If you are to be, be the first
Today’s letter is sent to you on the 60th anniversary of the first human spaceflight. This missive can be found in Letters of Note: Space, a soon-to-be-published collection of fascinating correspondence about the universe beyond our planet, written by such people as Buzz Aldrin, Isaac Asimov, Marion Carpenter, Yuri Gagarin, Ann Druyan, Stanley Kubrick, Alexander Graham Bell, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, & many more.
Yuri Gagarin was born in 1934 in the Russian village of Klushino, to Alexey Ivanovich Gagarin and Anna Timofeyevna Gagarina—a carpenter and farmer, respectively. Aged twenty-three, Gagarin met and fell in love with a nursing student from Orenburg named Valentina Goryacheva and within months they were married, going on to have two daughters, Yelena and Galina. On 12 April 1961, Gagarin waved goodbye to his young family, stepped into the Vostok 1 spacecraft at Baikonur Cosmodrome and became the first man to go into space. As we now know, Gagarin returned safely; however, he had planned for a different outcome, and two days before launch wrote this letter to his wife and children, to be opened in the event of his death.
My dear beloved Valechka, Lenochka, and Galochka!
I decided to write you a few lines to share with you the joy and happiness that befell me today. Today the government commission decided to send me to the first spaceflight. I am so glad, dear Valiusha, and I want you to share this joy with me. An ordinary man, I have been trusted with an important national mission—to pave the first road into space!
I fully trust the technology. It should not fail. But it sometimes happens that a man falls and breaks his neck with no reason at all. Something may happen here too. I do not believe it will happen. But if it does, I ask all of you and especially you, Valiusha—do not be overcome with grief. Such is life. Please take care of our girls and love them just like I do. Please raise them as true human beings who are not afraid of the challenges of life. Raise them as people who will deserve to live a new communist society.
This letter is coming out a bit too gloomy. I do not believe in this [bad] outcome. I hope you will never see this letter, and I will feel ashamed for this momentary weakness. But if something happens, you must know the whole truth
When I was a child, I once read the words of Valerii Chkalov, “If you are to be, be the first.” So I try, and I will to the end. Valechka, I wish to dedicate this flight to the people of the new communist society, which we are already entering, to our great Motherland, and to our science
I hope in a few days we will be together again, and we will be happy. Valechka, please, do not forget my parents, and if you have an opportunity, help them somehow. Give them my warm greetings, and let them forgive me for not telling them about this, for they were not supposed to know. This is it, I think.
Good bye, my dears. I hug you tightly and kiss you.
Your daddy and Yura
Letter taken from Letters of Note: Space, which will be published on 6th May 2021.