The Story of... The legacy of Yuri Gagarin's pioneering space flight

The countdown is on to the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's epic first flight into space - and to a related Sotheby's auction which has collectors salivating.

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was born March 9, 1934 and grew up in Klushino, near Smolensk, Russia, and grew up dreaming of space flight which had little basis in reality at the time. Gagarin took up flying light aircraft as a hobby late in his schooling and followed that course as far as it would go.

He became a Lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force on 5 November 1957. In 1960 Gagarin was chosen with 19 other pilots for the Soviet space program. Gagarin excelled in the training, and was also favoured for a more prosaic reason: his small stature of 5' 2" was an advantage in space travel where the size and weight of the cosmonauts would be a crucial factor in their transport.

A Soviet doctor described his personality in 1960 as follows:

"Modest; embarrasses when his humor gets a little too racy; high degree of intellectual development evident in Yuriy; fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his sharp and far-ranging sense of attention to his surroundings;

"a well-developed imagination; quick reactions; persevering, prepares himself painstakingly for his activities and training exercises, handles celestial mechanics and mathematical formulae with ease as well as excels in higher mathematics;

"does not feel constrained when he has to defend his point of view if he considers himself right; appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends."

The rest is history. Gagarin flew into space departing Earth and going into orbit on April 12. Half an hour before the flight his heart rate was measured at a steady 64 beats per minute.

Gagarin became an international celebrity and toured countries in Western Europe and also Japan and Canada, but suffered a premature death in a routine training flight soon after his 34th birthday.

Memorabilia associated with the great cosmonaut has certainly drawn a great deal of attention.

Gagarin signed photo

Heritage sold their most valuable photograph of Gagarin on March 24, 2008 (close to the anniversary of his death) for $5,078.75. This was a printed black and white portrait of Yuri Gagarin in his spacesuit modified to circular facial portrait.

The inscription reads "The wisdom of the [Communist] Party, the strength of Soviet people - all these helped us in difficult work of first space conquerors. Gagarin."

Christie's has sold some of the very best Gagarin memorabilia. A fascinating piece of space history was offered in their May 2001 sale: the space-flown food tube of the first 'Coffee with Milk' taken in space.

Whilst this was probably sub-Starbucks quality, the coffee was safely consumed by the spaceman, answering questions about whether it was possible to eat and drink in space.

"No coffee or milk has gone so fast or traveled so far since man's first use of them" noted Gagarin in 1961. The tube tripled its $3,000-4,000 estimate to sell for $12,925.

Coffee milk Gagarin tube Vostok
Coffee and milk tube carried by Gagarin
(with a piece of cloth from his suit) 

Even more remarkably, in the same sale Christie's sold Gagarin's original typescript account of the event. "On the twelfth of April, 1961, a Soviet spacecraft called 'Vostok' was put into orbit around the Earth; and I was aboard."

Towards the end he adds notes of his unique personal experiences, "The Earth has a very characteristic, very beautiful blue halo,... a smooth color transition from tender blue, to blue, to dark blue and purple, and then to the completely black color of the sky."

The historic document sold for $171,000. Time will tell whether Sotheby's achieves their target of a $10m sale for the capsule which scouted ahead of the cosmonaut's famous flight. It goes under the hammer on the anniversary of Gagarin's famous flight.


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