60 years after the first flight of a man in space, Yuri Gagarin “is admired all over the world”, assured Monday on franceinfo Olivier Sanguy, editor-in-chief of space news at the Cité de l’Espace in Toulouse. Sixty years ago, on April 12, 1961, the Soviet Yuri Gagarin took off for space aboard the Vostok 1 rocket. He thus became the first man to orbit the Earth. The stake of this flight was above all, for the USSR, “ideological”, also recalls Olivier Sanguy.
franceinfo: At the time of the Cold War and the East-West rivalry, did the first space trip with Yuri Gagarin stimulate space research in the United States? Would there have been Neil Armstrong without Yuri Gagarin?
Olivier Sanguy: We can indeed ask the question. Yuri Gagarin’s successful theft was perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back on the American side. The Soviets were far ahead in the space field at the time: the first satellite, the first living being in space, the dog Laïka who unfortunately did not make it. You have to understand that there was an ideological opposition. And we said to ourselves, if the Soviets manage to make such progress in space, it is perhaps because their system, political, economic, is better. The stake was ideological. And the launcher that put Gagarin around Earth was the same type of technology that used to drop an atomic bomb on Washington. The launcher had a reliability of 50. That is to say that once in two, it went badly. But they did everything to make it work, because there was a huge stake. Politicians weren’t that excited about manned flight. What they wanted were missiles. But faced with the propagandistic effectiveness of space, the Soviet Union said to itself, there, we have something to show that we are the best.
How does Yuri Gagarin find himself a cosmonaut?
He finds himself a cosmonaut following a selection of pilots. Like all Soviet pilots at the time, he was very good at parachuting. Why ? Because the Vostok ship had a particularity: we did not land on board the ship, we were ejected at an altitude of seven kilometers and we ended up under parachute. He almost made a flight with the Soyuz 1. He was an understudy for Vladimir Komarov who died in that flight. The Soyuz crashed. The Soviets said, ‘if Komarov had been ill that day, Gagarin replaced him and we lost the first cosmonaut’. Suddenly, he found himself banned from flying. In fact, he died from insisting. He said ‘I want to fly’. We told him ‘okay, Mr. Gagarin, you are going back to your classes, you are doing your training again’. Ironically, he died in 1968, during one of these compulsory training sessions.
Does Yuri Gagarin have the same aura in the rest of the space community as the cult he may still have in Russia?
It is true that there is a cult, with small caveats. There is in particular a Russian Soviet cosmonaut today, Yevgeny Krunov, who says that we must forget the smile of Yuri Gagarin. We must not forget that he was an extraordinarily focused person, very demanding of himself and of others. So, let’s not forget the qualities of man. There were the qualities of the person himself. He is admired around the world. The European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany, where European Space Agency astronauts train, including Thomas Pesquet. At the entrance you have a bronze bust of Yuri Gagarin.