Yuri Gagarin drove around London in this Rolls with YG 1 plates

Fifty years ago on this day, three months after he became the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin was welcomed in London for a parade where he was given a Rolls–Royce bearing the plates YG 1 to drive.

When Yuri Gagarin was launched into orbit aboard Vostok–1 on April 12, 1961 and came back in one piece, he instantly became the world’s hottest parade material. Hot enough to momentarily melt the Cold War itself: on July 11, 1961, he arrived in London and “drove to the Russian Embassy in an open Rolls—Royce, YG 1, with a hammer and sickle pennant flying from the bonnet,” as reported by The Times in its July 12 issue.

The report describes a scene that “bordered on hysteria,” as London’s citizens greeted the Soviet cosmonaut, but not with every trace of Britishness gone: “the major smiled disarmingly, and one woman, delighted to find a touch of human fallibility in the hero of space, called out: ‘He’s cut himself shaving.’”

As you’ve no doubt been saturated with all things Gagarin this year, let’s note just one aspect of his big day in space: the incredible balls it took to board that R-7 Semyorka rocket on April 12. The spacemen of the day were, of course, military test pilots, in an age when that profession was about as safe as being a Grand Prix driver, and they were no doubt used to handling deadly machinery on the bleeding edge of technology. On top of a modified intercontinental ballistic missile, going to a place which everyone in history had seen but where no one had gone before, knowing full well that the energy of that rocket would soon be concentrated in one tiny metal sphere in the form of orbital speed, that you would be leaving the only known planet hospitable to human life, that you wouldn’t make a clean and pleasant return and you’d have to bail out on the border of the stratosphere and the troposhere after taking a load of g’s. And to know that you cannot fuck up.

And how incredibly sad it is that all things of note about human spaceflight would be accomplished in its first 11 years—and that for 39 years and counting, we’ve been sending our manned rockets to nowhere: the last one launched last Friday.

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Yuri Gagarin drove around London in this Rolls with YG 1 plates

Yuri Gagarin acknowledges the crowd on his arrival in Britain, as he leaves London Airport in a Rolls–Royce.

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Yuri Gagarin drove around London in this Rolls with YG 1 plates

Number plate YG 1 and radiator of the Rolls–Royce which took Major Yuri Gagarin from London airport (Heathrow) to the Soviet Embassy in London. Note: this is a vertical photo. Expand it to see the license plate up close.

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Yuri Gagarin drove around London in this Rolls with YG 1 plates

Gagarin arriving in London for a Russian trade fair.

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Yuri Gagarin drove around London in this Rolls with YG 1 plates

Gagarin and British Prime Minister Sir Harold Macmillan, 1st Earl of Stockton, on the steps of Admiralty House in London.

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Yuri Gagarin drove around London in this Rolls with YG 1 plates

Gagarin during his visit to Admiralty House, London to meet Harold Macmillan.

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Yuri Gagarin drove around London in this Rolls with YG 1 plates

Gagarin showing off a medal awarded to him by the British Interplanetary Society at a London press conference. Note: this is a vertical photo. Expand it to see Gagarin’s medal.

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Yuri Gagarin drove around London in this Rolls with YG 1 plates

Gagarin waving to the crowds in London after arriving at London Airport for a stay in England.

Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images

Yuri Gagarin drove around London in this Rolls with YG 1 plates

Gagarin arrives at London Airport, bound for the Soviet Exhibition at Earl’s Court, London. He is wearing the uniform of a Russian major, his rank in the military.

Photo by Central Press/Getty Images