First man in space Yuri Gagarin 'wanted to fly again'

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Yuri Gagarin with his wife Valentina and young daughter Elena, June 1, 1960
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Yuri Gagarin and his wife Valentina found it difficult to have a private life after he went in to space

Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin turned in to an international icon when he became the first man to travel in to space 50 years ago. In her first interview with Western media, his daughter Elena Gagarina explains how his historic mission changed their lives forever.

"He desperately wanted to fly in space again. He'd enjoyed that first flight, but it was over so quickly!

"He wanted to go on being a cosmonaut and a pilot, and he was unhappy that he wasn't allowed to fly again."

Elena Gagarina was two years old when her father flew in to orbit.

Until then, the family had been living at the Murmansk airbase on the Arctic circle, where her father was a test pilot.

One day in 1959, a recruiting gang came to the airbase to select candidates for the first-ever cosmonaut training programme.

Out of the 2200 pilots they tested throughout Russia, 20 got through.

For 11 months, the cosmonaut trainees were put through an extraordinarily gruelling programme, designed to test mental and physical strength to the limits of human endurance, since no-one had a clue what would happen to men in space.

"One of the training techniques involved the isolation chamber," explained Elena.

"Cosmonauts were placed in a small sealed chamber, with no windows.

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Elena says her father was always "phenomenally calm"

"They couldn't wear watches, and they had no idea how long they'd be in there for.

"Sometimes they were in there for 21 days, with temperatures rising to over 50C or plunging to -50C," she said.

From the group of 20 trainees, six were selected for the final stage.

Yuri Gagarin only knew two days before the flight that he had been chosen to go first.

I asked Elena whether her father's personality was a factor in his selection - and whether his famous smile played a part.

"Yes. He was outgoing and engaging," she said.

"But all six pilots in the first group of cosmonauts were incredibly well-trained, even over-trained, because no-one knew what the effects of space would be on the human body.

"All the first cosmonauts were trained to take decisions very quickly.

"My father had especially quick reactions in difficult circumstances, and I think this was what finally decided in his favour," she said.

"But he was also exceptionally fit. He was 27, and he didn't know what it meant to feel internal pain.

"He would say to us that he couldn't imagine what it felt like to have something wrong inside.

"He was also phenomenally calm and mentally disciplined. For example, if he came home during the day and was tired, he'd say, 'I have 40 minutes to sleep, I am very tired'.

"He then slept for 40 minutes and woke up on the dot, without needing an alarm clock or anyone to wake him."

Gagarin's life, and those of his family, were to change for ever after his safe return to earth on 12 April 1961.

Goodbye letter

The flight had been a lot less smooth than news reports of the day suggested.

He did not land, as reports stated, inside Vostok 1, but had to eject from his space capsule at a height of seven kilometres above the earth and parachute to the ground.

Cables linking two parts of his spacecraft failed to separate as planned during re-entry.

For 10 minutes he was spun wildly around, almost losing consciousness, as the capsule's outer layer began to burn and temperatures inside rose dangerously.

"We know now how dangerous it was from documents and transcripts that have been published," said Elena.

"But he never told us in details about the difficulties. Of course he knew that he might not return.

"My mother knew what he wanted to do, and when he was leaving for Baikonur, he told her what he was going to do.

"But he didn't tell her the actual date.

"He told her the flight would take place a few days after the real dates so she wouldn't be worried," she recalled.

I asked Elena whether her father had prepared the family for the possibility that he would not return, and whether he had left any messages for her mother (who by that time had had a second daughter, Galina, who was only a month old).

"Yes and no," Elena said.

"He wrote a letter to my mother saying that it was likely he wouldn't return, because the flight was extremely dangerous, and that he didn't want her to remain on her own if that were the case.

"But he never gave her the letter. She found it by chance among his things when he came back. He hadn't wanted her to find it, and begged her to throw it away. But of course she kept it."

Space celebrity

The son of peasant farmers, Gagarin had gone up into space unknown, and came back as the most famous man on earth.

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Gagarin's space journey made him an international celebrity who captivated audiences

His flight made him a national hero and worldwide celebrity, and he travelled widely afterwards to promote the achievements of the Soviet Union - including to Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Finland, the UK, Iceland, Cuba, Brazil, Canada, Hungary, and India.

He was always modest, charming and winning - with a magnetic smile and a ready wit that captivated even the most sceptical audiences, worried that his appeal would translate into softening towards the communist state.

Even the British government felt baffled about how to receive him when he arrived in Britain in July 1961.

He had been invited, not as an official guest of the government, but by the National Union of Metalworkers in Manchester, since Gagarin first trained as a foundryman before becoming a pilot.

But the overwhelming welcome given to him by the British people - who were quite able to distinguish between the exploits of a genuinely brave man and the political system from which he came - meant that the government felt it necessary to tack on an extra two days to his visit, so that he could be officially welcomed by the prime minister in London and have a hastily arranged lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

"It meant of course that our lives changed forever," said Elena.

"It was extremely difficult for my parents to have a private life at all. They had so little opportunity to be with one another in a private capacity after the flight.

"And though he liked travelling - especially if it was in connection with airshows - he would have liked to have been able to travel by himself sometimes, not with the official mission, and to be able to see more and to know more.

"But it wasn't possible. Even if he planned something for himself, he was mobbed by people wanting to see him, and to talk to him, and to touch him. He realised it was part of his job, and he couldn't refuse."

Deprived childhood

Though he longed to fly again, he was banned from further flights due to his status as a national hero.

Image caption,
He was banned from flying again due to his status as a national hero

The fame and constant attention was an enormous pressure - greater perhaps than any exerted on him during the pre-flight days.

He went on to train several other cosmonauts, and enrolled at the prestigious Zhukovsky Institute of Aeronautical Engineering.

As a child, his schooling had been interrupted by the German occupation of Russia, and for three years, from 1941-44, he and his family had endured hardship almost unimaginable to us today.

They had been thrown out of their house by the occupying German army, and had lived in a dug-out in the garden for three years, with almost nothing to eat. Two of his siblings were deported to work in German labour camps.

At the Zhukovsky Institute, he showed his academic brilliance by designing a fixed-wing spaceship not dissimilar to the shuttles that the Americans would go on to design.

He graduated with honours in February 1968.

In March that same year, on a routine test flight in a MIG-15, his plane crashed, killing him and his co-pilot outright. He was 34.

His funeral took place on 30 March 1968, and his remains are buried in the Kremlin wall.

"He was part of a generation that was robbed of a great many opportunities due to the war," Elena said.

When war ended, he was avid to learn as much as possible, and seize every opportunity available to him.

"He was curious and interested in everything: history, literature, art, as well as engineering, sport and science. He loved reading and had a very good memory.

"His childhood privations obviously shaped him to some extent, and he spent 20 hours a day working throughout his adult life.

"This wasn't though because of his impoverished childhood. He was just a man interested in everything."

Hear more on Random Edition 1961: First Man in Space 50th Anniversary, BBC Radio 4, 1100-1130 BST, Monday 11 April, or catch-up afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

A statue of Yuri Gagarin, sent as a gift from the Russian Space Agency, will be unveiled by Elena Gagarina outside the British Council headquarters in London on Thursday 14 July 2011.

The BBC will be playing its part by showing the First Orbit film on 17 big screens around the UK.

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