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In April 1961 Yuri Gagarin was the first man to orbit the earth in a space craft. As the 40th anniversary approached Jeff Dugdale looks at the philatelic issues commemorating this historic flight. This article first appeared in Stamp Magazine (January 2001 issue) and is reprinted here with permission from Jeff.
The Soviet Union shocked the world in April 1961 with the launch of a man into outer space, without notice. The shock announcement followed the pattern established back in October 1957 with the launch of Sputnik. In the intervening period the Soviets had launched increasingly bigger satellites into orbit. The satellites often carried small animals and dogs, many of which perished in flight, as the West later learned. We know now that political pressures essentially from Premier Nikita Khrushchev - who was desperate to beat the Americans in the ‘Space Race’ had forced the hand of Sergei Korolev (the then anonymous Chief Designer of Soviet spacecraft) to launch a human being into space sooner than he would have liked.
Knowing that he was taking a risk, he selected as Cosmonaut No.1 - Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin. Gagarin had been one of a small group of his first cosmonaut team but was not Korolev’s number one or even number two candidate as the best in the group. To have launched Vladimir Komarov (who finally flew and ironically perished in Soyuz 1 six years later) or Gherman Titov, who acted as Gagarin’s back-up, was too risky. So the man selected for the first space flight was a 27-year-old test pilot born on a collective farm at Gzhatsk — a village 100 miles west of Moscow.
Bogus launch site
At 09.07 Moscow time on April 12, 1961 Gagarin was launched in the 4.75 ton Vostok (or East) spacecraft from Baikonur in Kazakhstan. In fact, as with so much of the Soviet space programme throughput the 60s and 70s, this bogus launch site was deliberate misinformation. The actual launch site was Tyuratam, which lies 230 miles south west of Baikonur, but it was about with secrecy and covering up possible failures.
The unknown and handsome Gagarin made but one orbit of the Earth and landed as a hero and international celebrity in parachute harness. He ejected (to plan) from the return capsule at 22,000 feet and landed in a cow field near the village of Smelovka near Saratskaya, just under an hour and 50 minutes after launch. His method of landing was not revealed by the Soviets until 1978 and for many years it was thought he had landed within his capsule, which would certainly have killed him!
There was, of course, much tabloid newspaper interest in the ‘First Man in Space’ story. At the time many rumours abounded that the Soviets had been responsible for the deaths of previous cosmonauts killed in disastrous space launches or flights before Gagarin. Following the glasnost era under Gorbachev the Soviets came clean and admitted failures, but only involving ground crew fatalities and it now seems clear that Vostok 1 was indeed the first true attempt to put a man in space.
The Soviet Union marked one of the most significant events in the history of mankind by issuing SG 2576 on April 17, 1961. The dark blue three kopek issue featured a photo of Gagarin surrounded by the legend ‘First Cosmonaut’ and images of the carrier rocket taking off and his Hero of the Soviet Union medal with a laurel leaf — the traditional symbolic award for achievement.
Some weeks later they completed the set with a six kopek stamp showing three spacecraft — including the unmistakable shape of Sputnik — flying above Moscow’s Spassky Tower and Baikonur tracking equipment with the Vostok rocket trailing a Salute to Soviet achievement. The final 10 kopek issue shows the carrier rocket clearly in orbit and in its wake a ghostly helmeted cosmonaut and a profile of the Kremlin buildings silhouetted against the sky. The images on the 10k stamp raise the fascinating subject of how the Soviets set out to conceal the true shape of their Vostok spacecraft for over four years.
If one studies the first philatelic essays of Vostok you can see a variety of responses to the problem faced by the stamp designer who has not the faintest what the spacecraft looked like. The first Issues far the Soviet Union — and satellite states such as Albania, Bulgaria, Cuba, East Germany, Hungary, Vietnam etc — all depict rockets that Jules Verne might have dreamt of and each is different from the next, some slightly so and some very much. However other designers must have thought their brief was too silly and they resorted to a much more honest approach using symbolism, such as The Cosmonaut (Czechoslovakia) or Red Star in Orbit (Poland and Mongolia). The Romanian designer solves the problem by putting his Vostok craft so far in the background it just looks like a tiny blip!
In the months and years before the truth about Vostok was revealed one false design comes to the fore - the thimble and collar style used by several countries in the years 1963 and 1964.
The first stamp to indicate the true shape of the craft comes from a surprising source - the Kingdom of Yemen - which issued a stamp to commemorate the flight of Voskhod 2 (from which Alexei Leonov walked in space in March 1965). Vostok and Voskhod were basically the same craft and certainly had a similar exterior appearance.
But it still seems the first stamp to tell the world what Vostok really looked like came from Poland in 1966 (SG 1709) in the Space Research series. Thereafter there was no real need for any further sleight of hand but it took the Soviets themselves until the 10th anniversary of Vostok’s flight to produce a stamp showing what the first manned spacecraft actually looked like (shown on SG 3929).
Naturally there was a plethora of issues from countries - both within the Communist world and elsewhere — to mark the occasion of the first flight into space. Indeed stamps to mark the flight of Vostok number over 150 from an astonishing number of countries with few space connections.
April 12 was dubbed ‘Cosmonautics Day’ or ‘Space Exploration Day’ and each of the anniversaries of Gagarin’s flight for the next 30 years or so - until a deliberate change in stamp issuing policy in the mid 1990s — was marked with an issue of space achievement related stamps. These were only related to Gagarin on certain anniversaries.
The issue of a 10-kopek stamp marked the first anniversary of the flight of Vostok with se-tenant label (also produced without perforations). The stamp shows a stylised red rocket blasting through space and the orbital route taken by it being launched and landing in west central Asia. On the label is a stylised globe with the anniversary dates in red and a facsimile of Gagarin’s signature.
The second anniversary of the flight produced a stamp in which Vostok features only in the background with a Zond Moon flight being given more prominence for as we now know the Soviets were then planning a manned moon landing, a project abandoned once the Americans got there first.
A year later on we have the first stamps bearing the world’s Cosmonautics Day. Three issues in with the 12-kopek value show Gagarin in his helmet beside a very fanciful Vostok ship of thimble and collar design.
In 1965 the Soviet Union issued a five-stamp set. This included two much sought after silver stamps with the lower value issues all depicting various monuments erected in Moscow for Yuri Gagarin or Russian space-flight achievements in general.
There was then no further Gagarin issue until the 10th anniversary of Vostok 1. This was celebrated with a single issue and four stamp a mini sheet in which one value referred to him. The single issue shows the carrier rocket and the capsule in space besides the Federation Aeronautique Medal awarded to the First Man ever in space.
A further five years later (in 1976) the Soviet Union produced an elegant souvenir sheet depicting the Cosmos. On it beneath a formal military study of Gagarin is the Cosmonauts medal with celebratory laurel leaves and ribbons.
The occasion of Gagarin’s 30th birthday — although he had been killed a plane crash in 1968 aged 34 — was marked by the issue of a relaxed portrait of the hero besides symbols of the conquest of space. This graphic blue and white 15-kopek issue is very simple in design, but effective.
The 20th Anniversary of Vostok (in 1981) produced three stamps each with accompanying labels — the 15k-kopek value showed Chief Designer Sergei Korolev and a brief quote by him about Gagarin. It included a stylish silver border. Additionally there was a very handsome golden souvenir sheet.
Then in 1986 we had one stamp (with label) for Gagarin in a three stamp issue for Cosmonautics Day with other space achievements like the Sputnik satellite pictured in the background.
The 30th anniversary produced four stamps showing portraits of Gagarin and these were reproduced in several formats including souvenir sheets and mini sheets presumably issued for the collector. Each one of the quartet had a 25 kopek value featuring brownish coloured line drawings of Gagarin (SG 6238-6241).
A change of policy meant there were then only intermittent issues for Cosmonautics Day and in fact no stamp at all was issued for the 35th anniversary, though some covers with illustrated cachets and cancels were produced. The stamps on the cover (issued two years before) shown are related to Gagarin as they all celebrate the activities of The Gagarin Flight Training Centre in Zvezdny Gorodok. Subjects include Moscow, centrifuge, underwater and MIR simulation training. It also includes a smiling portrait of Gagarin printed onto the cover.
The most recent Russian stamp issued for Gagarin came as part of a series about 20th Century Achievements which also shows Sputnik and An American Moon Landing scene, The acknowledgement of the American lunar achievement makes this a most unusual stamp — this was only the second time that the Soviet Union, or Russia, has alluded in a stamp to a purely American success in space. This montage issue was launched in 1998.
This article merely touches on a considerable thematic topic about Yuri Gagarin and this year there will no doubt be many more stamps issued on April 12 to celebrate this momentous occasion and the man who was the centre of it all. The only sad point is he isn’t here to share his achievement with its all.
By Jeff Dugdale
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