Crushed into the pilot's seat by heavy G-forces, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin saw flames outside his spacecraft and prepared to die. His voice broke the tense silence at ground control: "I’m burning. Goodbye, comrades." Gagarin didn’t know that the blazing inferno he observed through a porthole was a cloud of plasma engulfing Vostok 1 during its re-entry into the atmosphere, and he was still on track to return safely, reports the AP. It was his quiet composure under pressure that helped make him the first human in space 60 years ago. Gagarin’s steely self-control was a key factor behind his pioneering 108-minute flight. The April 12, 1961, mission encountered glitches and emergencies—from a capsule hatch failing to shut properly just before blastoff to parachute problems in the final moments before touchdown.
From the time 20 Soviet air force pilots were selected to train for the first crewed spaceflight, Gagarin’s calm demeanor, quick learning skills, and beaming smile made him an early favorite. Two days before blastoff, the 27-year-old Gagarin wrote a farewell letter to his wife, Valentina, sharing his pride in being chosen to ride in Vostok 1 but also trying to console her in the event of his death. "I fully trust the equipment, it mustn’t let me down. But if something happens, I ask you Valyusha not to become broken by grief," he wrote, using a nickname. Authorities held the letter and eventually gave it to her seven years later after he died in a training crash. She never remarried. Gagarin's pioneering, single-orbit flight made him a hero in the Soviet Union and an international celebrity. "The colossal propaganda effect of the Sputnik launch and particularly Gagarin’s flight was very important," Moscow-based aviation and space expert Vadim Lukashevich says. The AP has much more on the harrowing details of Gagarin's flight here.
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