March 01, 2011

50 Years in Space

Yuri Gagarin’s 108-minute space flight on April 12, 1961, propelled him to a level of celebrity never before known to any Soviet. His smiling face graced postal stamps, Palekh souvenir boxes, and fine porcelain, as he mingled with the beau monde of planet Earth.

For decades, the feat was romanticized as a flawless success, but with the end of the Soviet Union, a different picture surfaced, one where a high stakes space program gave the first man in space a very close brush with death.

Six months before Gagarin’s brave “Poekhali!” from his seat in the cramped Vostok, a Central Committee decree ordered that the launch be set for December 1960 – in just two months’ time. But then, on October 24, a fully charged rocket exploded on the Baikonur launchpad, taking 268 lives. Almost all the country’s top rocket scientists burned alive.

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