in our Cosmonauts exhibition.
Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, during his visit to France in 1963. Credit: Ria Novosti
Ever since 12 April 1961, the anniversary of Gagarin’s first flight has been celebrated in Russia and the former USSR countries as a holiday known as Cosmonautics Day. More recently the anniversary has been declared the International Day of Human Space Flight. The festivities are varied. A traditional ceremony takes place yearly in Russia, but new celebrations are still being imagined. A global event called Yuri’s Night has been organized since 2001 through social media. Such events are organized by people all over the world and include all night raves, film screenings, and other events to mark the occasion of the first human spaceflight. However you choose to mark the occasion, this anniversary holds a profound meaning for all of us: it is a celebration of peace, cultural cooperation, and most importantly the idea that people can achieve extraordinary things.
Discover the dramatic history of the Russian space programme in our new exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, opening soon.