First aired on Quirks & Quarks (04/09/11)
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the historic first flight into space by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. At the time, it was the biggest victory yet for the Soviet Union in the space race that had begun with the launch of Sputnik four years earlier. And the rocket that catapulted Gagarin into space also launched him to global celebrity.
Gagarin, however, never flew in space again. In 1968, seven years after his world-changing flight, he died in an airplane crash.
Due to the secretive nature of the Soviet Union, much of Gagarin's life was a mystery to Western historians for many years. But that changed when Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony published the first biography of Gagarin in English, Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin.
Originally published more than a decade ago, Starman has been released in a new edition to mark the 50th anniversary of Gagarin's flight. This remains the definitive biography of the famous cosmonaut, tracing his life from his roots as a young child on a collective farm to his untimely death at the age of 34. Along the way, Doran and Bizony reveal some surprising truths. Although Gagarin completed close to 95 per cent of a full orbit (taking off from Kazakhstan and coming down in Russia somewhat short of where he departed from), he didn't complete that orbit by staying in the capsule the entire time. Shortly before plunging to the ground, he ejected and descended under a personal parachute.
According to Bizony, the decision to eject was made for safety reasons. But fears the Soviets would be denied the honour of having been the first to launch a person into orbit meant that piece of information stayed tightly under wraps.
"It would be a very churlish world indeed that didn't give [them] the honour of having been the country to first launch a man into orbit, but that's what the Russians feared," Bizony told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald, "They feared that if it got out that Yuri Gagarin didn't stay with his capsule those last few thousand feet as it plunged through the atmosphere to landing on the ground, somehow the prize of claiming the world's first human orbit would be taken away from them."
After his descent, Gagarin became an instant celebrity and spent the next few years struggling to deal with his fame, the public relations it required and the strain it put on his marriage.
As people around the world come together tonight to celebrate his achievement, it's clear his star has yet to fade. As Bizony says, although Gagarin's life may have been cut short, his legacy most certainly won't.
"He was, and for as long as human beings still have the words to utter the phrase, always will be the first man in space."