Phase Space
clutching it like metal fingers, holding it to the Earth. Gagarin could see the four flaring strap-on boosters clustered around the first stage, the copper-coloured clusters of rocket nozzles at the base.
    This was an ICBM – an SS-6 – designed to deliver heavy nuclear weapons to the laps of the enemies of the Soviet Union. But today the payload was no warhead, but something wonderful. The booster was tipped by his Vostok, shrouded by a green protective cone: Gagarin’s spaceship, which he had named Swallow.
    Technicians and engineers surrounded him. All around him he saw faces: faces turned to him, faces shining with awe. Even the zeks, the political prisoners, had been allowed to see him today, April 12 1961, to witness as the past separated from the future.
    They were right to feel awe. Nobody had travelled into space before! Would a human body be able to survive a state of weightlessness? Would cosmic radiation prove lethal to a man? Even to reach this deadly realm, the first cosmonaut would have to ride a converted missile, and his spaceship had just one aim: to preserve him long enough to determine if humans, after all, could survive beyond the Earth – or if space must forever remain a realm of superstition and dread.
    Gagarin smiled on them all. He felt a surge of elation, of command; he basked in the warm attention.
    … And yet there were faces here that were strange to him, he realized slowly, faces among the technicians and engineers, even among the pilots. How could that be so, after so many months of training, all of them cooped up here in this remote place? He thought he knew everybody, and they him.
    Perhaps, he wondered, he was still immersed in his dream.
    … For a time, he had been with his father. He had been a carpenter, whose hands had constructed their wooden home in the village of Klushino, in the western Soviet Union. Then the ground shook as German tanks rumbled through the village. His parents’ home was smashed, and they had to live in a dug-out, without bread or salt, and forage for food in the fields …
    But that was long ago, and he and his family had endured, and now he had reached this spring morning. And here, towering over him, was the bulk of his rocket, grey-white and heavy and uncompromising, and he put aside his thoughts of dreams with determination; today was the day he would fulfil the longings of a million years – the day he would step off the Earth and ride in space itself.
    Gagarin walked to the pad. There was a short flight of metal stairs leading to the elevator which would carry him to the capsule; the stairs ran alongside the flaring skirt of one of the boosters. White condensation poured off the rocket, rolling down its heroic flanks; and ice glinted on the metal, regardless of the warmth of the sun.
    Gagarin looked down over the small group of men gathered at the base of the steps. He said, ‘The whole of my life seems to be condensed into this one wonderful moment. Everything that I have been, everything I have achieved, was for this.’ He lowered his head briefly. ‘I know I may never see the Earth again, my wife Valentia, and my fine children, Yelena and Galya. Yet I am happy. Who would not be? To take part in new discoveries, to be the first to journey beyond the embrace of Earth. Who could dream of more?’
    They were hushed; the silence seemed to spread across the steppe, revealing the soft susurrus of the wind over the grass which lay beneath all human noises.
    He turned, and climbed into the elevator. He rose, and was wreathed in white vapour …
    And, for a moment, it was as if he was surrounded by faces once more, staring in on him, avid with curiosity.
    But then the vapour cleared, the dream-like vision dissipated, and he was alone.
    ‘Five minutes to go. Please close the mask of your helmet.’
    Gagarin complied and confirmed. He worked through his checklist. ‘I am in the preparation regime,’ he reported.
    ‘We are in that regime also. Everything

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