Gagarin nearly died when the rockets didn’t disengage from his capsule after re-entry, making the heat almost fatal.Fifty years ago, a calm, young madman allowed himself to be strapped inside what was most likely to be his metal coffin. As he lay back and had the belts fitted around him, he smiled for the still and movie cameras. Then, once the lid shut on the little tube, the young man became just a voice.’Everything alright?’ They asked him from the outside. ‘ Everything is fine! Let’s go!’ he replied cheerfully. And the people outside pushed the button.LeapThe closest most of us over forty will ever come to feeling the thrust of the huge rockets pushing up is when we are taking off in a small airliner, i.e not very close. The rockets catapulted the young man and his steel container right up against the ceiling of our atmosphere and through it out into space. Reporting calmly through serious g-forces, Yuri Gagarin’s voice is the one we can hear re-assuring his masters at Ground Control instead of the other way around.Everything is fine. I am feeling alert. I am continuing the flight. It’s interesting and beautiful.The ground controllers pressed the various buttons that jettisoned the booster rockets and sent Gagarin into a parabolic pradakshina of the planet. At the highest point of his orbit, Gagarin was as far away from the earth’s surface as Jaipur is from Delhi, roughly 300 km, the closest was about 90 km. Gagarin completed his orbit and his controllers instructed his remaining rockets to slam him back into the earth’s atmosphere.advertisementApparently, Gagarin nearly died when the rockets didn’t disengage from his capsule after re-entry, making the heat almost fatal.Finally, though, the rockets did let go.The capsule was back, flying in what we call air. Gagarin pressed the one important button over which he had control and the lid of the capsule blew open, ejecting him and his parachute at a height of several kilometres. The craft itself was left behind as the first spaceman descended safely back to the Russian steppes.In less than half the time it takes to drive from Delhi to Jaipur, Gagarin had gone around the earth. Before his orbit no one could say for sure what would happen to human bodies in spacecraft outside the bounds of earthly gravity.After the flight we knew that, with proper design and engineering, extremely fit human beings could survive leaving the earth and returning to it.Looking back, there is a contradictory feeling about the whole thing. On the one hand, the flight of the Vostok can be compared to the first fish that tried to use its fins to walk on sand, a major evolutionary step in the developmental story of our species. On the other hand, save the moon landings, there has been no leap comparable to that first flight – it’s as if we are still that first school of fish, unable to stray very far from water, and a long way away from developing proper amphibious characteristics. Unlike us, those pioneering, early- amphibian ancestors of ours didn’t have ( as far as we can tell) any politics, economics, wars or electorates to deal with. It was, literally, each fish for itself, or maybe small groups of them, maybe the rash teenagers, doing their dangerous capers outside the proven safety of water.War There have been many reports, of course, of various American and European lunatics with spaceships ready in their backyards, the galactic equivalents of home- made sports- cars or sail- boats, all ready to fly off, aiming for the moon and points beyond, a bit similar to the way the experiments with early flight worked. Reportedly, so far, the US and other governments have managed to put a stop to these highly expensive suicide bids but who knows, there may come a day when some loony trillionaire might secretly put together a craft that could take him or her for a spectacular joyride.These crazies aside, the business of cosmic exploration remains in the hands of the government space agencies of large and mostly rich nations, which is where the national agendas and contested budgets etc all come in.This brings us to the second set of contradictory feelings. On the one hand, most of us love the idea of someone ( not us, perhaps) soaring away into the starlit darkness, hopefully to come back with treasures, discoveries and stories of the cosmos of which we are a part. The rationalists among us also realise that one day humanity will have no choice but to go and live on other planets, because our species can now make a good guess that this particular tiny rock of ours, even with the best maintenance, actually has an expiry date as far inhabiting it goes. On the other hand, if we examine the history of how Yuri Gagarin came to be on that flight in 1961, a different set of thoughts, anxieties and angers rises up.advertisementShortly after this commemoration we will see the 70th anniversary of the huge Operation Barbarossa, that was launched by the German Wehrmacht against Stalin’s USSR. Then, from 2012 to 2015, will come various seventiethyear memorials of the defeats of that army till its final decapitation in the ruins of Berlin, in 1945. Unlike what the earlier histories of the Second World War tell us, the demise of Hitler’s regime was a messy and chaotic business, the hydraheaded monster of Nazism collapsing surprisingly quickly in places while proving shockingly resistant in others.Not least of the reasons why the supposedly super- systematic Nazi machine met such an unsystematic end was that – even as they struck at Germany’s multiple jugulars – its enemies were divided. For the last year of the War in Europe, the Soviets, the Americans and the British were involved in a fierce and complicated three- way hunting dance ( think the last, triangular showdown in ‘ The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ , with a fatally wounded but still dangerous ‘ Evil’ in the middle). The decisions made by the Soviets and the Allies at that moment would shape our history for the next fifty years.One of the most interesting American mistakes was to let Stalin’s armies reach Berlin first, imagining it was merely a symbolic prize and hoping the Russians would bear the brunt of any last- ditch fanatical resistance in the Nazi capital.Stalin, though, had information that the Germans had stockpiled enriched uranium for their new, experimental atomic device in a laboratory in a Berlin suburb.Stalin wanted Hitler and he wanted to fly the Red flag on the Reichstag but what he wanted most – and got – was this precious component for a nuclear bomb.As the Soviet armies sped west towards the destination that was secret even to their own generals, the team of Nazi scientists who had delivered the lethal V- 1 and V- 2 rockets to Hitler managed to surrender to the Americans speeding eastwards.Bomb America managed to trigger its first nuclear explosion within a couple of months of the fall of Berlin. And then, as we know, by August 1945 they were able to translate those explosions into two nuclear devices that they dropped on Japan, forcing it to surrender. The Russians eventually got their nuclear formula not from the ruins of Nazi Germany but through their spies in the USA and Britain. What they were unable to get, however, was the know- how of the Nazi team of rocket scientists; therefore they had to develop their own rockets to counter the American aeronautical behemoths. The reason why the USA and the USSR were developing powerful rockets was that it was the safest way to deliver a huge bomb upon an enemy on the other side of the planet.advertisementSpace exploration came to both countries as a spinoff of this endeavour, almost as an unrealised bonus. Now, if you twin Gagarin’s flight and Armstrong’s landing on the moon with the trillions of dollars that went into developing and making nuclear bombs and if, for a moment, you fantasise about what might have happened if this money had been spent in developing humanity as a whole, you might find yourself thinking that this April could have done just as well for the first human space flight from a healthy and peaceful planet. That might have been interesting and beautiful too.