How Gagarin could take the punches

Forty-three years ago to the day, Yury Gagarin blasted into space on his epoch-making flight.

As time goes on we discover new episodes in his life. It has recently been found that Gagarin might not have become an air force pilot and, as a result, a cosmonaut.

The truth is that for a long time he could not pass the "blue flight". A flying school student had to demonstrate his skills and proficiency in a two-seater fighter to an examiner (flight instructor) sitting in the second cabin. Only after that, could he be qualified to fly a single-seater jet.

The airfield was close to the Karavanny state farm outside Orenburg. Fighters from a stand-by regiment attached to the Chkalovsk flying school, where Gagarin was a student, were used for the exams.

One flight, two, three, four. At last Sergeant Gagarin's turn came. Engine start-up, taxiing, take-off, manoeuvres in the zone, and coming in to land. But... before the ground the plane suddenly dipped, and the instructor had to take over the controls to rectify the situation. The story was the same two weeks later.

Ivan Polshkov, the then regiment commander and now retired colonel, recalls that aviation is not a field where a graduate can get through with an average pass-mark. A bad mark in any of the disciplines is tantamount to a veto, be it a theoretical subject, state of health, level of training, specifics of the vestibular apparatus, or generally any minor flaw in piloting techniques.

When the qualification flights were summed up, it was categorically stated that students unable to carry out their flight task would be dismissed. In addition to Gagarin, there were three other cadets.

A while later, Colonel Polshkov went to a summer camp where future military pilots were going through their last practicals before graduation. Rain had driven flight instructors, students and mechanics to the quarters. A lone figure could be seen revolving solo on the training apparatus in the sports grounds. As he approached, the commander recognised the cadet. It was Gagarin.

Summoning an instructor to headquarters, Polshkov asked, "Where are the documents disqualifying Sergeant Gagarin?" "They are not ready yet. Can't bring myself to do it. The cadet is taking it much to heart," the instructor replied. "What does it mean taking to heart?" the commander persisted. "Does he cry?" "All but, he says he cannot live without flying." There may be two reasons for poor landing skills. First, the pilot may lack a sense of the ground - which helps him to determine altitude with an accuracy of plus-minus ten centimetres. No instrument can substitute this feeling. And second, the viewing angle can be wrong. For shorter people, this can be different to the standard settings, and play a perfidious role.

It was decided to test the fate and Gagarin's flying skills once more. A special cushion was placed under his seat to increase his viewing angle. Gagarin made his third qualification flight more or less successfully - the landing was somewhat rough, but within the limits. And all the time until he graduated Gagarin honed his landing.

Gagarin's self-discipline and ability to take the punches that came his way helped him a good deal. Commanders could see that the lad would struggle tooth and nail for the right to be a fighter pilot. He concentrated all his will and they thought they should give him a chance. They did and were not mistaken...

In his second year at school, Gagarin was made an assistant platoon commander. It was a difficult and unpleasant job (commanding one's peers) - to keep up discipline in the unit, see to it that the men kept regular hours, did morning exercises, cleaned the premises and attended classes. Gagarin accepted the position as a duty and made no exceptions either for himself or others. His demanding attitude did not go down well with everyone, especially the morning wake-up call to do physical exercises. The sergeant was warned: "Don't make waves, or else". His reply was categorical: "Regulations will be obligatory for all". The threat was repeated. He confirmed: "No exceptions!" Then the threat was acted on and Gagarin spent a few days in a hospital after being beaten unconscious.

The perpetrators were tried a month later. By that time Gagarin was already well and performing the duties of the junior commander. This trait of Gagarin's - his strict service discipline and demanding attitude in absolutely everything - was invariably stressed by his mates at school and during his tour of duty in the North. These were also the qualities singled out by his cosmonaut colleagues.

When preparing for the first manned space flight, the developers of space equipment were sufficiently confident of its dependability. The main question was if the human psyche would be able to sustain space flight and above all zero gravity.

The risk of a mental breakdown was so realistic that designers were asked to provide a special safeguard for the emergency-landing button. It was not ruled out that a cosmonaut in weightless conditions might panic without reason and, in a state of aberration, would press the "Descend" button. And designers proposed that the button should not only be placed in a casing, but that this casing be provided with a kind of "logic lock" - two rows of buttons to be pressed in a certain sequence to open it. The cosmonaut could do that only if he was sound in his mind, absolutely calm, and in full control of his movements.

On the night before the blast-off on April 12 no one slept at the launch site, except for Gagarin and his backup pilot Gherman Titov. When Gagarin had climbed into the Vostok capsule and the hatch was sealed, a glitch occurred - there was no contact signal, meaning either faulty contacts or a warped hatch cover and as a consequence the risk of depressurisation during flight. Minutes, rather than hours, were available to rectify the defect, contrary to the claims made in a TV programme to mark what would have been Gagarin's 70th birthday on March 9.

Mechanics unscrewed nuts and removed the hatch lid. They saw Gagarin watching them through a small mirror attached to his spacesuit sleeve for easy round viewing.

Was he calm? Why was he humming a tune while he knew down to a second the schedule of pre-start preparations and was perfectly aware what it meant to be in a depressurised capsule?

It was not mere bravado. Gagarin was doing all he could to reassure the mechanics and help them cope with the fault. He himself remained completely calm.

For all the 108 minutes Gagarin spent in space, he reported his observations, actions and feelings. Later, in a more detailed report, he noted that the psyche was manageable and that the sense of fear could be suppressed. He suggested a system of training to keep a cosmonaut's attention changing, thereby ridding him of any panic.

In flights that followed the first space mission, no one any longer installed "logic locks" on the emergency-landing button in spacecraft.

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