Russians recall Gagarin’s epochal flight into space

Yuri Gagarin's flight in April 1961 was one of the USSR's first major achievements in space.

Yuri Gagarin's flight in April 1961 was one of the USSR's first major achievements in space.

Alexander Mokletsov/RIA Novosti
A rocket carrier escorted the Vostok spaceship into the heavens early in the morning of April 12, 1961. On board the spaceship was the first man to go into space, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. What do his countrymen remember about him and the epochal journey he made?

"He flew into the classroom and shouted that a cosmonaut had been launched!"

Alexander Rakitsky was a construction engineer before he retired. In 1961, he was in the first grade of a school in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). He recalls with pride the day (Yuri) Gagarin flew into space as "one of the last bright memories of the Russian people."

"April 12, 1961, Leningrad, School #216 near the Vladimirsky Prospect, first grade, third lesson - mathematics. The teacher, Tatyana Ivanovna, is conducting the lesson, saying something, while we are diligently snivelling into our desks. One boy, as always, is acting foolish, making faces. We are laughing and the boy is thrown out of the classroom.

Papers sold out in Moscow on the day of Yuri Gagarin space mission. Source: Yuriy Somov/RIA Novosti

“Suddenly, a few minutes later, he flew into the classroom and shouted that a cosmonaut had been launched! He was again sent out of the room. Three minutes later, the school's Principal entered and told us that the USSR has launched a cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, into space, for the first time, and that the day's lessons were cancelled.

“We first-graders jumped out to Vladimirsky Prospect and ran to Nevsky Prospect. The place was like a May 1 parade. Joy, tears of happiness, people singing and dancing. My father told me in the evening that it was like May 9, 1945 (the day the USSR celebrated the end of WWII - RIR).

"Everyone had tears in their eyes"

Anatoly Solodukhin worked as a tester of space apparatuses at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

"For my colleagues and I, April 12, 1961 and events related to it are the most vivid memories of our lives," he writes. "We froze in expectation. The tension was driving our nerves to the limit. We could hear the buzzing of the ground equipment. Multicoloured lights were going on and off on the consoles. Our nerves were about to burst. Take off commander Kirillov started giving commands.”

Mission Control researchers watching Yuri Gagarin's condition in space. A shot from the documentary film The First Flight to the Stars. Source: RIA Novosti

"Key to the start!"

The operator of the central rocket control console Chekunov turns the key and switches on the automatic rocket launch. And then a short authoritative command: "Launch!"

"Lift off!"

"We have lift off!" loudly shouts Chekunov at 9:07 a.m. Moscow time.

The trusses loosen and fall off from the launch installation. The bunker is shaking from the increasing din of the engines, the noise is stuffing our ears.

Landing of 'Vostok-1 spacecraft in which Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth on April 12, 1961. Gagarin ejected from the craft some time before it landed and parachuted safely to Earth. Source: RIA Novosti

"Let's-go!" we could hear Yuri Gagarin's voice in the speakers.

“When we ran out of the bunker our faces were hit with the bright light of the April sun, and our ears were filled with the increasing roar of the rising rocket carrying the spaceship and the first man in space. The rocket rose slowly. Then it sped up. That is how, on April 12, 1961, our planet saw the dawn of the space era!

“We were enchanted, standing outside the bunker with our heads tilted upwards, following Gagarin disappearing in the sky. Everyone had tears in their eyes - tears of joy."

"I saw an orange monster"

Five-year-old Rumia Nurskanova and her grandmother were the first people to meet Gagarin after his landing at the Engels neighbourhood. They lived in a village and, on that day, were planting potatoes.

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin after the landing in Saratov region on April 12, 1961. Source: Aleksandr Sergeev/RIA Novosti


"The whole time I was twirling and looking up at the sky. I saw two red dots, but my grandmother scolded me and told me to continue planting potatoes. I immersed myself in the work and forgot about the object. Later I saw an enormous number of ropes on the ground, from where an orange monster was rising and coming our way.

“I told my grandmother: 'Look, you didn't want to look up at the sky, now he's coming here.' She saw it, got up, grabbed my hand and started praying. Obviously I was afraid and I embraced her.

“Then we turned around and ran towards the landing, which happened near our home. At that moment he shouted: 'Mother, wait, I'm a Russian.' My grandmother stopped and he approached us. She helped him take off his pressure helmet. You could see his face, you could see he was smiling.

Soviet cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova having a walk. 1963. Source: V. Bazanov/TASS

“My grandmother asked him: 'Where are you from? Who are you?' We didn't know anything about the flight. There was no radio, no light at home. He said ‘from the ship’. My grandmother was stunned and asked where the ship was, since there was no water around. 'I'm from space,' replied the cosmonaut.

“At that moment, I stayed behind guarding the potatoes because a calf had run up to the bucket and started eating them. At that moment the potatoes were more important than Gagarin. My grandmother then went to look at the spaceship. I was so afraid, I started crying."

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin standing near a Matra sports car, Moscow. 1965. Source: Valentin Mastyukov/TASS

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