That was also one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind: The flight into space of Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin in the French language press of Québec, 12-15 April 1961, Part 1
Do you love birthdays, my reading friend? Our species seems fascinated by the commemoration of birthdays. Six examples from the world of aeronautics and astronautics will suffice to demonstrate my point
On 12 April 1911, 110 years ago, Frenchman Pierre Prier made the first non-stop flight between London and Paris. This United Kingdom-France flight took just under 4 hours.
On 12 April 1921, 100 years ago, an airliner of the Compagnie franco-roumaine de navigation aérienne landed at Le Bourget airport, near Paris, thus completing a flight between the Polish capital, Warszawa, and the French capital. A regular service between these cities began later in the year.
On 12 April 1931, 90 years ago, airshows were held in the 2 airports of Indianapolis, Indiana.
On 12 April 1951, 70 years ago, the Canadian Senate passed Ontario senator / lawyer businessman Gordon Peter Campbell’s bill making the Air Cadet League of Canada, a group mentioned several / many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2018, a permanent body under the authority of the Department of National Defence.
On 12 April 1961, 60 years ago, the Soviet space capsule Vostok 1 completed an orbit around our planet before descending to Earth. This flight of less than 110 minutes, the first space flight with a human being on board, made Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin one of the most famous personalities of the 20th century.
On 12 April 1981, yes, yes, on 12 April 1981, 40 years ago, and that may not be a coincidence, the American space shuttle Columbia made the first flight in space of a recoverable spaceship. Its crew, consisting of John Watts Young and Robert Laurel “Bob” Crippen, landed on Earth on 14 April.
As you may imagine, this historic flight, err, that of Gagarin of course, made headlines in countless dailies around the world. With your permission, but without it if necessary, yours truly would like to take a look at the coverage that the French-language dailies of Québec offered to their readers in April 1961, from 12 to 15 April 1961 more precisely. .
The offering from La Presse of Montréal, Québec, published on 12 April, took up much of the front page. The largest French-language daily published outside Europe reported that Telegrafnoye Agentstvo Sovetskogo Soyouza (TASS), the Soviet news agency, had proclaimed that Gagarin, a fighter pilot in the aviation of the military maritime fleet, or Aviatsiya Voyenno-morskogo Flota, aged 27, had landed in the intended area, on Soviet soil, without a scratch. La Presse obviously used information made public by TASS and the Soviet state broadcaster Radio Moskva on the flight of the cosmonaut aboard the cosmic ship Spoutnik Orient, the Russian term “vostok” obviously meaning orient / east.
Interestingly, La Presse mentioned in its provincial edition that Daily Worker published an article on 11 April in which this official organ of the Communist Party of Great Britain informed its readers that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had launched a human being in space on 7 April and that this hero had returned to Earth in perfect health. Better yet, the article in question, not to mention that of La Presse, contained a photograph of the cosmonaut, who was certainly not Gagarin. The British daily’s article also contained a drawing of Gagarin’s space capsule.
The Soviet space capsule Vostok 1 as imagined by an artist working for the British daily Daily Worker. Anon., “Russe lancé dans l’espace à [303 kilometres] 188 milles de la terre [sic].” Le Droit, 12 April 1961, final edition, 1.
You will obviously have noticed, my eagle-eyed reading friend that you are, that the above photograph was taken from the daily Le Droit. Yours truly made this choice because of the better quality of the illustration which appeared in that one and only French-language daily in Ottawa, Ontario. Oddly enough, the caption for this photograph indicated that Daily Worker published its article on 12 April. I must admit that I do not know what to think, or who / what to believe.
By the way, a major Montréal daily, Le Devoir, published the Daily Worker drawing in its 13 April issue, and… You do not know what the letters from A to G which accompany all these drawings correspond to? Let me enlighten you.
A - Pressurised cabin of the cosmonaut
B - Padded seat protecting said cosmonaut during launch
C - Parachutes slowing the descent of the space capsule on its return
D - Air or oxygen supply
E - Television cameras and microphones allowing the cosmonaut to be seen and heard
F - Porthole
G - Dashboard
Having no illustration of Vostok 1, by the way, the British artist who made the drawing imagined a vehicle that closely resembled the American McDonnell Mercury space capsule.
As you well know, it was aboard such a capsule that John Glenn became, in February 1962, the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth.
To convince you of the veracity of my remarks, allow me to present you a photograph of the capsule which sheltered Gagarin during his voyage.
The descent module of the Vostok 1 space capsule on display at the corporate museum of Raketno-Kosmicheskaya Korporatsiya “Energiya,” Moscow, Russia, July 2010. Wikipedia.
La Presse reported that the international scientific community applauded the feat accomplished by the USSR. Pierre Emil George Salinger, press secretary for the administration headed by president John Fitzgerald Kennedy, on the other hand, mentioned at most that American tracking stations confirmed that the great rival of the United States had put an object into orbit.
The photograph of Gagarin published in April 1961 by many Western dailies. Anon., “Un Russe ramené vivant d’un voyage cosmique.” La Presse, 12 April 1961, last edition, 1.
While the latest 12 April edition of La Presse barely mentioned the erroneous Daily Worker article, it did contain a photograph of Gagarin, not to mention a photograph of relatively young and drunk with happiness Muscovites walking down a street or avenue in Moscow.
Muscovites, possibly students, possibly on Gorky street, drunk with happiness at the news of Gagarin’s historic flight. Anon., “Un Russe ramené vivant d’un voyage cosmique.” La Presse, 12 April 1961, last edition, 1.
Said photo may well show some of the students, up to 500 perhaps, who crowded Gorky street, one of Moscow’s main thoroughfares. In this city and country where spontaneous demonstrations were not at all appreciated, agents of the Soviet national police force, or Militsiya, were happy to stop the automobile traffic in order to let this impromptu triumphal procession pass.
Muscovites overflowing with joy and enthusiasm, possibly college students, a stone’s throw from the Moskovskiy Planetariy. Anon., “Récit de voyage du premier cosmonaute du monde – Gagarine veut aller sur Vénus.” La Presse, 13 April 1961, last edition, 1.
Hundreds of members of a communist youth movement, the Vsesoyuznaya Pionerskaya Organizatsiya imeni V.I. Lenina, went to the Moskovskiy Planetariy to learn more, and this quite spontaneously. With the planetarium closed, its director, the very popular Viktor Vassilievich Bazykin, came out of the building to tell them what he knew. The young people were delighted.
In fact, a great many Muscovites were given permission to leave their jobs to celebrate a human’s first flight in space.
Muscovites among many who celebrated Gagarin’s flight. Anon., “Commentant le dernier exploit russe – Les États-Unis tirent de l’arrière (Kennedy).” Le Soleil, 13 April 1961, 23.
Before I forget, readers of La Presse learned that Gagarin was married and had 2 children. In fact, the Montréal daily published a brief biography of the cosmonaut, born in April 1934.
A small article on the front page of this same latest edition of La Presse indicated that the Soviet government had underlined that Gagarin’s flight was entirely peaceful in nature. In fact, said government took advantage of that great day to launch a sincere (?) appeal to the peoples and governments of the Earth in favour of peace and disarmament.
La Presse concluded its report on Gagarin’s exploit by indicating that the USSR had been ahead of the United States since the launch of the first artificial satellite, in October 1957. And yes, Sputnik I was mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since February 2018.
Published later in the day on 12 April than the provincial edition, the last edition of La Presse included the comments of certain heads of state and many Western scholars who offered congratulations to the USSR, its government, its researchers, etc. Examples included the aforementioned Kennedy, as well as the Prime Minister of Canada, John George Diefenbaker. If the latter described Gagarin’s flight as an amazing achievement, he added that the world had expected it, given the Soviet and American achievements of 1960-61.
If I may be permitted a brief digression, I would like to interrupt this pontification to present to you the French language version, published in the last edition of 12 April of La Presse, of a drawing created on 12 April by the Ukrainian-American artist William “Bill” Sakren. Said drawing was part of his series They never change, in French On ne change guère.
Cartoon dating from 12 April 1961. William Sakren, "On ne change guère." La Presse, 12 April 1961, last edition, 2.
Feeling that a translation of the drawing in question might be useful, I took the liberty of concocting one just for you:
“I would like to be the first man to go to the Moon”
“No, not me! That does not look safe to me!
The information in the 12 April issues of Québec’s other major French-language dailies added little to what La Presse has to offer its readers. This being said (typed?), the main French-language daily in Québec, the city of course, Le Soleil, published an (exact?) American (?) map of the orbit followed by Gagarin during his journey around the Earth.
The orbit followed, perhaps, by Gagarin during his journey around Earth. Anon., “Le premier homme dans l’espace.” Le Soleil, 12 April 1961, 2.
Diefenbaker’s reaction aside, the relatively rare Canadian and Québec reactions to Gagarin’s stay in space appeared in Québec dailies starting 13 April.
In fact, it was on that same 13 April that Diefenbaker sent a congratulatory telegram to the first secretary of the central committee of the Kommunisticheskaya Partiya Sovetskogo Soyuza, that is the Communist Party of the USSR, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, a rather unsavoury character, mentioned in a several / many issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since February 2019:
On behalf of the Canadian people and for myself personally I should like to congratulate you, Mr. Chairman, and the Soviet people on the outstanding success of Soviet scientists in achieving the first manned flight into space.
According to the chief scientist of a federal agency, the Defence Research Board, George Sydney Field, interviewed on 12 April, Gagarin’s journey was “an outstanding achievement in modern history.” This achievement greatly added to the prestige of the USSR, an addition that the Soviet government very much realised. This being said (typed?), seen from a scientific point of view, the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, in October 1957, was perhaps a more amazing feat.
Gagarin’s trip offered little military advantage to the USSR, said Field. All military experts knew that the Soviet and American intercontinental ballistic missiles available even before this trip were capable of launching a (thermo)nuclear warhead at any location on Earth. In fact, it was easier to strike a target by this means than with an armed satellite orbiting the Earth.
Without wanting to spoil the Soviets’ party, of course, Field added that, with its more advanced equipment, the United States had collected and was collecting even more data on interplanetary space than the USSR.
The next big step in space exploration, he said, would likely be the launch of a manned spacecraft to the Moon. It remained to be seen who would carry out this launch, and when.
Also interviewed, the Dominion astronomer Carlyle Smith Beals called Gagarin’s space trip a wonderful achievement. He indicated, with some sadness perhaps, that the Dominion Observatory might have been able to detect and track Vostok 1 if information to that effect had reached it.
Another Canadian researcher, Peter MacKenzie Millman, believed that the USSR would attempt something new before long, something unheard of, launching a spacecraft carrying more than one person perhaps. The head of the Upper Atmosphere Research Section of the Radio and Electrical Engineering Division of the National Research Council of Canada, a renowned organisation mentioned several / many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since May 2018, also indicated that the superiority of Soviet rockets in terms of power over those of the United States made it possible to launch a probe carrying instruments to the Moon. This being said (typed?), the USSR could attempt to send a probe close to Mars or Venus.
Interviewed in Calgary, Alberta, the former director of the World Health Organization, Canadian psychiatrist and lecturer George Brock Chisholm said that “[c]ombatting hunger and disease and providing security for a troubled world would be of greater benefit for mankind than tossing a man into space.” The world could afford to wait until 2011, or even 2061, before embarking on space exploration.
Would you be unhappy if yours truly told you that I share this opinion?
Chisholm was a controversial gentleman who sincerely wanted to help the poor and needy on Earth. At the end of 1945, or the beginning of 1946, “Canada’s most famous articulate angry man,” then Deputy Minister of National Health and Welfare, aroused the ire of social conservative circles when he said that one should not encourage children to believe in the Bible, Santa Claus, or any other supernatural concept, but back to our story. And yes, at least one American fundamentalist Christian group (seriously?) believed that Chisholm was the antichrist. The mind boggles.
Some Québec dailies published some photographs of Gagarin and his family. It goes without saying that these were official photographs which were approved by some body of the Kommunisticheskaya Partiya Sovetskogo Soyuza.
On 13 April, Le Soleil offered no less than 3 photographs to its readers. Interestingly, La Presse published the same day the same photographs, but reversed.
An official portrait of Gagarin in civilian dress. Anon., “Gagarin accueilli en héros à Moscou.” Le Soleil, 13 April 1961, 1.
Gagarin’s eldest daughter Elena Yourievna “Lenochka” Gagarina, 2 years old, watching her father on television. Anon., “Commentant le dernier exploit russe – Les États-Unis tirent de l’arrière (Kennedy).” Le Soleil, 13 April 1961, 23.
Gagarin’s wife, Valentina Ivanovna Gagarina, born Goryacheva, listening to a report on the radio about his space flight. Her concern is clearly visible. Anon., “Commentant le dernier exploit russe – Les États-Unis tirent de l’arrière (Kennedy).” Le Soleil, 13 April 1961, 23.
The Trois-Rivières, Québec, daily Le Nouvelliste offered itself the luxury of presenting a photo of the Soviet cosmonaut’s family, again a very official one.
Gagarin reading a newspaper with his wife Valentina and daughter Elena. Then barely a month old, Galina Yourievna Gagarina was probably sleeping. Anon., “Le ‘Christophe Colomb’ de l’espace – Qui est Youri Gagarine?” Le Nouvelliste, 13 April 1961, 1.
I must admit that I am a bit uncomfortable at the idea of comparing Gagarin to Christoforo Colombo, a man who showed real brutality towards the indigenous populations that he met on the American continent between 1492 and 1504. Let us not forget that the wealth of settler states like the United States, Canada and Australia was built (and is still being built?) on the backs of indigenous populations stripped of their heritage and lands, and too often decimated, by force of arms or disease. There is not much that is joyful about the legacy of Colombo / Colomb / Columbus.
And no, there is nothing wrong with rewriting history when it comes to righting a grave injustice. White lives are not the only ones that matter.
With that, allow me to wish you a pleasant week.