Columbus of the Universe

Columbus of the Universe


On April 12, Russia celebrated Space Exploration Day. For people in the Russian Federation, this holiday always means a lot. Exactly on April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin, a native of the Smolensk region, became the first human to make a journey into outer space.

Writer Valery Khairyuzov captured this event in his book ‘Columbus of the Universe,’ a fragment from which is published below.


I remember that day in April, 1961 very clearly. It was an ordinary and grey day in Irkutsk. Tired of a long winter, all living things enjoyed the sun, the still unstable warmth, chilly dampness and all that spring brings along with it. Snow was still lying near the northern side of fences. Streams ran down the ditches along the roads. Cars sped somewhere, splashing in puddles. When the sun peeped out of the clouds for a while, it became already quite warm. Everyone was happy about that mild weather: houses, gardens, trees, sparrows and people rushing to work or home.

After our classes, we met on the playing field. It was located between two railway lines. We began to divide into teams when my classmate Vitya Smirnov came running. His face unusually beamed. The radio just broadcast that our pilot Yuri Gagarin had circled the Earth on a rocket, said Vitya, his voice cracking.

The news was unexpected and unusual but we immediately believed in it. Everything had been heading in that direction. The last launches of heavy satellites had signaled that a manned mission into space was forthcoming. But so soon... After that news we couldn’t even think about football. In a moment, the dull spring day became joyful and festive. Hooray! Our pilot on a rocket has circled the Earth! With all my might I kicked a soccer ball into the sky. After a few seconds, it springily slapped on the ground as if it were reluctant to turn into an artificial satellite of the Earth. It bounced in last year's grass for a while before stopping completely. Following the ball’s route, my soul dashed into the vast blue spring sky and did not want to go back. Not yet fully believing in what had happened, we rushed to school to find out all the details of the flight.

Something unimaginable was already happening there. Everyone was running around with some crazy and happy faces. Later on, Nikolai Pavlovich, our gym teacher, would tell us that people had the same happy faces and were filled with joy and excitement all across the country in much the same way when they heard about the surrender of Nazi Germany. Only some sixteen years had passed since the end of World War II.

It seemed that something unimaginable had happened, and it was impossible to realize everything at once.

Our headteacher wanted to gather everyone who was at school for a celebratory meeting. But at that moment it was completely impossible. All the students crowded near the school radio. It meaningfully became silent and then broadcast marches. Then there was a chime of bells and the solemn voice of Yuri Levitan [the primary Soviet radio announcer during and after World War II.]


The radio became silent, and then Levitan told the biography of the hero, the altitude and duration of the flight, the weight of the Vostok spacecraft, and the incoming responses to this event again and again.And they came almost from all over the world.

We learned that Major Yuri Gagarin was a native of the Smolensk region, an Air Force fighter pilot and a father of two children. He graduated from the Lyubertsy Industrial School and the Saratov Industrial Technical School. He started training in a local flying club in Saratov, graduated from the Chkalov First Higher Air Force Pilots School and served in the Arctic Circle where he flew the MiG aircraft. This news spread quickly not only in our township but all over the world: a Soviet citizen – not an American, as it was expected in the Western countries – was the first to journey into outer space.

It was already an afternoon in Russia, but due to the time lag it was still night in the USA. Later, Anna Konstantinovna, our teacher of history, would tell us in class that at 3a.m. in the morning the main adviser to the President of the USA was waken up with a phone call. A reporter was eager to get some comments on a new achievement by the Russians that was so painful for prestige of the United States. The advisor was outraged that he had been awakened. He replied: “If you jerk want to hear something from us, the answer will be: everyone is still asleep.” He would deeply regret about those words in the morning. The leitmotif of newspaper headlines was “With U.S. asleep, Russians conquer Earth’s orbit.” After coming home, I took a new look at my house. It had a low ceiling and a small kitchen. But this day it seemed bright, with a high ceiling and spacious. Two months later, I was finishing school, and it seemed that I was entering a new, adult life. And now, there was Yuri Gagarin in it. Gagarin had become a significant person not only for me. American astronauts would say that Yuri Gagarin called them into space. And who can count how many boys he called into the skies in the Soviet Union?


Valery Khairyuzov is a Soviet and Russian writer and secretary of the Union of Writers of Russia. Many of his works were written based on true stories of his own biography. He was born into a family of a worker and a peasant woman. After high school, he entered the Buguruslan Civil Aviation Flight School that he graduated in 1964. He flew by An-2, IL-14 and An-26 aircraft. Khairyuzov started his professional career as a pilot and rose to the rank of pilot-captain, pilot of the 1st class. He flew 15,000 hours in the sky of Eastern Siberia and Yakutia. In 1975, he entered Irkutsk State University to study journalism. In 1981, he successfully graduated from it. He is a member of the board of Siberia literary magazine.

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