Let’s just take a moment to go back over the events that took place fifty years ago, on Wednesday 12 April 1961 in a lost region of Kazakhstan, then one of the republics of the Soviet Union. It was 05:30 in the morning when Yuri Gagarin got up. Despite the early hour, he was not in the least tired as he was highly motivated by the great adventure awaiting him and he had gone to sleep at 22:00 the night before.
A secret cosmodrome
As he readied himself to go down in history, this young man aged 27 years was, as it were, in a place that did not exist! The Tyuratam Cosmodrome inaugurated in 1955 was voluntarily dubbed Baikonur, a town that was actually 370 km away from the Soviet Spaceport! The subterfuge was intended to deceive spies working for “capitalist imperialism”. At the time, the world was divided into two, the Eastern Bloc against the Western Bloc and predominantly the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) against the United States.
At the same time as Yuri Gagarin, another potential cosmonaut was also getting up, 25 year old Gherman Titov. Both belonged to a selection of 19 men chosen by a medical commission as of 1959 with the objective of taking part in an incredible adventure: opening the gateway to space for the human race. However, Gherman Titov had the role of backup and was tasked with replacing Gagarin at a moment’s notice if his health should be ailing on 12 April. This was not the case. Both men ate their breakfast and were helped into their spacesuits.
Yuri Gagarin, image of the Soviet nation
Titov and Gagarin, like their colleagues, were subjected to testing training sessions and medical examinations. But the final selection was actually based on political criteria. Son of a teacher, Gherman Titov embodied less the ideal of the proletarian Soviet society than Yuri Gagarin whose father was a carpenter and whose mother was a farm hand. Whilst heading towards a modest career as a foundry man, he started going to a public aeroclub which led to him joining the air force. But it would be wrong to think that this origin in line with Moscow’s doctrine was the only criterion behind his selection. Yuri Gagarin also possessed unquestionable qualities; he was assiduous, hard working, physically resistant and composed. Furthermore, as an avid reader, his mother had instilled in him a taste for literature from an early age, and thus encouraged a certain intellectual awakening. And finally, the young man, despite his lack of height at one metre fifty-eight (ideal in fact for the tiny spaceship that he was to take) radiated an obvious charisma highlighted by a beaming smile.
Video tribute to Gagarin’s historic flight using archive photographs and films.
The transport bus stopped for a very practical reason. Gagarin and Titov were taken to the so-called launch pad no.1 by a transport bus. Both knew that the Soyuz rocket (at that time it was called the R7), a missile reconverted into a space launch vehicle at the top of which was placed the Vostok spaceship, was far from being a model of reliability: the 8K72K version totalled 8 failures out of its 15 flights! But the man behind this rocket, Sergei Korolev, was an absolute genius. One of the victims of Stalin’s purges, this engineer became the architect of his country’s brilliant successes in the space field including the first artificial satellite in history, Sputnik, on 4 October 1957. Initially disapproving of the orbital whims of Korolev and his followers, the Communist power changed its opinion when faced with the efficient propaganda provided by Sputnik and other space firsts. The 54 year old, Ukrainian-born engineer had long had his heart set on launching the era of human space flight. He had also directed the development of the Vostok spaceship and looked upon Gagarin as a son. The trust and mutual respect between the two men was undeniable. Gagarin consequently knew the risk he was taking, but he also knew that Korolev had put all his talent into the preparation of this flight.
However, whilst awaiting the historic moment, the future cosmonaut was taken short by a call of nature. The transport bus that was taking him to the launch pad stopped and he got out to empty his bladder. Although surprising, this action was also practical: his mission was not meant to last for more than a hundred or so minutes, consequently the Vostok spaceship did not have a toilet or any similar system; it was, therefore, just as well to get rid of as much as possible! Thereafter, Soviet and then Russian cosmonauts, and even guest astronauts from other countries, were to continue the ritual of urinating on the transport bus tyre in a surprising mixture of tradition and superstition (for obvious reasons, women just pretend).
“Off we go!”
At 07:00, an hour and a half after waking up, Yuri Gagarin took his seat in the Vostok perched atop the Soyuz rocket. The person assisting him was no other than Oleg Ivanovski, an engineer who subsequently took part in programmes sending robotic probes to the Moon, Venus and Mars. He leaned towards Gagarin and whispered the secret three-number code, 125, which would enable him to deactivate the automatic pilot system in the event of an unexpected happening. Smiling back at him, Gagarin told him that he already knew it, thanks to General Kamanin, head of cosmonaut training.
This exchange terminated, the closing of the circular hatch weighing a hundred or so kilos did not go as planned. From his control room, Korolev, renowned for his legendary demanding character, believed that the closing signal was not correct. A seal sensor was, in fact, giving a faulty reading. But Korolev immediately ordered that the thirty screws be taken out and the hatch removed so that it could be put back into position and screwed back down again! Strapped in his seat, Yuri Gagarin watched the goings on without showing the slightest anxiety.
It was 09:07 when the Soyuz rocket motors fired and caused it to blast off which is when Yuri Gagarin soberly uttered his famous “Off we go!” (“Poyekhali” in Russian).
“It’s very beautiful”
Two minutes later, the 4 lateral stages were released whilst the main body continued its thrust. The Vostok spaceship and its small additional thruster stage then took over. This final stage was released after an ascension lasting 11 minutes and 16 seconds. Yuri Gagarin was then in orbit and flying over Siberia. He was to reach a maximum altitude of 327 km with a speed of 28,260 km/h. Never had a human being travelled so high and so fast. And obviously, he was the first man in space. “I can see Earth” he reported over the radio along with other information. As he passed over the Pacific Ocean, he lost radio contact (according to plan) and therefore continued using Morse code. Gagarin was not at all bothered by the weightlessness and tapped out a poignant “it’s very beautiful”.
The first orbit of the Earth by a human being ended at 10:25. Above Africa, the service module attached to the spherical capsule fired its retrorockets. Thus slowed, the Vostok spaceship began its descent… when the unexpected happened. The service module was meant to separate from the spherical, re-entry part transporting the cosmonaut. But this did not happen and the spaceship began to spin. The cosmonaut stoically put up with this infernal “dance”. He said nothing over the radio as he knew that Korolev’s credibility was at stake. After ten suspense-filled minutes, the module finally gave way, its residual straps probably having been destroyed by the heat of the atmospheric re-entry. As a result, the spherical part of the Vostok slowed right down and Gagarin then weighed 8 to 10 times his weight. At an altitude of 7 km, he was ejected and parachuted back down to Earth. A detail that the Soviet Union long considered to be a state secret! This was because programme managers feared that this return by means of an ejection seat might be interpreted as a fault of the spaceship. And yet, it was part of the normal procedure as although the Vostok capsule also came back down under parachutes, engineers believed that it was still travelling too fast when it reached the ground and therefore resorted to using ejection. The spaceship and Gagarin landed on Earth 10 minutes apart after a flight that lasted 1 hour and 48 minutes.
A new era
Having landed in a field in the Saratov region (700 km south east of Moscow), the first cosmonaut had, above all else, to reassure a peasant and his daughter, somewhat surprised by this strange individual dressed in an orange suit (the colour having been chosen to make him easier to identify). Thus began a new era, Gagarin’s safe return proving that humans could go into space.
Moscow took advantage of this undeniable success to highlight the superiority of the Soviet society over American capitalism. It was true that the United States had fallen behind. Although they sent a human being (Alan Shepard) into space on 5 May 1961 (therefore less than one month later), this was a suborbital flight that did not go into orbit. It was not until February 1962 that John Glenn finally accomplished several orbits of the Earth.
Yuri Gagarin then became a real living symbol, that he did not necessarily accept with enthusiasm, the politicians having forbade him to take part in any further space adventures as he was worthtoo much to them in propaganda. This was a severe blow for the young man who, like his mentor Korolev, dreamed of human exploration of the Moon and Mars. The genius behind the Soyuz rocket, Sputnik and the Vostok unfortunately died following an operation in 1966. Deputy Commander of Star City, the cosmonaut training centre, Yuri Gagarin went on to graduate as an engineer in 1968. The same year, he forced the authorities to let him fly… although not in space and he consequently took lessons in flying fighter planes. Despite being accompanied by an experienced instructor, his Mig-15 crashed on 27 March 1968. It is believed that the aircraft of the two men was unbalanced by the wake of another airplane that had not followed the flight plans.
Without doubt a tragic fate, but also the fabulous fate of a young man who at 27 years of age led the way to the stars. Fifty years later on, this adventure resulting from the confrontation of two superpowers continues under the sign of co-operation with notably the International Space station uniting yesterday’s enemies.
Published on 1 April 2011