The harness digs into his shoulder. Mission control keeps a stream of chatter in his ear, but Gagarin can hardly hear them over his pounding heart. The rocket shudders around him.
Humanity has always been entranced by the stars. Thousands of years of progress — shepherds looking up on a lonely night, astronomers tracing intricate charts, kings standing in gilded observatories — has come down to a single man. A single cockpit. A single hope.
This is how it feels to have the world watching. Whatever happens here will determine the future of space travel. This is where humanity decides whether they will ascend to the stars or remain forever earthbound. Gagarin thinks there may be a lesson to this, something about hubris and Icarus flying too close to the sun. Oh well. The Soviet Union gave up religion for a reason.
His daughters would be sitting in front of the television, wearing the blue hair ribbons he gave them before leaving. He hopes Valentina will turn them away if the mission goes awry. He can’t pretend he’s doing this for them though. A good man would never leave his children without a father or his wife without a husband. But in his heart he is still the carpenter’s son, watching the Yak fighter plane touch down in the fields outside his home.
He knows the risks — fire, destruction, and blood. He has seen the failed test crafts implode midair before plunging into the sea. Will it hurt if the same happens to him, or will he turn to dust before his body can register the pain?
A force hauls him up at the same time a weight presses down on his chest. The rocket shakes so hard he fears it will fall to pieces. The tinny voices are gone, leaving only the deafening roar of the engines.
An eternity passes before two muffled explosions come from the craft. A solemn quiet descends, broken only by the soft whirring of cooling fans. The Earth looms before him, gray-white clouds swirling above great blue seas and lights winking from the land. Gagarin has left behind all he knows.
Now he is alone above the world, drifting among the stars.
Mira Jiang lives and attends school in a suburb near Dallas. Apart from a brief stint in China, she was born and raised in Texas. Her work has been recognized in contests from Hollins University, the Poetry Matters Project, and the Geek Partnership Society.