On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin strapped into Soviet Vostok-1 spaceship and launched into space. For 108 minutes, the 27-year-old flew through the air, breaking through onto the last frontier of mankind and setting the stage for the great space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Just a week later, the two countries would be locked in a game of chicken over a tiny island in the Caribbean in the Bay of Pigs conflict in Cuba. That flight, Gagarin’s space flight, marked a heroic day for the Soviet Union, one still celebrated even after the fall of the Union.
“I am immensely glad that my beloved fatherland was the first in history to penetrate cosmos,” Gagarin said in his first speech after his return. “The first airplane, the first satellite, the first cosmic spaceship and the first manned flight into space, these are the stages on the great road of my fatherland toward the conquest of the mysteries of nature.”
The year before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Gagarin would die, after being somewhat frustrated in his pursuit of space. He had reached such a heroic status in his country, the space department never felt fully comfortable sending him back into space. Strangely enough, he died in a plane crash.
The Post’s Will Englund writes from Moscow:
Just 51 years before Gagarin’s flight into space, the Russian air force — the czar’s air force — got its start with rickety biplanes boasting wooden propellers. From one to the other was a huge leap, and there hasn’t been so much progress in the five decades since. Gagarin talked about going to Mars one day, but neither the Russians nor the Americans, distracted by other concerns, have gotten close.
After five decades of going where no man has gone before, the current state of spaceflight is clouded with uncertainty. This year will mark the final trip of space shuttle flights under NASA, and the future of the entire program faces is at risk under a cash-strapped national budget.
However, there is one definite option open for the would-be Yuri Gagarins of the world. Virgin Galactic has posted a job search for three “pilot-astronauts.”
These will be the very first commercial Pilots-Astronauts, something which will undoubtedly excite the interest of a great many. Successful candidates will have to be very special: both a full course graduate of a recognised test pilot school and highly and broadly experienced. Virgin is looking for pilots with significant experience of both high performance fast-jet type airplanes as well as large multi-engine types – not only that but “prior spaceflight experience is an advantage.”
It was Gagarin’s wish to one day reach Mars or Venus and perhaps in another 50 years we will — only on private flights instead of those fueled by national pride.
Update: In an earlier version of this post, I incorrectly referenced the Cuban missile crisis, instead of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. My editor also contends that landing on Venus would be impossible as “No one can survive the temperature or the fact that the atmosphere is sulfuric acid.” Perhaps, editor, but if we all thought that way would Gagarin ever have reached space? Just a few heat-defying, sulfuric acid spacesuits and we’re good to go.