Celebrating 50 years since Yuri Gagarin's 'Let's Go!'

On April 12, 1961, the Soviet cosmonaut became the first human to go into space. It took the Americans another year to put a man into orbit. Fifty years later, Gagarin's fame is as bright as ever, and he may be one of the few Soviets to retain his star power.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
9 min read
A reprint of a newspaper heralding the flight of Yuri Gagarin, the first human into space. That flight took place 50 years ago today. NASA

"They've got a man up there. It's Gagarin."

With those fictionalized words (see video below), spoken by actor Jeff Goldblum in Philip Kaufman's terrific 1983 screen adaptation of Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff," millions of viewers were ushered into the era of manned space flight.

Goldblum's harried alert to a roomful of top American policymakers represents just a little of the reaction in the United States to what happened 50 years ago today, on April 12, 1961, when 27-year-old Flight Major Yuri Gagarin, who was born on a collective farm west of Moscow and who was the son of a carpenter, became the first human to ever enter outer space.

Today, Gagarin's first flight, aboard the Soviet spacecraft the Vostok 1, is the stuff of legend, a 108-minute trip that forever changed the world. But at the time, it was a shot across the American bow in one of the most visceral of Cold War battles, the space race.

It wasn't the first time that the Soviets had beaten the Americans to space. One after another, the milestones were reached first by the Russians: with Sputnik 1 in 1957, the world's first Earth-orbiting satellite, and then with Belka and Strelka, the first living animals to survive an orbital trip.

But Gagarin's flight (see video below) was the tip of the iceberg and a major blow to an American space program that was trying desperately to get a man in space first, a feat that was seen at the time as a huge win in the increasingly tense Cold War.

And while the Americans were able to respond quickly and get astronaut Alan Shepard into space just a month after Gagarin--though it wouldn't be until 1962 that future U.S. Sen. John Glenn would make America's first orbital flight--some clearly felt a sense at the time that a big opportunity had been lost, particularly in the effort to keep a step ahead of the Soviets. As Glenn told the Huffington Post, "We look back now [at Gagarin's flight] and say, 'Oh, that was just a small incident,' but in those days there were serious writings about the future of communism around the world, whether it was going to be a dominant factor. We took this very seriously--the administration, President Kennedy and President Eisenhower after he came around to believe in the importance of it. At the time, we looked at this as representing our country in the Cold War."

No surprise
While Gagarin's flight clearly showed that the Soviets were ahead of the Americans in the race to space, one question is whether Washington was really caught off guard by the launch of the Vostok 1. And the answer appears to be that while the American public may still have thought one of our own astronauts--probably Glenn--would be first into orbit, the professional space community and the government was probably a bit more aware of what was going to happen on April 12, 1961 in Star City, Russia.

Yuri Gagarin's historic space flight (photos)

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"The degree of surprise depends on where you're asking," said Cathleen Lewis, curator of international space programs and spacesuits at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. "The space community throughout the world, especially in the United States, was not really surprised by Gagarin's flight, even though the planned flight...had not been pre-announced. [But] everyone who was involved in the [American space] program knew the Soviet Union was headed for that. They'd been launching animals into space in the new prototype Vostok spacecraft...and in [early] 1961, Soviet scientists had declared that [that] was a success and it was the stepping stone to sending humans into space."

Further, said Lewis, it should have come as no surprise that the Americans were a beat behind. "People who followed those things knew that it was coming," she said, and "they suspected it was coming soon because for the previous four years, since 1957, since the launch of Sputnik, the Soviets had been good at pre-empting American plans, and [their] use of secrecy was very well documented."

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Lewis said the Americans trailed the Soviets into space in large part because of how NASA planned its program. And though she argued that the American approach may well have paid bigger dividends over time--such as making it to the moon--it didn't serve Washington particularly well in 1961, especially not with the eyes of the world trained on the skies above.

Part of the Soviets' success that year had to do with being willing to send up a spacecraft without a global network of tracking and communications infrastructure. "The Soviet Union launched Gagarin only using ground stations in the USSR," Lewis said, "so for a time he was out of communication."

By comparison, she added, NASA insisted on building out listening stations around the world so that the first American into space would be able to stay in touch with the ground throughout his journey. And Lewis said that while the Americans might well have chosen to forgo such a robust communications network, it would have been about little more than the public relations victory of putting a man in space first and would have necessitated leaving our first astronaut "in the dark" for parts of his voyage.

The 'father' of the Soviet space program
Even today, Gagarin is a household name, especially in the former Soviet Union. Though he made just the one flight into space, the import of that launch will forever be felt throughout the world. But to put the focus entirely on Gagarin would be an injustice to the people behind the Soviet space program in the 1950s and 1960s, especially one man, Sergei Korolev, the "father of the Soviet Union's success in space."

The father of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev. European Space Agency

Korolev was born in the Ukraine in 1907, the son of a Russian literature teacher. But he didn't follow in his family's pursuit of the humanities. He loved airplanes. Indeed, he designed his first glider by age 17 and later went to the University of Moscow, where he studied rocket propulsion. His rise up the ladder of the Soviet aerospace community was halted in 1938 when he was denounced by a colleague and ended up serving more than two years in prison. But thanks to the patronage of fellow prisoner and famed aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev, Korolev was eventually allowed to resume his career.

This is a man with a list of accomplishments that few in history can match. The major credit for Sputnik, Vostok, and the Soyuz programs belongs to Korolev, and according to the European Space Agency (ESA), after his death, "he became an icon of Russian rocketry and both his rocket and spaceship designs are still flying today."

But despite those successes, Korolev doesn't get the ink. There's no annual "Sergei's Night" celebrating humankind's advances into space. But there is, of course, "Yuri's Night," a collection of events held around the world each April that honors Gagarin's accomplishments and what they meant to the world.

Yet, according to Robin McKie, writing in "The Observer," Korolev might well have deserved the lion's share of the accolades. "Gagarin's flight was anything but a collective affair," McKie wrote. "In the years that have followed the USSR's disintegration, it has become clear that his mission was a highly individualistic business with one man dominating proceedings: Sergei Korolev, the chief designer--a shadowy figure who was only revealed to have masterminded the USSR's rocket wizardry after his death in 1966. The remarkable story of his genius, his survival in the Gulags; his transformation into one of the most powerful men in the Soviet Union-and his interaction with his favorite cosmonaut, his 'little eagle Yuri Gagarin, is the real story behind that flight on April 12, 1961. Gagarin became the face of Soviet space supremacy, while Korolev was its brains. The pair made a potent team and their success brought fame to one and immense power to the other."

Gagarin's legacy
The real question about Gagarin might be about his legacy. As the European Space Agency's article on the matter puts it, "Until pictures of Gagarin appeared in the news, there were no real 'space heroes' for the public to identify with." Sure, America's seven Mercury astronauts, including Glenn, Shepard, Gus Grissom, and Gordo Cooper, had been on the cover of "Life," but they hadn't actually done anything yet. "With Gagarin came the first human face for space exploration. The photographs of this brave, helmeted space explorer became iconic of the 20th century and defined the image of the cosmonaut, much like the picture of Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in 1969," the article notes.

Gagarin graduated from the flight training program at Orenburg Military Pilots School in 1957 and was clearly a rising star. When Korolev whittled down a list of candidates to be first aboard the Vostok 1, putting his group of 20 finalists through all kinds of physical exercises, weightless training, study of celestial and astronomical exploration, and more, Gagarin was an overwhelming choice to be first. "When the 20 candidates were asked to anonymously vote for which other candidate they would like to see as the first to fly," reads the ESA's article, "all but three chose Gagarin."

But Lewis said that Gagarin's size might have had something to do with his selection as well. A slight man, at about 5-foot, 4-inches tall, he may have gained an edge over his comrades because the interior of the Vostok 1 was very small, Lewis said. Still, he was obviously bright, having likely scored higher on his exams than anyone else, she said.

Having completed his space flight, Gagarin instantly became a celebrity on a scale that perhaps no other Soviet citizen ever reached. Indeed, his achievement may be the one that retains its glory the longest. In part, Lewis explains, that's because many Soviet accomplishments didn't survive the glare that came with the collapse of the USSR and the focus on the corruption of that regime.

Lewis said that had it not been for that corruption, Gagarin might well have been able to achieve even greater things, but even without that, his fame is everlasting. And despite the tarnishing of many of the Soviet-era icons, such as Lenin and KGB leaders, few other groups survived with their reputations as intact as the cosmonauts, she said. And the memorials to Gagarin are, of course, impressive. He has streets named after him and museums dedicated to him, and his remains are buried inside the wall of the Kremlin. Until recently, Lewis added, his final words before his launch--"let's go!"--could be heard each evening in the opening of a Russian nightly news program.

In the aftermath of his famous flight, Gagarin took on the role of national hero. He began a stint in 1962 as deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union and subsequently worked at the Star City training facility on designs for a reusable spacecraft. But his bosses worried that they might lose their national figure in a crash, the ESA writes, so they attempted to keep him from flying. Nevertheless, tragedy struck. On March 27, 1968, Gagarin, along with flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin, was killed during a routine training flight when his MiG-15UTI crashed near Kirzhach. He was said to have been in training for a second mission to space.

It was a solemn moment for the Soviets. "It is officially announced here that Hero of the Soviet Union Yuri Gagarin, the world's first cosmonaut, has perished during an air crash," read the Soviet press agency Tass at the time, according to "The New York Times." "Tass said the announcement of Colonel Gagarin's death had been made by the Communist party's Central Committee, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (Parliament), and the Soviet Council of Ministers."

But his fame didn't die with him. Though the Soviets were unequivocally outclassed by the American space program--though they wanted to, the Soviets never seem to have had the wherewithal to get to the Moon--Gagarin's place as the first man in space can never be taken away. And during the years after his flight, few people on Earth could have matched his star power, no matter where in the world he went.

"In these days of instant celebrity, you don't appreciate how amazing it was that these faces were recognized by everyone," Lewis said. "People came in throngs to visit Gagarin when he toured the world."