I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright
When venturing into the unknown, the first step taken is often the biggest and the boldest. A young Russian pilot named Yuri Gagarin took humankind’s first step into space. He died in his mid-thirties, so his image is fixed: a youthful icon symbolizing the first human journey above our planet. As President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote, “Yuri Gagarin’s courageous and pioneering flight into space opened new horizons and set a brilliant example for the spacemen of the two countries.”
Like many others who are remembered more for what they did than for who they were, Gagarin’s life was far more complicated than the smiling photos in the history books would have you believe. “Gagarin is often spoken of as if he were an absolutely straightforward and simple person,” his cosmonaut colleague Konstantin Feoktistov once said. “In fact, he was not at all as simple as it might seem at first glance.”
Gagarin’s life was tragically brief, yet he experienced more than most people ever will. His sudden and almost unprecedented fame brought its share of negative consequences, putting his basically honest and positive character through some severe tests. Yet he died while still trying to push his own personal development; despite numerous setbacks, he never gave up. It is not surprising that he had this strength of character considering he was lucky to survive his own childhood.
Anyone seeing the eleven-year-old Yuri Gagarin, just sixteen years before he made his historic spaceflight, would never imagine that he would be the