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Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space 60 years ago the following week.
He was one of several stars of the Cold War space race between the Soviet Union and the United States that would become the heroes of millions.
But the technology that sent them into orbit had a less glorious origin in the dying days of Nazi Germany.
– Germans –
Many of the key rocket scientists behind the American and Soviet space programs were Germans, who worked on Adolf Hitler’s “secret weapon”, the V-1 and V-2 rockets.
Approximately 1,600 German missile experts were secretly taken to the United States in the dying days of World War II, while the Russians collected about 2,000 with weapons in one night and sent them to work in the Soviet Union.
Wernher von Braun
The inventor of Hitler’s V-2 rocket – the world’s first guided ballistic missile – was the architect of the American Apollo program, which would put a man on the moon.
Brought across the Atlantic with his brother Magnus, he devised the Saturn V rocket that launched American lunar missions. He died in 1977 while still advocating manned missions to Mars.
Kurt H. Debus
Von Braun’s friend, Debus, was Hitler’s director of flight tests for the V-1 and V-2.
In 1952, he began construction of rocket launchers at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and later was director of operations for what would become the Kennedy Space Center, overseeing the flight of first American astronaut Alan Shepard and the Moon mission.
– Soviets –
The first man in space, Gagarin, was chosen from among 3,000 candidates.
He completed one 108-minute orbit aboard Vostok-1 on April 12, 1961 after declaring “Let’s go!”
He died in 1968 at the age of 34 in an as yet unexplained plane crash.
Gagarin’s deputy for the historic flight of 1961, Titov, never got over the disappointment.
Four months later, it orbited the Earth 17 times on Vostok-2. He was elected to the Russian parliament in 1995.
At that time, the 30-year-old made the first spacewalk in history from Voskhod 2 in 1965.
It lasted 12 minutes and nine seconds and almost killed him while his spacesuit was inflating due to lack of atmospheric pressure. He had to release some oxygen, risking death.
Leonov later took part in the revolutionary Apollo-Soyuz mission, which opened a new era of space cooperation between the Soviets and the United States in 1975.
The first woman in space, she spent almost three days in orbit in June 1963.
During the flight, she had to overcome many problems, which were discovered only after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
She is still the only woman who has completed a solo mission.
Chief Soviet rocket engineer Korolev recorded successes from the launch of Sputnik 1 to Gagarin’s historic flight. His role was discovered only after his death in 1966.
Komarov became the first person to die in space on April 23, 1967, after a 26-hour flight by Soyuz 1.
The parachute failed to re-enter, causing its spacecraft to crash into Earth.
– Americans –
The first American in space, Shepard’s freedom flight on May 7, 1961, was suborbital and climbed to an altitude of 186 kilometers.
He later commanded Apollo 14 in 1971 and became the fifth person to walk on the moon, where he played golf.
The first American to orbit the Earth in February 1962 was later elected a U.S. senator, serving until 1999.
In 1998, at the age of 77, Glenn became the oldest person to go into space when he traveled aboard the spaceship Discovery.
In June 1983, Sally Ride became the first American to be sent into space, by the Challenger spacecraft.
She also participated in a 1986 commission that investigated the loss of the vessel. She died of cancer at the age of 61 in 2012.
Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969.
Despite shuffling his line a little – “It’s one small step for (a) man, one huge leap for humanity” – he has since made history.
His fellow crew members were Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, who followed 20 minutes later, and Michael Collins, who was left alone in lunar orbit.
© 2021 AFP