On this day in 1961, a young Russian cosmonaut became a hero not only to his own country, but to the world. His name was Yuri Gagarin.
Tragically, THE Yuri Gagarin died in an accident while piloting an experimental plane a few years after his legendary 108-minute orbital flight. But in a strange coincidence, there is still a Yuri Gagarin, one who remembers him very well–a namesake who was coincidentally born in the same month (March) and who attended the same military academy. When it was announced that Yuri Gagarin had gone into orbit, the other Yuri’s parents were understandably surprised, and thought it was their son–until the film footage of his landing and reception was shown. The two Yuri Gagarins met at some point and were astonished by the coincidence. A Jungian synchronicity–very fitting for the first man to successfully orbit the Earth!
Retired cosmonaut Viktor Gorbatko talks about the cosmonaut selection program, and tells how Yuri Gagarin was chosen for that first flight. Gagarin was chosen for his proficiency as a fighter pilot, willingness to take on a dangerous mission, and excellent physical and mental health. Understandably all the young men in the program were nervous about the prospect of going into space; some were eliminated because they were not up to the task. Gagarin was exceptional in other ways, though: he strove to help his fellow trainees also become accomplished cosmonauts. So much for cutthroat competition!
Gagarin’s popularity after the flight was everything you’d imagine for one of humanity’s heroes; you didn’t have to be a communist to see what an accomplishment it was. After that, though, he was kept from flying for another eight years; perhaps this long gap in practice proved fatal, because the first subsequent flight he took, testing an experimental plane with another pilot, ended up killing them both. But the potential for peace that his space flight unlocked was realized the following year, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took one of his medals with them on Apollo 11, and left it on the Moon, along with a plaque whose final words were:
WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND.
See also my entry on the last flight of Yuri Gagarin, here.