Paul Holmes on New Zealand

Paul Holmes is an award-winning Herald columnist

Paul Holmes: My hero the first man to go into space

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This week, 50 years ago, Major Yuri Gagarin became my first and possibly only hero. Well, later on, much later, I developed a deep affection for Abraham Lincoln and to be fair for years I read everything I could about men like Group Captain Leonard Cheshire and Squadron Leader Guy Gibson of the Dambusters.

But Yuri Gagarin burst on the world in handsome, graceful courageous glory on April 12, 1961. It was my father's birthday, a chilly Saturday morning and my brother and I, probably still in our pyjamas, were sitting by the pot belly stove in the kitchen in the house at Haumoana trying to get warm. Dad came in to the room. "Boys," he announced, "the Russians have put a man in space."

It was unbelievable. Details emerged through the day. Somewhere deep inside the Soviet Union, the KGB never really let us know where, the 27-year-old fighter pilot was taken to the top of the booster rockets and placed inside a tiny container known as a "space capsule", was wished all the best by the chief designer, and blasted into one single orbit of the Earth.

You have to take your mind back to the early days of rockets to remember what courage it must have taken even to put yourself on top of those machines in those days. Rockets blew apart left, right and centre. Neither was it any place for claustrophobics, alone as you were in a spacecraft less than 2m in diameter with only one little window.

But more than that, this young man was going where no one had ever been before, where man had dreamed of going since he first looked up at the stars in the glory of the night and wondered what was out there. But it was also a place in which no one knew if a man could survive. What would weightlessness do? Would his eyes melt or fall out? Would muscles work?

April 12, 1960 at 9.07am. Lift off. Gagarin shouted "Poyekhali!" "Off we go!"

In the Space Centre's control room they froze, wondering if they might actually get away with it or whether the entire machine might explode catastrophically. Suddenly there was a glitch. Something was wrong with the booster. They lost data. Then they heard Gagarin's voice telling them that he was in orbit. Imagine that moment. Imagine hearing that.

Round the world he flew more than 320km high at the ridiculous speed of 27,400km/h. Fifteen minutes into the flight an American ground station picks up his radio calls. Surely not! Impossible! Twenty minutes of flight and he's over the North Pacific Ocean. Half an hour into the flight he's on the dark side of the world, a tiny flickering star in the sky between Chile and New Zealand.

Over Africa, getting ready for the descent, the capsule starts to spin wildly. Despite everything, Ground Control couldn't get the capsule and the service module underneath it to separate. The re-entry was a bumpy, fiery nightmare that started hundreds of kilometres above Egypt.

Before takeoff, Gagarin had recorded a message to the people of Russia. During the flight, it was broadcast to a shocked and delirious nation. News flashed round the world. The Russians had done it.

With Vostok One hurtling towards the ground, Gagarin blasted himself out of the capsule and parachuted safely into the middle of nowhere, 700km southeast of Moscow. There was this strange man in an orange suit and a white helmet with the silk of the parachute all round him. A forester's wife and her granddaughter ran away terrified. Gagarin shouted, "Hey! Where are you running? I'm one of us!" Then people came from everywhere. They realised he must be the brave cosmonaut pilot they'd heard about on the radio.

Yuri calls Moscow. News is flashed across the world that Major Gagarin has landed safely. Next thing the chief wallahs in the Russian space programme fly in. There are tears and laughter. And joy and pride. They party hard into the night in a Communist Party guesthouse.

Two days later Major Gagarin - he'd been promoted two ranks during the flight - is flown to Moscow. President Krushchev greets him, grinning from ear to ear. The people of the city flood the footpaths for a sight of their brave, young, handsome, smiling, laughing new hero.

In the sight of the world, Krushchev bestowed on Gagarin the medal of Hero of the Soviet Union. Amazing. The world saw pictures of Russians looking happy.

Gagarin didn't find out that he would be the first cosmonaut in space until three days before the event. In the hours before his launch he wrote a letter to his wife, Valentina, to be sent if his mission was fatal. He asked that she bring up their daughters "not as little princesses but as real people". He told her to feel free to remarry if he died. "My letter seems like a final will. But I don't think so and I hope you will never see this letter and I will feel shame later for that brief moment of weakness."

Yuri Gagarin was killed in March 1968, in his mid-thirties, when his MiG 15 crashed in a forest. After his death they gave the letter to his wife, who never remarried.

- NZ Herald

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