In praise of … Yuri Gagarin
It is difficult for heroes to remain untarnished, still less Soviet ones, but on the 50th anniversary of the first human travel in space, such a fate is reserved for Yuri Gagarin. The 108-minute flight itself very nearly ended in disaster. The hatch had to be taken apart to mend a faulty sensor shortly before takeoff; the combined weight of Gagarin, his spacesuit and chair was 30lbs over the limit and part of Vostok's internal apparatus had to be dumped; he was blasted into a higher than intended orbit when one of the engines failed to cut out; his capsule went into a dangerous spin on re-entry and he was subjected to a G-force that increased his body weight tenfold; after which he had to bail out, landing in a ploughed field 200 miles off course. But walk away from it he did, and into history. If, in Moscow, he got the acclaim reserved for war heroes (his childhood city of Gzhatsk was renamed after him), the reception he got in London in 1961, in an open silver Rolls-Royce with a special issue licence plate 'YG-1', was no less rapturous. He symbolised the future. He embodied the illusion that the Soviet Union was outperforming the west, and launched the 1960s as a decade of space travel, which ended when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. One year earlier Gagarin died in a plane crash. He could not have thought that when he said 'off we go' on the launch pad that he personally would have touched so many people's lives. He still inspires today and deserves his place among the world's great explorers.