There is a great story, recounted endlessly, that at the height of the space race in the 1960s, the Americans realized their astronauts’ pens wouldn’t work in space. So NASA spent millions of dollars designing a pen that could do exactly that – write in a weightless environment. When the Soviet cosmonauts got wind of this they said in bafflement: “we just used pencils”.
There are also the sad stories of the Soviet space programme, in its race with America. The countless animals sent to their death in space, including the first dog in space, Laika. Or the countless Cosmonauts who lost their lives. Or did they…? The Soviets certainly knew how to cover things up, and many of these rumors we will just never know the truth about. Were there actually three previous men in space before Yuri Gagarin, but because they didn’t successfully land, their stories were hidden until a completely successful mission could come along and take the limelight?
Like everything in the Soviet Union, their rockets and space shuttles worked but were simple. Simple like their attitude to using pens in space when a pencil would suffice. It was a Soviet Cosmonaut who made the first spacewalk, but they hadn’t designed his suit for the suction that exists in the void of space, so when he left the capsule, his suit ballooned to double the size and he couldn’t get back in the door. The instruments on the space rockets were never in the right place, and when the Soviets made their first attempt at the moon, even Gagarin noted 210 individual problems with the rocket they were using. He suggested postponing the launch, but they couldn’t because they had to beat the Americans. Of course, Yuri was right and the spaceship stopped working properly within minutes of being launched. It completed 13 orbits of the earth, but slingshotting to the moon was never going to work so he had to get back to earth, at which point even his parachute didn’t work.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom though and one must remember that until the Americans finally sent a man to the moon, the Soviets were winning. Their key asset was people. People who were passionate and proud and willing to sacrifice everything for the advancement of humankind. The story with Gagarin inspecting the ship and saying it wasn’t ready is only part of the story. He actually arrived the next day at the launch insisting he is sent instead of his best friend. It was this bravery and passion that excelled the Soviets into space, and it all happened at Baikonur.
Baikonur in Kazakhstan began its life in 1955 as a test range for missiles, and then became the world center for space exploration. Both Sputnik 1 and Vostok 1 were launched here, the first satellite launch and manned space launch respectively. The amazing achievements of the USSR often go unnoticed in our western schoolrooms where we usually only learn about Apollo 11. In the former USSR it’s different, where many still celebrate the Day of the Cosmonaut on April 12th, the day Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. In almost any city in the former USSR, now CIS countries, you cannot miss the Gagarin Streets everywhere, named after Yuri Gagarin. He did this at Baikonur and today the main launch pad is named after him – Gagarin’s Start.
Today Baikonur is the only place where astronauts can head to the International Space Station, since the US stopped their own manned space shuttle missions. And while on a map Baikonur looks like it is in Kazakhstan, it’s technically in a Russian exclave, which they rent from Kazakhstan for $115million per year. Going to Baikonur is both old and new; we see the heroes of tomorrow heading off into the wonders of space, while also exploring the old space crafts of yesterday which contributed to so many of the stories of the past. The museum there tells the stories of the Soviet and modern-day heroes of space exploration (well at least those stories which aren’t covered up), and the town itself, formerly known as Leninisk, still house the same shops where the cosmonauts of the past bought their last bread and the drinking establishments where they downed their last vodka. Most importantly, seeing a real rocket launch propelling people at thousands of kilometres an hour into the dark wilderness of the cosmos has to be one of the most awe-inspiring events one can witness.
So to quote the famous words by Yuri Gagarin, who as many of you will know was the first person to ever leave this earth and head into space,