Yuri Gagarin made history fifty years ago, in the midst of the Cold War, the USSR succeeded in putting him in space. Aspects of his mission were kept secret at the time, but Martina Redpath has pushed aside the veil of secrecy.

When pondering the successes of the space programs over the last 50 years perhaps the Apollo program springs to mind, perhaps even the International Space Station or Sputnik. Often overlooked and sometimes forgotten is the fact those fifty years ago, in the midst of the Cold War, the USSR succeeded in putting the first human in space. On 12 April 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into orbit onboard Vostok 1, at 06.07 UTC. He landed at 08.05 UTC. In those 108 minutes the USSR made history.

Image of Vostok-1_mission_patch

The first mission patch (Image via wikimedia.org)

The Soviet launch of Sputnik on 4 October 1957 became the catalyst propelling the existing Cold War rivalry ‘out of this world’. The launch of the first artificial satellite saw the Soviet Union jump to the number one spot in the clash of the superpowers and began the Space Age. The success of Sputnik suggested that the Soviet Union were more advanced technologically, politically and militarily than the US. A month later the Soviets succeeded again with another first, they were able to successfully launch a living being into space. Laika the dog, became the first earthling in space onboard Sputnik 2. The race for each superpower to achieve a manned spaceflight was well underway.

Just 3 days before launch on 9 April it was announced Gagarin would fly in Vostok (meaning East) 1, with Gherman Titov selected as a back-up. On 12 April both men were awoken at 02.30 UTC, they had breakfast underwent medical tests and were assisted into their spacesuits. Titov was helped into his suit first to reduce Gagarin’s time spent in the hot layers of fabric. After spending some time in the test seat while engineers ran some final checks, Gagarin was then transported to the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. On his way to the launch pad Gagarin needed to stopped for…let us call it a comfort break and beginning what is now a tradition today amongst cosmonauts, Gagarin ‘spent a penny’ on one of the wheels of the transport bus.

Image of Gagarin on a bus

Taking the bus to work: Gagarin on his way to the launch pad. Seated behind him is Gherman Titov, his back up. (Image credit: via NASA)

As the hatch doors were closed, it was soon discovered there was a problem with the seal which made them airtight. Engineers spent almost an hour removing screws and adjusting the sensors before the hatch was closed again. During this time as Gagarin awaited launch, he has been described as calm and half an hour before launch his heart rate was a normal at rest 64 beats per minute. Considering Gagarin was about to be shot up into outer place on top of a ballistic missile remaining cool and relaxed may not have been the easiest feat.

At 06.07 UTC Gagarin was launched into orbit onboard Vostok 1. He was wished a good flight and told that everything was alright by chief designer Sergei Korolev, to which Gagarin replied “Poyekhali!” meaning “Off we go!” Six minutes into the flight, the R7 rocket’s empty boosters had dropped off and the final rocket stage propelled Gagarin towards orbit. Gagarin reported that the flight was going well, visibility was good. A few minutes later Gagarin started to lose radio signal from ground control at the Baikonur Cosmodrome as he moved out of range of the radio stations on the ground.

Image of vostok1-launch

Vostok 1 launched by an R7 rocket. The white areas are frost caused by the very cold propellants under the skin. (Image credit: via NASA)

Ten minutes after launch the final rocket stage was jettisoned and Vostok 1 had reached orbit. The flight was controlled from the ground rather than by Gagarin as the Soviets feared weightlessness on a human may have negative implications so for fear of the mission being endangered, control was not handed to the cosmonaut. However, onboard in a sealed envelope was the combination code needed to unlock the controls in case of an emergency, although this was not used by Gagarin. Also another precaution taken by the Soviets was to have enough supplies for a 10 day spaceflight on board in case the retro-rocket necessary for re-entry failed to fire. Vostok spacecraft were designed to naturally re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere after 10 days. Vostok 1 achieved in one orbit around the Earth an altitude of 327km (203miles) above sea level and travelled at speeds of 27,400km per hour (~17000mph).

After 89 minutes in orbit the spacecraft’s automatic systems brought the craft to the correct orientation for re-entry. Vostok was a two-part vehicle. At this stage the spherical re-entry module (containing Gagarin) and the equipment module were due to separate but failed to do so. Metal straps held the re-entry module to the deadweight of the equipment module. As the two parts made their way towards the atmosphere, the spacecraft was tumbling wildly with Gagarin experiencing strong gyrations. Eventually the fierce heat of re-entry melted the straps and at this point both parts separated. Gagarin still suffered from the quick spinning of the module, he also experienced an unpleasant 8g during re-entry but remained conscious despite reporting that his vision greyed. The Vostok spacecraft were not capable to safely land a cosmonaut on the Earth whilst still inside so at 7km (4.4miles) above the ground, the hatch opened and Gagarin ejected and parachuted to the ground. The scorched ball of the re-entry module slammed into the ground leaving a dent still there decades later.

Gagarin landed not far from the town of Engels witnessed by a few unsuspecting spectators. A farmer and her daughter were the first to observe the unearthly scene of a figure in a strange bright orange suit dragging a parachute behind him. Gagarin recalls that they backed away from him in fear, until he reassured them he was a Soviet like them who had landed from space, in a need of a telephone to call Moscow!

Image of Gagarin's capsule

The Vostok 1 capsule now on display in the RKK Energiya Museum, Moscow. (Image credit: via Wikimedia)

In official reports released at the time there was no mention of the parachute or the ejection system used by the Vostok spacecraft. The reason behind this planned deception was to get around a slight technicality. According to the International Aeronautical Federation (FAI), unless the spacecraft landed with person still inside it would not count as a space flight. When Titov revealed ejecting himself out of Vostok 2 four months later, an investigation was launched into Gagarin’s flight. However, the FAI decided to redefine their definition of spaceflight, therefore not taking any credit from the Soviet success.

In just 108mins Gagarin went from an unknown to hero of the Soviet Union. Gagarin was the first human to see our planet from space, and the excitement that made its way around the world launched Gagarin into celebrity status and he toured the world. To learn more about the life of Gagarin, why not read Sinead McNicholl’s article. You can watch a video of Gagarin’s visit to England by clicking on the link below:
Hail Gagarin!

So fifty years this month the anniversary of the first human spaceflight will be celebrated. A statue celebrating Gagarin will be unveiled later this year in London. This significant achievement reflects human endeavour and technological advancement that has paved the way for mankind to travel into space. In a space race across the globe, onboard Vostok 1, Yuri Gagarin made history.

Image of_Martina Redpath

Martina Redpath, ESO (Image credit: Armagh Planetarium)

Article by Martina Redpath.


George Jones · April 18, 2011 at 08:54

That’s a great article and although I’ve been a “spacebuff” all of my life there’s a few new things I’ve learnt there…thanks.

andy · April 15, 2011 at 10:47

Good article!

yuri's a badass · April 12, 2011 at 22:47

How cute, a baby Death Star!

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