Space

'A lesson for mankind': 60 years on from Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, first man to orbit the earth on April 12, 1061, is shown in his space suit.
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, first man to orbit the earth on April 12, 1061, is shown in his space suit. AP

Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin created history by becoming the first human in space during a flight that lasted 108 minutes. On 12 April, the world marked the 60th anniversary of his extraordinary achievement, a feat of "courage and commitment for the benefit...of mankind". 

Advertising

Gagarin’s first space flight in 1961 may not have been that long but it has had a lasting impact.

According to French astronaut Jean-François Clervoy, it opened a new era of space exploration. “It was a lesson in courage and commitment for the benefit of not only his country but also the whole of mankind. At that time, it was extremely difficult to go into space.”

Clervoy, who spent 675 hours in space on three Space Shuttle flights between 1994 and 1999, said the probability of losing a spacecraft and the crew when Gagarin took the historic flight was about 50 percent – compared to today’s one percent, which is still considered high. 

“Gagarin was exemplary in terms of humility, intelligence and a sense of duty for his country. He had to do it and he trusted himself as well as the team behind the flight. It required a lot of courage as Gagarin knew the chance of success wasn’t very high. And that’s why the flight is so remarkable,” Clervoy said.

It wasn’t just entering the earth’s orbit that was intimidating. Returning to earth was an equally daunting challenge for Gagarin.

The Vostok I descent vehicle capsule landed empty as Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to travel into space, made a parachute jump at an altitude of 7 000 meters.
The Vostok I descent vehicle capsule landed empty as Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to travel into space, made a parachute jump at an altitude of 7 000 meters. © AFP

“First, he was alone in the flight. Today, there are at least two people during a space flight which is more reassuring. Secondly, his only option on the way back was to eject himself since his spaceship had no soft-landing capability, which added to the dramatic aspect of the flight,” Clervoy said. 

Clervoy also praised Gagarin’s composure and piloting ability. His spacecraft was a small sphere with one ejection seat, a parachute and thrusters that could change the spacecraft’s orientation and lower its orbital velocity in order for it to get back into the atmosphere. 

“To bring the spacecraft into the earth’s atmosphere, he had to be very precise. The velocity of the spacecraft was 8 km per second. One second of error would have meant 8 km of landing error.”

‘Promise of a positive experience’

Clervoy contended the other significance of Gagarin’s flight was his description of the experience.

Space Shuttle Atlantis Payload Commander Jean-Francois Clervoy of France waves to well-wishers before the launch of the mission in May 1997.
Space Shuttle Atlantis Payload Commander Jean-Francois Clervoy of France waves to well-wishers before the launch of the mission in May 1997. AFP - ROBERTO SCHMIDT

“His first words that he repeated several times were: I feel well. He also uttered: ‘The view is magnificent.’ These two expressions show that space exploration was a promise of a very positive experience and of human capability to live and work in space. All the astronauts who have been into space since then, have experienced this fantastic and extraordinary emotion.

One of Clervoy's most memorable and touching moments was in May 1997, when the Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian space station Mir. 

Space Shuttle Atlantis crew member Jean-Francois Clervoy entering the Base Block aboard the the Russian Space Station Mir in May 1997
Space Shuttle Atlantis crew member Jean-Francois Clervoy entering the Base Block aboard the the Russian Space Station Mir in May 1997 AFP - HO

On entering Mir, he was overcome with emotion upon seeing a portrait of Gagarin inside the space station. “It was as if Gagarin was watching us – Americans, Russians, Europeans – work together. It was thanks to Gagarin’s first flight that we were there,” Clervoy, who was the payload commander of the mission recalled. 

Larger than life

He has other fond memories of encountering the myth of Gagarin. “As part of my Russian language lessons, following my selection as an astronaut in 1985, I studied the conversations between Gagarin and Sergei Korolev, (father of the Soviet space programme). It was through these radio calls that I got to know Gagarin for the first time.” 

Clervoy again experienced the popularity of Gagarin in 1991 in Star City, the Soviet Union’s astronaut training centre.

A monument to Yuri Gagarin near the Kremlin
A monument to Yuri Gagarin near the Kremlin JOEL SAGET AFP/File

“I saw Gagarin everywhere, in the form of big statues and sculptures. I visited his office which hadn’t been changed since his death . At the physical training facility, the place where Gagarin’s sporting equipment was stowed was there too, exactly in the same layout when he died.” 

Clervoy commemorated the anniversary of Gagarin’s remarkable this year not just because of it being the 60th year. “I celebrate the Yuri Gagarin night every year. Gagarin was the first in space. He is like a father to all astronauts,” Clervoy said. 

    Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning