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The travails of space: the Gagarin adventure

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Wednesday, 13 April 2011

It stunned the world and heralded a high point in Soviet science. It sent the scientific establishment of the United States into paroxysms of panic: had they, those cheeky reds, truly done it? On April 12, 1961, the announcement was made that Yuri Gagarin had become the first man to be put into space by a Vostok 1 spacecraft. In 108 minutes, the course of human history had changed.

Gagarin was subsequently feted by various notable scientific organisations. It may well have been Gherman Titov, but the selectors preferred the more engaging figure at the last minute. The Royal Society of London notes a gathering in which the Society gifted the cosmonaut with two volumes of The Correspondence of Isaac Newton. The records show (hard to believe otherwise), that the recipient was pleased. As indeed, he was with the Newtonia collection on display. The character portrait of Gagarin by his daughter Elena affirms the picture of a historically interested figure, keen on his events (for instance to Borodino, site of one of the Napoleonic campaigns greatest battles) and his Pushkin.

There is little surprise that such anniversaries also come with their moments of reflection. Why, for instance, bother with manned missions in space? Many tax payers would be asking that question, and the directors of space programs tend to be the first in the line of fire when their programs don’t work. Take the Russian space program, which finds itself in a paradoxical situation regarding its funding. On the one hand, the Russian space agency has more money now than it had three years ago - $3.5 billion. Yet it is behind France in overall spending. The reception to Russia’s recent space exploits has been lukewarm. It looks like Moscow is less enthusiastic about its cosmonauts as it is about its weapons market.


The list of failures for the Russian space program is proving more than impressive. The Soyuz TMA-21 piloted spacecraft named ‘Gagarin’ took off only after various delays, propelling two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut to the International Space Station. Three satellites that were intended to set up Russia’s counter navigation system to the US GPS – Glonass – disintegrated over the Pacific Ocean in December when its Proton-M rocket failed. Yury Karash of the Russian Space Academy is far from optimistic about the current approaches to Russian space efforts. ‘The sector unequivocally wants to go forward but he management say, “We don’t need to, we’re leaders in space.”’

The head of Russia’s Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos) Anatoly Perminov has been given his marching orders as the space program grinds to a halt, though he has refused to leave his post. The Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov cited age as the major factor. ‘According to Russian law, no state official can work once he is over [65]’ (Guardian, Apr 12). But such hiccups are not new to the Russian effort, as evidenced by recent documents that show how Gagarin may never have gotten into space.

Just prior to takeoff, technical faults were discovered with the hatch of the Vostok spacecraft. It was also found, alarmingly, that Gagarin with his spacesuit and seat was 13.6 kg above the acceptable limit. The engineers found themselves doing a strip job on the craft, removing much of the internal apparatus. This came with its own technical hazards.

Gagarin remained philosophical as his potential space coffin was being readied for him. In a letter written to his family two days before his flight, to be read in the event of his death, he expressed firm faith in ‘the technical equipment but even on the ground a person sometimes falls over and break his neck.’ Death did come in 1968, but closer to earth in the form of a MiG fighter. Conspiracy theories flourished (Was the hero drunk? Was the party chairman murderously jealous?), but the official commission investigating his death concluded that he died when attempting to make ‘a sharp manoeuvre to avoid a balloon probe’.

Once in space, the drama continued. For one thing, Gagarin found himself without his pencil, the victim, it seems, of zero gravity. The result was that he had considerable difficulty making entries in his log book.

Evidently, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin needs no convincing about what he sees as Russia’s pre-eminence in space. Despite a stuttering program, he trumpets the value of planned projects with the conviction of the blind. He promises a new launch pad in Vostochny in Eastern Siberia, which will bolster Russia’s prowess in space launches. He is even forecasting the prospects of establishing a Russian base on the moon within 20 years. Other officials have even bigger dreams: a manned flight to Mars by 2040. The improbable and nigh unattainable is not something that dissuades the dreamers of Russian science.


For now, Gagarin’s spirit is being congratulated and feted, not merely in Russia, but in several countries. The British Council has announced that a statue of the cosmonaut will be placed opposite the statue of the explorer Captain Cook on the Mall in London. The White House has openly congratulated the Russian people on its achievements. But he debate on the viability of space missions continues to rage.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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