First Cosmonaut

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

On April 12, 1961 proud Soviet citizens and anxious Americans awoke to the news that the first human being had successfully ventured into space. This was Soviet test pilot, now cosmonaut, Iurii Gagarin. His flight was the culmination of many years of experimentation by the Soviet space program under the leadership of Sergei Korolev. Gagarin’s flight represented the crowning achievement of Soviet scientific prowess and its educational system, garnering international prestige for the Soviet Union.

The space program embodied the strengths and weaknesses of the Soviet approach to technology. It enjoyed top priority of the state, and thus received all necessary resources, but it was heavily dependent on the military ballistics program. The independent and innovative Korolev did much of his work as a prisoner in a special laboratory camp (sharashka).

Gagarin was a genuinely popular hero, particularly among Russians. Raised in the Russian countryside during the Great Patriotic War, and plucked from his village by the space program as trainee, Gagarin embodied the opportunities abundant in Soviet society for the Russians who readily identified with him. He was the first of many celebrated space heroes, including his well-known successor German Titov, and the first woman cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova, who ventured into space on June 16, 1963.

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