Today, April 12 is celebrated in Russia as Cosmonauts Day. The day was picked to honor Yuri Gagarin, the first man to fly in outer space on April 12, 1961. It is still breathtaking, to this day, to imagine what kind of brass balls it takes to strap yourself into a tin can and allow yourself to be launched into space for the very first time, with no guarantees.
This piece from VZGLIAD, by reporter Alexei Overchuk, takes a somewhat unconventional look at Gagarin’s first flight, among other things. I don’t have time to do the whole piece, which also covers such issues as “Do cosmonauts drink and smoke in space?” [Answer: they do, sometimes], and also the military issue of using space to wage nuclear war [which the Soviet Union considered as a final option, like, if the USSR had been nuked, then maybe the cosmonauts could still retaliate from up there in space, which is why the Soviets kept a command-and-control capsule in orbit at all times].
But focusing on just one theme, which is the personality of Gagarin (who was a real Mensch, and not necessarily the saintly being which Soviet people came to view him; although in reality a much, much better and way more interesting man than any saint could be), and also the sidebar issue of why Soviet cosmonauts always carried a pistol with them into space. That tradition started with Gagarin as well.
People would joke about it: “You expect to meet some dangerous creatures up there?” But, realistically, the gun was the cosmonaut’s last way out, in case things went terribly wrong and he was left floating in space… Russian cosmonauts continue to arm themselves in space, because you never know what could happen; plus, you might be forced to land somewhere on Earth where the natives are unfriendly…
But let us return to the fascinating story of Gagarin’s historic flight. What follows below is straight translation of 3 paragraphs from the middle of Overchuk’s piece. And from this historical vignette, one thing is clear: Yuri Gagarin fully expected to die up there in space. Keep that point in mind when reading the somewhat raunchy details about Yuri’s champagne-guzzling and peeing on the wheels of a bus. And yet, expecting to die, Gagarin still strapped himself in, he still smiled at the camera, he still said: “Let’s go!” And he still went! And, spoiler alert, he didn’t die, he went up, and he came down in one piece – so yay!
Expecting To Die
Gagarin spent the evening before his historic flight in the company of General Nikolai Kamanin and Herman Titov. They all slept together in the same room. First thing in the morning [Gagarin] drank up a bottle of cold champagne, and then set off for his trip. Halfway to the launch pad, the bus stopped, Gagarin got out, and urinated against the right rear wheel. Then resumed his trip to the rocket, and into orbit around the Earth.
It is known for a fact that Gagarin was given a Makarov pistol for the trip. The rockets of that time were not precise, there was a risk of being launched into the open cosmos: The Earth is receding with every second, in space nobody can hear you scream. Initially [Soviet scientists] wanted to equip the Vostok capsule with an explosive device, so that [the cosmonaut] would not fall into the hands of the enemy; and in general, just in case. But then they decided not to complicate matters. A pistol would suffice.
Kamanin, who was responsible for the cosmonauts, kept a diary. Initially his list went like: Gagarin, Titov, Neliubov, Nikolaev, Bykovsky, Popovich. In essence, they were all on a suicide mission, and nobody hid that fact from them, or anybody. The General wrote in his diary: “In those days people frequently asked me: Which one of these six will go into history as the first person completing an orbit around Earth? Who of them will first, no doubt, give his life for this daring attempt?” At the launch pad Kamanin had to literally rip Gagarin from the arms of those accompanying him. Many people were weeping. They said goodbye as if for the last time…