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A Brief Look at the First Cosmonauts and the Early Pioneers Who Inspired Them

Space exploration had a monumental impact on Russian and Soviet mass culture

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This article originally appeared at Russia Beyond the Headlines

The conquest of space was the embodiment of Soviet utopia and the most important element of the great Soviet myth of a brighter future and the victory of communism — not only on terra firma, but throughout the galaxy. 

April 12 is the UN-declared International Day of Human Space Flight. This memorable date requires no explanation in Russia: the day when legendary Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin aboard the Vostok-1 spacecraft made mankind's first ever voyage into space. Not only is this emblematic event a landmark in science and technology, it also revolutionized the world of art.

Whereas previously Soviet artists, architects, designers, writers, directors and composers had drawn inspiration from works of science fiction and futurists, the new space age — which the Soviet Union had already opened up with the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the spaceflight of the cosmo-dogs Belka and Strelka in 1960 — gave new impetus to the creative process. Henceforth, their muses and motivations were real heroes.



Konstantin Tsiolkovsky 1857 - 1935
Founder of theoretical cosmonautics 

A man of vision and imagination on a truly cosmic scale. Born in the Ryazan region of the Russian Empire and self-taught in mathematics and physics, he worked as a teacher and researcher. 

"At age 28, I resolved to devote my life to aeronautics and develop a theoretical metal balloon." And he did. And he also came up with the idea for a "space elevator" and proposed the use of rockets for jet-propelled flights into space. 

Tsiolkovsky advocated the theory of cosmism. He believed in the possibility of populating the universe with orbital stations. He wrote many philosophical works and several sci-fi novels on the theme of space exploration.


Sergei Korolev 1906 -1966
Founder of practical cosmonautics 

A legendary Russian developer and design engineer, Korolev designed the first artificial satellite and the spaceship Vostok-1, which flew into space with Yuri Gagarin on board. 

Korolev dreamed about aircraft engineering from childhood. At the age of 17 he designed his own glider, and had no difficulty matriculating at the Bauman Moscow State Technical University. Korolev's knowledge of space came from the sci-fi novels of Edward Tsiolkovsky and the lectures of Friedrich Zander, who constructed prototypes of interplanetary ships. 

On meeting his theoretical mentor, Korolev told Tsiolkovsky that "my goal is to reach the stars." Tsiolkovsky noted that the entire span of human existence might not suffice; Korolev replied that his lifetime should be enough. 

Sergei Korolev designed several gliders and ballistic missiles, but his main achievements were Sputnik and Vostok 1. The satellite was successfully launched into space in 1957, and spent 30 years in near-Earth orbit. It was joined there briefly in 1961 by the world's first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, a close friend of Korolev, on board Vostok-1.


Belka & Strelka 1950е - 1960е
The first animals in space 

The real names of the world's first canine cosmonauts were Albina and Markiza. In August 1960 the dogs were given new names and became the first living creatures to orbit the Earth. 

Their space voyage on board the Sputnik-5 spaceship lasted a little over 24 hours, during which they circled the Earth 15 times. The dogs were used to study the impact of space flight (overloading, weightlessness and radiation) on a living organism. 

Not only were Belka and Strelka the first animals in space, they actually came back safely. They lived to a ripe old age and died natural deaths. Their stuffed bodies are now on display at the Cosmonautics Memorial Museum in Moscow.


Yuri Gagarin 1934 - 1967
The first man in space 

Yuri Gagarin was born in the village of Klushino near Smolensk in western Russia. People say that his favorite activity as a schoolboy was launching paper airplanes during lessons. 

At age 21, Gagarin made his first solo flight aboard a Yak-18 airplane. Four years later he applied for a place on the Soviet Union's cosmonaut training program. On April 12, 1961, Gagarin became the first person ever to fly to space. After spending 108 minutes circling the Earth, he successfully touched down in the Saratov region. 

"Orbiting the Earth in a spacecraft, I saw how wonderful our planet is. People, let's protect and improve this beauty, not destroy it!" wrote Gagarin after landing. 

Two days later a public gathering was held on Red Square, and Gagarin was awarded the honorary titles "Hero of the Soviet Union" and "Pilot-Cosmonaut of the USSR". Almost a month after his flight, Yuri Gagarin was sent on his first trip abroad on a so-called "Peace Mission". The first man in space visited nearly 30 countries.

Valentina Tereshkova, b. 1937 
The first woman in space 

While at college, Valentina Tereshkova became fascinated with parachuting. She made 163 jumps at the Zhukovsky aero club outside Moscow. 

Sergei Korolev selected Tereshkova from among four other female applicants to join the cosmonaut corps. The spaceflight training was conducted in strict secrecy, and Tereshkova's mother learned that her daughter was in space only from the newspapers. 

On June 16, 1963, the Vostok-6 mission took off, launching the first female cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova (call sign Chaika, or "seagull") into space. She spent three days above the Earth, orbiting the planet 48 times and covering nearly one million miles. 

"When I ejected from the capsule, I looked down and was shocked. There was a lake down there, right below me. My first thought was: 'My God, they've sent a woman into space and what bad luck for her to land in water!'" recalls Tereshkova. 

Like Yuri Gagarin before her, she was awarded the title "Hero of the Soviet Union" and traveled all around the world popularizing the achievements of Soviet science and technology. Later Valentina Tereshkova received a Ph.D. in engineering. She is a professor and the author of more than 50 scientific papers.

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