DeFlip Side #112: “Poyekhali!”

DeFlip Side #112: “Poyekhali!”.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis, and this is DeFlip Side.

Join me now on a trip back through time, to a monumental day 50 years ago.

It’s April 12, 1961, and the sun is rising over the Star City launch facility in Russia. A transport bus pulls to a halt, and a lone figure in an orange jumpsuit steps out into the shadow of the massive R-7 rocket that is being readied for takeoff.

Perhaps Yuri Gagarin feels the weight of history on his shoulders as he squints up at the snub Vostok capsule that will soon deliver him from Earth’s atmosphere, but he’s more immediately concerned with the pressure on his bladder, as he undoes his flight suit and relieves himself on the bus’s tire. Gagarin has no way to know that this will become a grand tradition repeated by future Cosmonauts in the ensuing fifty years. He just finishes up, proceeds to the launch pad, and gives the following speech:

“Dear friends, in a few minutes a mighty spaceship will carry me into the far-away expanses of space. To be the first to enter the cosmos–could anyone dream of anything greater than that? To be the first to do what generations of people had dreamed of; to be the first to pave the way into space for mankind. It is a responsibility toward all mankind—toward its present and its future.”

With this nod toward posterity, Gagarin gets into his capsule and waits. After an hour, all systems are go and the massive rocket roars into life.

As the R-7 pushes up and away from the support arms a jubilant Gagarin proclaims:

“Poyekhali!”

Translation: “Let’s Go!” And go he did, into an historic 108-minute orbit, the first man in space. Gagarin delighted at the sensation of weightlessness and marveled at the landscape sliding by below at 18,000 mph—the first ever eyewitness of oceans and continents, the limits of the atmosphere—the very curvature of the Earth itself. As the flight progressed, Gagarin experimented with eating and with writing in zero-g, and was forced to stop making log entries when his pencil floated out of reach. But he kept in touch through radio and a telegraph link, transmitting audio and video back to Earth—transmissions that a CIA and NSA surveillance station in Alaska intercepted. There was no question. This was not just some Russian propaganda gambit. The Soviet Union had beaten America into space.

No wonder Gagarin was disappointed when the automatic systems kicked in, shifting his capsule into re-entry position. After a mere 1 hour and 18 minutes, his pioneering trip was drawing to an end. But it was far from over.

The retro-rockets jolted the craft and sent it into a violent spin. The porthole revealed a tumble of landscape and inky blackness, and the Vostok 1 was thrust back into the atmosphere in a blinding purple flash. Gagarin reported feeling forces as great as 10gs and almost blacked out as the capsule’s thermal coating began to heat and crackle. But at 23,000 feet, the capsule’s main parachute deployed and Gagarin was ejected, his own parachute unfurling without incident.

At 10:55 a.m., Moscow time, he landed a field in Smelovaka, in front a woman and little girl. The woman asked, uneasily, “Have you come from outer space?”

“Yes,” a thrilled Gagarin replied. “Would you believe it? I certainly have!” And at the woman’s startled look he quickly added, “Don’t be alarmed. I’m Soviet!”

Workers from the nearby collective farm gave him a tractor ride to the nearest telephone, and the rest is history.

Gagarin became world famous and was everything a Soviet propaganda minister could have dreamed of: good looking, affable, charming, always smiling—the perfect poster boy for the superiority of the Soviet system. His myth almost makes itself: the son of collective farming peasants, born of humble means in a wooden house in the small village of Klushino in Western Russia, Gagarin eventually went to a trade school and worked in a foundry. From there he went to an industrial training college where he learned to fly. By 1957 he had graduated from air force training and shortly thereafter was one of 20 men selected for cosmonaut training. His intelligence, industriousness and good-natured attitude so impressed his superiors that he was an obvious choice for the first flight.

Two days after Gagarin returned safely to Earth, Khrushchev awarded him the Gold Star medal, declaring him a Hero of the Soviet Union. But he was also the world’s hero, a roving ambassador achieving international honors and renown.

Gagarin’s achievement also kicked the American manned space program into high gear. In years prior, President Eisenhower had a slow-go approach and was more interested in launching satellites as reconnaissance tools. He felt that manned space flight should be put on the back burner and risked only for valid scientific purposes.

Gagarin’s flight changed all that, prompting the newly-elected President Kennedy to put space achievement at the top of his agenda, leading to his prophetic call to put a man on the moon and the eventual superiority of America’s manned space program.

So it’s sad and a bit ironic that here we are now, 50 years to the month after Gagarin’s historic flight, getting ready to give that superiority back to the Russians.

Today’s scheduled launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavor marks the penultimate mission of NASA’s shuttle program, which will end with the final flight of Atlantis in June. The retirement of the shuttle fleet throws America’s manned space program into limbo, as congress fights over funding and the future direction of the space agency. And with no ability to put astronauts in space, NASA is turning to Russian Soyuz spacecraft to send astronauts to the International Space Station, until commercially developed spacecraft are available to do the job. Am I the only one less than comfortable betting our space-faring future on market forces? Is that the Dow’s opening bell I hear, or a death knell?

So we may soon see astronauts joining cosmonauts in urinating on bus tires before taking off for the stars—heralding the next phase of international cooperation in our quest for space. And perhaps it’s fitting that Russia is leading the way once again. Because despite its own political problems and economic turmoil, it has never lost sight of its reason for pursuing space achievement, a reason its favorite son, Yuri Gagarin, so eloquently laid out fifty years ago: “It is a responsibility toward all mankind—toward its present and its future.”

So here’s to the late, great Yuri Gagarin, who’s still showing us the way.

And here’s to Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction, which is celebrating its 28th anniversary tonight. Congratulations to you Howard, WUSB’s favorite son. And here’s to Destinies—its present and its future.

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Some of the audio from this DeFlip Side episode came from the documentary First Orbit, a real time recreation of Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering first orbit, shot entirely in space from on board the International Space Station. The film combines this new footage with Gagarin’s original mission audio and a new musical score by composer Philip Sheppard. Watch the film below, and visit the First Orbit website for more information.