Today marks the 55th anniversary of Yury Gagarin’s first and only journey into outer space, the very first time a human being reached beyond the Stratosphere and saw the Earth as a whole from afar. Samara is connected to space exploration on quite a few levels.
Visitors to Samara are often invited to see Soyuz rocket at the end of Prospekt Lenina. It looks especially bizarre if not quite lost against the backdrop of newly erected residential buildings. But when you stand underneath the mighty piece of metal it reaches high into the sky. Come here at an evening when scarce clouds and beginning twilight make the sky picturesque and you will feel the romantic longing for the worlds up above as if Soyuz can actually take you there right from this makeshift launchpad at the end of Prospekt Lenina.
It could have before and from a real launchpad as this is the real Soyuz rocket that was taken to Samara and erected as a monument to the mighty share of local involvement into the space programme. After all, Soyuz is being built at Progress rocket centre here. Gagarin took his major first step for the humanity in a Vostok spacecraft (also built in Samara) from which Soyuz was subsequently derived. Today Soyuz launch vehicle is the link between people on the ground and people at the International Space Station, whether for manned or cargo missions. Beside Soyuz launchers in several versions, various satellite systems are also designed and produced in Samara.
This particular Soyuz was made in 1984 for training military personnel at Plesetsk Cosmodrome until decommissioning in 1999. In 2001 the launcher was presented to the public as a monument attached to a Space Museum building, with the height of the whole complex reaching 68 meters (223 ft). Even without any equipment the rocket weighs 20 tonnes. The best views are from a close distance or even underneath when no surrounding buildings obscure the sky.
Speaking of museums, Samara has two space museums. Another one is at the local University (until recently – Aerospace University) and is really good though crammed into just one big room. While the Space Museum at Prospekt Lenina is a proper museum, the University Space Museum is intended primarily for the students, not casual visitors. Hence, posters with detailed technical information, actual equipment from planes and spacecraft, an engine specimen and even a landing capsule, no interactive displays and serious faces of staff. Neither museums are grand compared to world-famous ones, but both are closer to historic sites and places filled with glorious memories.
Whether modern generations are worthy of the effort of escaping the confines of our planet is rather doubtful. Russians tend to live more in the past recalling the Soviet space exploration achievements of which a lot still helps us remain a space nation. But I am not so sure if younger people see any real purpose or benefit in space programme beside certain symbolism and being an object of fondly affection.
By the way, Gagarin was flown to Kuibyshev (as Samara was called at the time) and spent some time resting here at a party dacha for a couple of days before moving to Moscow and on to his world tours. Kuibyshev remained a city closed for foreigners and continued building satellites and launch vehicles. It still does, but foreigners are now allowed to come and visit.
After all, humanity in its longing for other worlds, for the stars and unknown planets knows no national borders or political divisions. Anyone can come to Samara, stand under the Soyuz and look up to the beautiful sky. Maybe then at least this one person will never dream of conquering anything but the space distance and of fighting anything but terrestrial gravity.