Saturday, 29 October 2011

Earliest known Yuri Gagarin signature 17 April 1961

Yuri Gagarin, first man in space 12 April 1961
In Sept. 1961 I received a card with Yuri Gagarin's picture and signature, dedicated to a 17 year old radio amateur, OZ3CF - - me!
It is dated 17.4.61
It then went on spending the next 50 years in my files with other cards from my rather inglorious teenage years as a so called "Ham".

Recently I dug it out and began to research its story.
It is namely one of the earliest known signatures by the famous first man in space. How on earth did he manage to sign this only 5 days after his flight?
Interestingly it is connected to another famous Russian: Ernst Krenkel, polar traveller and radio man aboard the illustrious M/S Chelyuskin, that foundered in the Arctic in 1934.

Here is the story:

March 1961: Ernst Krenkel, President of the Federation of Radiosports in the USSR and I. Lemyanov, General Secretary, prepare for the Amateur Radio Contest USSR DX/MIR 1961.
They are also involved in the planning of a public ceremony to be held after Gagarin's now imminent spaceflight , where they will present him with a diploma celebrating the first human-to-human VHF-Contact (Very High Frequency) between Space and Earth - assuming he returns safely to Earth!

Ernst Krenkel, who is an avid radio amateur and who has retained the call sign RAEM used at M/S Chelyuskin, see:   prints a Gagarin photo-card with the info of the USSR DX/MIR-contest that will take place later on 30 April with the obvious intention of sending it to the top winning positions in the contest, some signed, some probably not, due to numbers.

12 April 1961: Gagarin spends 98 minutes in space.
17.4.61 Ernst Krenkel passes Space award to Yuri Gagarin
17 April 1961: Krenkel "stuffs" a handful of the Gagarin photo-cards in his pocket and goes to the ceremonial celebration and hand-over of the Communication diploma (See photo) - probably in Moscow.
The authorities could not wait slinging Gagarin onto a silver tray and serve him ready cooked to the world at large! This was way over medical check-ups in priority.
Krenkel passes a handful of the cards to Gagarin, explains, and asks him to sign (which Gagarin always happily did) - this time on the date of the ceremony: 17.4.61
Luckily for Krenkel, it was Gagarin who ascended into space and not Titov, the other potential cosmonaut! - - Or perhaps Krenkel also had a bunch of Titov-cards printed in advance?
As Robin McKie writes in an article in the Guardian in March 2011:
"Behind the scenes, powerful forces had been backing Gagarin [above Titov]. Khrushchev knew spaceflight was a potent propaganda weapon. Khrushchev and Gagarin were both peasant farmers' sons while Titov was middle-class, If Gagarin could reach the greatest heights, then Khrushchev's rise to power from similarly humble origins was validated."
A powerful propaganda blow had been dealt to the Americans.
Front man: Yuri Gagarin, who had almost perished during the descent from space in a capsule that wouldn't cut itself loose.
Brains and chief rocket designer: Sergei Korolev, who remained unknown till his death on the operating table in 1966, as his body proved inoperable due to the damage sustained in the Kolyma Gulag!
OZ3CF 1961
After 30 April 1961: USSR DX Contest; OZ3CF sends in his log to the ubiquitous P.O.Box 88, Moscow - the only Russian address that would accept incoming letters - except for Krenkel, who had specific approval to use his private address in Chapligin Str 1-A!

Considering the standard for contest stations in 2011, my 1961 station (left) could hardly inspire envy - - - the only boon was an incredibly sensitive and well performing 11 tube receiver and 40m of free hanging antenna wire to the chimney of the old Hotel Marienlyst in Helsingoer. I have forgotten the details of the transmitter, but believ it to be a Geloso VFO followed by a bird's nest of wires, a home-spun amplifier with an 6146 tube (60 Watts) and an antenna tuner.

USSR DX/MIR Diploma 1961

5 Sept. 1961: Contest adjudication is completed and the diplomas for the winners are prepared and signed by Krenkel and Lemyanov (picture right). My diploma has nr. 68. It is uncertain how many are issued, but I got a 2nd place for Denmark. 

Krenkel now 'grabs' the Gagarin cards and includes them with the diplomas. As they are issued uniquely on the occasion of the USSR DX/MIR-contest, proven by the text on the reverse (MIRU-MIR = Peace to the World!), all Krenkels cards are sent to participants and no one else, some signed, some not, depending on how many Gagarin had time to sign. There could easily have been 1000 contest participants, but it is unlikely there were more than a few signed cards.
And who knows how many of those have been lost with time, dumped with 'useless' old QSL-cards as the old guard of Radio Amateurs have morsed their last 73 (=kind regards)?

Krenkel then writes the dedication "to OZ3CF" on top of the card. Although written in  the same colour as from Gagarin's pen, it cannot possibly be Gagarin writing this text - but Gagarin may have used Krenkel's pen to sign whatever number of cards Krenkel brought with him. It also looks as though Krenkel's signature on the diploma is produced using the same black ink/pen as on the Gagarin card. 

The enigma of one of the earliest Gagarin signatures after his space flight has thus been solved - with the help of Robert McLeod, an American collector of space memorabilia, and Mike Hewitt, G4AYO, an English radio amateur, who has researched Ernst Krenkel's history in minute details.

There are many fake celebrity signatures in circulation and Gagarin's is no exception. Even 'stamped' signatures produced after Gagarin's death exist,  but my story and the date create a unique provenance, that guarantees this one to be genuine.

SP5AHL, Henryk Kotowski,  Poland 1962

Nov. 2011.
On the wall of SP5AHL, my friend Henryk Kotowski, now SM0JHF, there's a banner reflecting the Sea of Peace, the East Block's pet name for the Baltic Sea).
I had this banner as well, but I have lost it in the chasm of time.
I thought for a while this pennant was sent to amateurs of the USSR DX/MIR contest - but he now tells me it was issued by the East German (DDR) radio organisation, presumably July 1961.
Memory is a joker!



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