It was a spring morning on the arid, hot steppes of Kazakhstan, the morning of April 12, 1961—fifty years ago today. A breeze was blowing across the strange girders and blocky buildings of the secret Scientific-Technical Range #5, carved out of the grim stepped by conscripts and prisoners over the past five years.
At the base of a silvery cone-shaped rocket now covered with frost, a bus pulled up and several men emerged, including two wearing white fishbowl helmets and bulky orange-colored pressure suits—Gherman Titov and Yuri Gagarin. As Titov stood by in case of a last-minute hitch, Gagarin ascended to the top of this rocket, where he was strapped into the Vostok spacecraft for the first attempt a human spaceflight.
Once the hatch closed, Gagarin had nothing to do but wait. His radio link was a fellow cosmonaut, Pavel Popovich, who asked if he wanted anything. “A little music would be nice.” So the communications team fed him some music.
Imagine what it must have been like… wrapped in a bulky suit and helmet, strapped to an ejection seat, lying on your back, waiting to do something no human had ever done.
And knowing the risk. There had been seven unmanned tests of the Vostok spacecraft and booster since May 1960… and two of them had failed to one degree or another, with one rocket exploding on launch, killing a pair of dogs, and another one failing to reach orbit and crashing in Siberia.
On that April morning, Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin was a 27 year old pilot in the Soviet naval air forces. He had grown up in the village of Gzhatsk, Smolensk District, a hundred kilometers west of Moscow, where his father was a carpenter.
When Yuri was 7, the Germany Army invaded Smolensk, and stayed for two years. So Yuri and his brother, Valentin, grew up under Nazi occupation. Not a good time… food was scarce. The only solace was the hope that the Soviet army would soon liberate them; Yuri occasionally saw Soviet aircraft dogfighting in the skies above Ghzatsk, inspiring an interest in flight… Or possibly escape.
The war ended; Yuri was able to attend high school and an agricultural-technical school before entering the Saratov Industrial School heading for a career as a factory worker.
While at Saratov, however, he joined a flying club, making parachute jumps and taking flying lessons. Because he was so short—as an adult, he would never rise above 5’2”—he had to pad the seat of his Yak prop plane with books so he could see the instruments.
Promising young pilots were often recruited in to the Soviet air forces, and that’s what happened to Yuri. He was encouraged to apply to a military school, and at age 20 entered the higher military college at Orenburg, where he prospered, qualifying as a pilot in 1957. He was offered a cushy spot as an instructor at Orenburg, but opted for an operational assignment. He was sent to an interceptor unit near Murmansk, supporting naval operations far above the Arctic Circle.
1957 was an exciting time for Soviet aviation and space. Test pilots were at work on faster, more capable jet fighters and bombers while the first Sputniks began to circle the earth. In the fall of 1959, Gagarin was one of several young pilots in his unit summoned for a briefing about “exciting new work” that turned out to be a manned space program.
Gagarin volunteered and became one of 150 candidates summoned to a Soviet air force hospital in Moscow for examinations. In March 1960, he was one of 20 enrolled in the first group of Soviet cosmonauts, where he was soon subjected to rigorous physical workouts, parachute jumps, centrifuge rides, class work, and other training.
Soviet space officials realized that they lacked the time and facilities to prepare all twenty cosmonauts for the first Vostok flight, so in July 1960 they decided to focus on six. Gagarin was one of them. A month later, the “Vanguard Six” visited the nearby factory where they saw their Vostok spacecraft for the first time, and met the mysterious “chief designer” of Soviet spacecraft, Sergei Korolev.
Gagarin happened to be first in line to enter the spherical spacecraft. Before entering this marvel of Soviet engineering, Gagarin carefully sat down and removed his shoes. Korolev was charmed.
As unmanned Vostoks were launched, training continued. On January 17 and 18, 1961, Gagarin and the other finalists were subjected to a rigorous set of exams, testing their knowledge of the Vostok. A commission ranked Gagarin first, with Gherman Titov second and Grigory Nelyubov third. The final selection would be based on additional factors, such as a peer rating (all twenty cosmonauts were asked who among them should be first in space: 17 of them named Gagarin), personality (Gagarin was noted for an even temperament, “fantastic memory” and pleasant manner) and political purity. Like all of the early cosmonauts, Gagarin was a member of the Communist Party. He was also Russian, not Ukrainian or Georgian.
The final decision fell to Nikolai Kamanin, the air force general in charge of training. He was happy to accept the results of the tests, though in the last week before the launch attempt was tempted to swap Gagarin and Titov, since Gagarin had begun to express concerns about the state of rescue equipment aboard the spacecraft. Ultimately Kamanin decided that Gagarin was the better candidate for the first flight. “Titov will be better for a more ambitious mission.” Gagarin was told on April 9.
At 9:07 on April 12, the countdown reached zero. As the R-7’s first-stagerockets built up thrust, then lifted off, allowing the gantry to simply fall away, Gagarin uttered one word: “Poyekhali!” It’s usually translated as a jaunty “We’re off!”, but the audio recording clearly shows the tension in Gagarin’s voice. What he said was “Here we go—”, like a man embarking on a roller coaster ride.
The G-forces built up over the two minutes, with Gagarin making brief reports. Korolev asked, “How do you feel?” and Gagarin joked, “I feel fine; how about you?” At 5Gs, Gagarin reported that he was having difficulty talking. The R-7 performed as designed, its four strap-on boosters separating on schedule, its single core and then upper stage burning for a total of almost ten minutes, placing Vostok and Gagarin into an orbit ranging from 175 to 302 kilometers.
In his post-flight report to the State Committee, Gagarin noted that while weightlessness was “somewhat unfamiliar,” he was able to eat, drink, write in a log book and operate a telegraph key without difficulty.
He was also able to look out the window… the first human to truly see the Earth as a blue sphere below him as he flew across the Pacific, then South America. His ability to communicate with mission control was limited: the USSR did not have a world-wide tracking network.
TASS, the official Soviet news agency, announced the launch fifty-minutes after it had occurred… there had been considerable debate in the higher levels of the Soviet government about when to announce the event, with Korolev and his team lobbying for immediate revelation. They knew American intelligence agencies would be tracking the cosmonaut’s journey.
Gagarin’s time in orbit was relatively brief. Little more than an hour after reaching orbit, the cosmonaut braced for the automated retro-rocket firing, which took place at 10:25. Then the adventures began:
After retro fire, the spherical Vostok cabin was supposed to separate from its conical instrument section. The separation mechanism worked as planned, but the two sections remained loosely connected by a cable… and began to rotate around its axis. Gagarin was concerned: through his porthole he could see Africa, then horizon, then black sky.
It was only ten minutes later, as the upper atmosphere began to affect the spacecraft, that there was a clean separation.
Vostok descended in what, to Gagarin, was a ball of purplish flame. He could hear sharp, crackling sounds. The spherical craft also rolled from side to side as the G-forces built, and Gagarin noted the beginnings of a “gray out.” Thanks to his centrifuge training, he was able to strain against the the effect, and it cleared up.
Vostok fell to an altitude of 7,000 meters, when its main parachutes opened, and the circular hatch blew off.
Two seconds later, Gagarin’s ejection seat fired, flinging him into the sky. His chute opened as planned, and he descended toward a landscape that was familiar to him—the Saratov Region, where he and the other cosmonauts had undergone parachute training a year earlier—landing in a muddy field, to the amazement of several farm workers. One of them, a young woman who had heard the news of a manned flight on the radio, asked Gagarin if he’d come from space.
“Just imagine it! I have!”
Then he asked for a telephone, and walked into a new life.
Gagarin spent the next seven years as a public figure—Russians compare him to Elvis in popularity and visibility—though not happily. He was grounded for years, forbidden even to fly airplanes. He was burdened with administrative and political jobs. Eventually he managed to attend and graduate from an engineering university and resume cosmonaut training, but on March 27, 1968, he was killed in a plane crash near Moscow.
Long before that, however, thanks to Soviet secrecy combined with the myth-making of 20th Century life, the real Gagarin was difficult to find. To take just a few, he wasn’t a test pilot, he never claimed that he didn’t see God in space, he did indeed eject from Vostok and land by parachute (the Soviets lied about that for years), and he wasn’t murdered on orders from the Kremlin.
Yuri Gagarin was a bright young man whose skills and training gave him a unique opportunity… to be the first human to make a spaceflight. He did a good job, pioneering a trail that has since been followed by more than five hundred others—and doubtless thousands to come. That’s how he should be remembered.
Copyright © 2011 by St. Croix Productions, Inc.
Michael Cassutt is an American television producer and screenwriter, an SF and fantasy author, and an widely-acknowledged expert on the history of manned space exploration. His novels include Dragon Season (1991), Missing Man (1988), and Tango Midnight (2003). He is also the author of the multi-edition biographical reference work Who’’s Who in Space and the co-author of Deke! (1994), the autobiography of astronaut Donald K. “Deke” Slayton.