Have you ever wondered what it took for the first astronauts (or cosmonauts) to agree to get into a tiny capsule and be launched into space, leading the way for others? Two of the first human beings to see the Earth from a distance were Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn. They had very different lives, both before and after their space adventures.
John Hershel Glenn, Jr. was born on July 18, 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio, USA. He joined the US Marines and became a pilot. He flew missions during World War Two and was decorated for his valor.
After the War, he joined the space program and trained to be an astronaut. The training was rigorous, but he made the final cut and became an astronaut. He began training in the Mercury program. In 1962, he orbited the Earth in Friendship One and became the first American to see the shining blue planet from above and beyond. He was the first American to have a good look at what would become known as the “Big Blue Marble.”
John Glenn had his space flight and gained acclaim as the first American to orbit the planet. He went on to become a United States Senator and have a lengthy and distinguished career. He was, many years later, to have another chance to look at the Big Blue Marble from a distance. In 1998, at the age of 77, Senator Glenn became the oldest man in space when he went off into the blue aboard Space Shuttle Discovery. He is now in semi-retirement and does speaking engagements around the country, both for political reasons and for NASA.
In 1934, on March 9, Yuri Gagarin was born just outside Moscow in a farming area. His family was torn apart nine years later when the Nazi’s invaded and his father left the collective farm to join the Russian Army. His mother, sister and brother left with young Yuri and escaped to a place closer to Moscow. He grew up and attended high school, technical college, and found an interest in flying. He joined the Soviet Air Force in 1955. Both men fulfilled their military obligations as pilots, and both showed exceptional abilities in the piloting world.
Yuri Gagarin volunteered for the fledgling Soviet Space program and stunned his superiors. Nobody had ever volunteered to be blasted into space! He was accepted into the program and strenuously tested before his launch date. He passed all the tests and won a seat on the first Russian manned spacecraft, Vostok 1, in 1961. His flight lasted only 108 minutes. He commented on the beauty of the Earth after the flight. His capsule was fatally damaged upon re-entry and landing, but the Soviets didn’t mention the fact that Gagarin came back to Earth in a pod with a parachute.
John Glenn married and had a family; so did Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin’s wife was a female cosmonaut, and they had a daughter. It made headlines all over the world, and she was called the first “Space Baby!”
While John Glenn had a long future ahead of him and accomplished many goals in his long life and career, Yuri Gagarin was not so fortunate. After his space exploits, Gagarin remained in the space program for the USSR. He was their top test pilot and flew experimental aircraft in the years following his adventure “where no man had gone before.” In March of 1968 (the date is uncertain), his plane developed problems and he was faced with two options: he could bail out safely and allow the aircraft to crash into a village, or he could take it to the ground, giving his life to save others. He stayed with the plummeting plane. His last words to the ground were, “I’m going down now.” He died to save others at 34 years of age.
Both men were heroes, to be sure. One a hero of the free world and one a hero of the communist world. One lived a long and very full life, and the other did not. They both present the finest examples of courage and inspiration for future space travelers. Their bravery enables the rest of us to reach for the stars and dare to dream. Their courage makes it possible for others to follow in their footsteps.
John Glenn. (Supplied by NASA; Public Domain; https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2c/John_Glenn_Mercury_%28small%29.jpg)
Yuri Gagarin. (Supplied by Sydsvenskan at Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain; https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cc/Gagarin_in_Sweden.jpg)