Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
He's probably human!
The little girl who found Yuri Gagarin. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Sixty-two years ago today, a 5-year-old girl in Russia earned her footnote in history.
Meet Rita Nurskanova, who was planting potatoes with her grandmother on a farm a few hundred miles south of Moscow, just after 11 a.m. on Wednesday April 12, 1961.
Then, "something orange and beautiful" appeared in the sky, she later recalled. It landed nearby:
"I didn't know what it was. It was coming toward us. Granny was frightened. She grabbed my hand ...
He yelled at us: 'Ladies, stop! I'm one of our guys!'
I said, 'Granny, stop! He's probably human!’"
The orange stranger? Maybe you can guess: Yuri Gagarin, a 27-year-old Soviet Air Force pilot-turned-cosmonaut, who had just ejected from his Vostock-1 capsule, after becoming the first human being in space.
I love this anecdote because it highlights just how uncoordinated early space flight was, out of necessity. Other points paint a similar picture:
Gagarin’s space helmet had “CCCP” on it, but it had been blank until just before launch, when an engineer hand-painted the letters. His reasoning: They couldn't predict where Gagarin would land (as the Rita story shows), so they wanted to reduce the risk of some farmer thinking he was a spy and shooting him.
Why couldn't they predict the landing? The Soviets at the time of launch had only a 50% success rate on getting rockets into orbit! Add together a human launch, an orbit, escape from orbit, and return to Earth, and the odds of everything going according to plan were small. In fact, there were many near-misses during the flight, but these were covered up for decades.
There was no advance public notice of the launch (see above; 50%+ chance of failure). But, the Soviet news agency, TASS, announced the story while Gagarin was in orbit, so no foreign government announced it first.
There was no backup for the single retrorocket on the capsule to get Gagarin back to Earth, so he carried 13 days worth of food and water in case he had to wait for the orbit to decay naturally. It’s a good thing the retrorocket worked, because the Russians later realized that their math was wrong; it would have taken 20 days. Gagarin might have made it to space, only to die of thirst waiting to return!
Gagarin’s life story up until 1961 was highly improbable; he'd lived through the Nazi occupation of his village as a child during World War II, and was beaten by the Germans for refusing to work after they sent his brothers to a slave labor camp. Later, when he joined the air force, he nearly washed out of flight school because he was too short to see out of the cockpit of a MiG-15 trainer. (Eventually, they let him use a cushion.)
The mission itself lasted only a total of 1 hour and 48 minutes, from launch to ejection. Gagarin spent more time in the capsule on the launchpad waiting for the countdown than he actually did in space. And, upon landing, he had no way to contact Moscow; the first thing he asked Rita and her grandmother for was help finding a telephone. (They initially offered him a horse to go find the nearest phone.)
Afterward, Gagarin became an international hero, despite the Cold War. The New York Times reported it as a tremendous achievement, President Kennedy offered congratulations, and Adlai Stevenson (the US ambassador to the UN), and Gagarin went on a world tour.
My educated guess is that Gagarin’s ready smile and the fact that he was very small and not physically intimidating (only 5 feet 2 inches) made him easier for the world to accept. All of the early cosmonauts were small people, simply because it takes less power to lift a capsule into space if it’s designed for a small person.
But, only five days after Gagarin’s flight, the Cold War got colder: the U.S. backed a failed effort to overthrow the government of Cuba (the Bay of Pigs Invasion), and the next year Kennedy announced the mission to beat the Soviets to the moon. A month after that speech, we had the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the space race was on in full force.
Gagarin only went to space the one time; the Soviets feared a mishap that could take the international hero’s life. Ironically, in 1968 only weeks after he was cleared to fly jets here on Earth, he died in a crash of a MiG-15—a jet similar to the one in which he'd nearly washed out of flight school.
I wonder how many people alive today under the age of say, 40, would know who Gagarin was, or could identify the first person of any nationality in space? Fame is fleeting; although I suspect we'll see a real resurgence of interest in the next few years, as the first astronauts in more than 50 years return to the moon.
And, of course, a 66-year-old woman still living in Russia remembers: "I think I was very lucky to be the first to greet him," Rita Nurskanova said, "that I was in that field, planting potatoes with Granny."
7 other things worth knowing today
Here's the BBC article and video interviewing Rita TK (embedded in the article I'm linking to here), along with apparently (?) legit video of the launch and first few minutes of Gagarin's flight. (BBC)
While I was away, news broke about a big trove of U.S. intelligence documents, at least some of them real, that have been leaked and circulated on social media. We'll pick up on this in progress, with a report that one of the documents within the trove contains a U.S. intelligence prediction that a top Russian general plans to "throw" the war in Ukraine while Putin is distracted by chemotherapy treatment for an unidentified type of cancer. (Vice)
Pay up, kid? Emergency room error sends a 4-year-old to collections. What's more fascinating than this one story is that NPR apparently has a "bill of the month" section, given that there are so many hospital billing horror stories out there. (NPR, here’s the whole series: NPR)
Federal agents who claim to have been on a training exercise in a Boston hotel apparently burst into the wrong room around 10 p.m., handcuffed a completely unsuspecting airline pilot and forced him into the shower, and held him for 45 minutes before realizing their mistake. (CBS News)
An employee reportedly asked to go remote. Her CEO says his response was to outsource her job to India instead, and save 40% on labor costs. (WSJ story, but I’m linking to Business Insider since it’s free)
Community colleges, two year schools that charge a small fraction of the tuition at four-year institutions, have been heralded as a big solution to the college crisis. So why is enrollment falling fast -- down 37 percent since 2010? Probably related: while almost all entering community college students say they ultimately plan to transfer and get a bachelor's degree, only 1 in 6 actually does it. (Seattle Times)
Why do some people live to be over 100? A new study says it might be in their genes: some centenarians may have a unique composition of immune cells that’s highly protective against illnesses. (MSN)
Thanks for reading. See you in the comments.