Just after 1 a.m., April 12, 1961, a Soviet Vostok rocket blasted off from Baikonour cosmodrome, which alerted US radars in the Aleutian Islands.
Twenty-three minutes later, Jerome Wiesner, JFK’s scientific adviser, was notified by telephone and the shit hit the fan.
Despite the US throwing Alan Shepard up in sub-orbital space for less than 15 minutes a month later (it would be nearly a year before John Glenn took the big trip), Russia’s daring act shocked already Red-scared Americans — the godless Russkies can now blow us to bits from space!
A shadow had crossed shining Camelot.
(Illustration found here via Google Images).
However, the cosmonaut on board that Russkie rocket, 27-year-old Yuri Gagarin, became a big, big celebrity to the rest of the world.
From the UK’s The Telegraph:
In the West, memories of the Space Race are dominated by Neil Armstrong and Apollo.
But in Russia, it is the cult of Gagarin that rules.
Last Thursday, prime minister Vladimir Putin visited Gagarinâ€™s hometown near Moscow, and tonight he hosts a glittering party at the Kremlin.
In Baikonur â€“ the Russian space agencyâ€™s launch station, now rented from the Kazakh government â€“ there will be a star-studded reception, for which many former cosmonauts have been flown in from Moscow, and a concert in the cityâ€™s main stadium.
Gagarin was also wonderful company â€“ and it was, Elena (Gagarin’s daughter) believes, that charismatic, gregarious personality that got him the nod over Titov, and made him ideally suited to his new status as the worldâ€™s most famous man.
â€œGagarin was more personable than Armstrong,â€ says Piers Bizony, one of his biographers.
â€œHe was an exceptionally good diplomat. He was handsome, charming and generous.â€
Harold Macmillan, prime minister when he visited London three months after going into space, thought him â€œa delightful fellow,” as did one British nurse who broke through the crash barriers to give him a kiss: he was, she declared, â€œthe most kissable man in the universeâ€.
It is difficult, today, for us to understand the level of Gagarinâ€™s instant celebrity.
When he visited Britain, he was driven through cheering crowds in an open-topped Rolls Royce, with the numberplate YG-1, to take tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace (Elena recalls that she â€œgave him some rather beautiful dolls to bring back for me and Galina).
The Russophobe Daily Mail even ran the headline: â€œMake him Sir Yuri!â€, while John F Kennedy was so alarmed by his popularity that he banned him from entering the United States.
The rocket ride, though, was way-more than dangerous.
The daughter explains:
But in an interview with Andrea Rose, his daughter Elena â€“ who has traditionally been reluctant to discuss her fatherâ€™s achievements â€“ reveals that he was so aware of the enormous risks involved that he lied to his wife.
â€œWhen he was leaving for Baikonur,â€ she says, â€œhe told her what he was doing. But he didnâ€™t tell her the actual date. He told her the flight would take place a few days after the real date, so she wouldnâ€™t be worried.â€
He also wrote a letter for his wife, â€œsaying that it was likely he wouldnâ€™t return, because the flight was extremely dangerous, and that he wanted her not to remain on her own in that case. But he didnâ€™t give her the letter. She found it by chance among his things when he came back.â€
Sad and a bit ironic, Gagarin was killed in 1968 on a routine training flight.
Fifty years is a long time, but to me it seems just like the day before yesterday.