Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!Star Trek opening narration
We have all heard those words, countless times. Space exploration and adventures are a part of science fiction from it’s very beginnings. Jules Verne wrote about human spaceflight in 1865 in his novel From the Earth to the Moon. Wright brothers achieved powered human flight in 1903. And first man made object was launched into space in 1957 by Soviet Union. It was a period of Cold War, with heroes on both sides. This is the story of one of them: Yuri Gagarin, first man in space.
Yuri Gagarin’s Story
Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was born on 9 March 1934 in the village of Klushino near Gzhatsk (now in Smolensk Oblast, Russia). His parents, Alexei Ivanovich Gagarin and Anna Timofeyevna Gagarina, worked on a collective farm. Yuri was the third of four children, and his elder sister helped raise him while his parents worked. After starting an apprenticeship in a metalworks as a foundryman, Gagarin was selected for further training at a technical high school in Saratov. While there, he joined the ‘AeroClub’, and learned to fly light aircraft, a hobby that would take up an increasing part of his time. In 1955, after completing his technical schooling, he entered flight training at the Orenburg Military Pilot’s School. While there he met Valentina Goryacheva, whom he married in 1957, after gaining his pilot’s wings in a MiG-15. After graduation, he was assigned to Luostari airbase in Murmansk Oblast. He became a lieutenant in the Soviet air force on 5 November 1957, and was promoted to senior lieutenant on 6 November 1959.
After Soviet Union decided to launch a human being to space, a secret nationwide selection process was started in 1960 and Gagarin was chosen with 19 other pilots. Gagarin was further selected for an elite training group known as the ‘Sochi Six’, who would make up the the first cosmonauts of the Vostok programme. Gagarin and the other prospective cosmonauts were subjected to experiments designed to test physical and psychological endurance; he also underwent training for the upcoming flight.
Out of the 20 selected, the eventual choices for the first launch were Gagarin and Gherman Titov, because of their performance in training, as well as their physical characteristics — space was at a premium in the small Vostok cockpit and both men were rather short.
Gagarin was 1.57 metres tall. In August 1960, when Gagarin was one of 20 possible candidates, an air force doctor evaluated his personality as: “Modest; embarrasses when his humour gets a little too racy; high degree of intellectual development evident; fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his sharp and far-ranging sense of attention to his surroundings; a well-developed imagination; quick reactions; persevering, prepares himself painstakingly for his activities and training exercises, handles celestial mechanics and mathematical formulae with ease as well as excels in higher mathematics; does not feel constrained when he has to defend his point of view if he considers himself right; appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends.”
Gagarin was also a favoured candidate by his peers. When the 20 candidates were asked to anonymously vote for which other candidate they would like to see as the first to fly, all but three chose Gagarin. One of his colleagues, cosmonaut Yevgeni Khrunov, believed that Gagarin was very focused, and was demanding of himself and others when necessary. The program winnowed the cosmonauts down to two—Gagarin and fellow test pilot Gherman Titov—as finalists to make the program’s first flight into space. Some thought Gagarin made the cut due to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s preference for his more modest background (Titov was the son of a schoolteacher).
On 12 April 1961, at 6:07 am UTC, the Vostok 3KA-3 (Vostok 1) spacecraft was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome. Aboard was Gagarin, the first human to travel into space, using the call sign Kedr (Russian: ????, Siberian pine or cedar). Yuri was selected as the pilot, while his best friend, Gherman Titov was a backup. Both Gagarin and Titov wanted Titov to be the pilot, Gagarin because he felt Titov deserved it more, and Titov because he didn’t trust the safety of the flight and wanted his friend safe.
The radio communication between the launch control room and Gagarin included the following dialogue at the moment of rocket launch:
Korolev: Preliminary stage … intermediate… main… LIFT-OFF! We wish you a good flight. Everything’s all right. Gagarin: Off we go! Goodbye, until [we meet] soon, dear friends.
Gagarin’s farewell to Korolev using the informal phrase “Poyekhali!” later became a popular expression in the Eastern Bloc that was used to refer to the beginning of the Space Age. The five first-stage engines fired until the first separation event, when the four side-boosters fell away, leaving the core engine. The core stage then separated while the rocket was in a suborbital trajectory, and the upper stage carried it to orbit. Once the upper stage finished firing, it separated from the spacecraft, which orbited for 108 minutes before returning to Earth in Kazakhstan. Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth.
- 06:07 UT Launch occurred from the Baikonur Cosmodrome Site No.1. Korolev radioed, “Preliminary stage….. intermediate….. main….. lift off! We wish you a good flight. Everything is all right.” Gagarin replied, “Let’s roll! (Poyekhali!).”
- 06:09 UT (T+ 119 s) The four strap-on boosters of the Vostok rocket used up the last of their propellant and dropped away from the core vehicle.
- 06:10 UT (T+ 156 s) The payload shroud covering Vostok 1 was released, uncovering a window at Gagarin’s feet, with an optical orientation device Vzor (lit. “look” or “glance”).
- 06:12 UT (T+ 300 s) The rocket core stage used up its propellant and fell away from the capsule and final rocket stage. The final rocket stage ignited.
- 06:13 UT Gagarin reported, “…the flight is continuing well. I can see the Earth. The visibility is good…. I almost see everything. There’s a certain amount of space under cumulus cloud cover. I continue the flight, everything is good.”
- 06:14 UT Vostok 1 passed over central Russia. Gagarin reported, “Everything is working very well. All systems are working. Let’s keep going!”
- 06:15 UT Three minutes into the burn of the final rocket stage, Gagarin radioed, “Zarya-1, Zarya-1, I can’t hear you very well. I feel fine. I’m in good spirits. I’m continuing the flight…” Vostok 1 started to move out of radio range of the Baikonur ground station.
- 06:17 UT The rocket final stage shut down and Vostok 1 reached orbit. Ten seconds later the rocket separated from the capsule?
- 06:18 UT (T+ 676 s) Gagarin reported, “The craft is operating normally. I can see Earth in the view port of the Vzor. Everything is proceeding as planned”. Vostok 1 passed over the Soviet Union and moved on over Siberia.
- 06:21 UT Vostok 1 passed over the Kamchatka peninsula and out over the North Pacific Ocean. Gagarin radioed, “…the lights are on on the descent mode monitor. I’m feeling fine, and I’m in good spirits. Cockpit parameters: pressure 1; humidity 65; temperature 20; pressure in the compartment 1; first automatic 155; second automatic 155; pressure in the retro-rocket system 320 atmospheres….”
- 06:25 UT As Vostok 1 began its diagonal crossing of the Pacific Ocean from Kamchatka peninsula to the southern tip of South America, Gagarin requested information about his orbital parameters: “What can you tell me about the flight? What can you tell me?”. The ground station at Khabarovsk didn’t have his orbital parameters yet, and reported back, “There are no instructions from No. 20 [code name for Korolyov], and the flight is proceeding normally.” (Ground control did not know until 25 minutes after launch that a stable orbit had been achieved.)
- 06:31 UT Gagarin transmitted to the Khabarovsk ground station, “I feel splendid, very well, very well, very well. Give me some results on the flight!”. At this time, Vostok 1 was nearing the VHF radio horizon for Khabarovsk, and they responded, “Repeat. I can’t hear you very well”. Gagarin transmitted again, “I feel very good. Give me your data on the flight!” Vostok 1 then passed out of VHF range of the Khabarovsk ground station.
- 06:37 UT Vostok 1 continued on its journey as the sun set over the North Pacific. Gagarin crossed into night, northwest of the Hawaiian Islands. Out of VHF range with ground stations, communications continued via HF radio.
- 06:46 UT Khabarovsk ground station sent the message “KK” via telegraph (on HF radio to Vostok 1). This was a code meaning, “Report the monitoring of commands,” a request for Gagarin to report when the spacecraft automated descent system had received its instructions from ground control.
- 06:48 UT Vostok 1 crossed the equator at about 170° West in a southeast direction, and began crossing the South Pacific. Gagarin transmitted over HF radio, “I am transmitting the regular report message: 9 hours 48 minutes (Moscow Time), the flight is proceeding successfully. Spusk-1 is operating normally. The mobile index of the descent mode monitor is moving. Pressure in the cockpit is 1; humidity 65; temperature 20; pressure in the compartment 1.2 … Manual 150; First automatic 155; second automatic 155; retro rocket system tanks 320 atmospheres. I feel fine….”
- 06:49 UT Gagarin reported he was on the night side of the Earth.
- 06:51 UT Gagarin reported the sun-seeking attitude control system was switched on; this oriented Vostok 1 for retrofire. The automatic/solar system was backed up by a manual/visual system; either one could operate the two redundant cold nitrogen gas thruster systems, each with 10 kg (22 lb) of gas.
- 06:53 UT The Khabarovsk ground station sent Gagarin via HF radio, “By order of No. 33 (General Nikolai Kamanin), the transmitters have been switched on, and we are transmitting this: the flight is proceeding as planned and the orbit is as calculated.” Vostok 1 was now known to be in a stable orbit; Gagarin acknowledged.
- 06:57 UT Vostok 1 was over the South Pacific between New Zealand and Chile as Gagarin radioed, “…I’m continuing the flight, and I’m over America. I transmitted the telegraph signal “ON”.
- 07:00 UT Vostok 1 crossed the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America. News of the Vostok 1 mission was broadcast on Radio Moscow.
- 07:04 UT Gagarin sent another spacecraft status message, similar to the one at 06:48. This was not received by ground stations.
- 07:09 UT Gagarin sent another spacecraft status message, also not received by ground stations.
- 07:10 UT Vostok 1 passed over the South Atlantic, into daylight again. At this point, retrofire is 15 minutes away.
- 07:13 UT Gagarin sent a fourth spacecraft status message; Moscow received this partial message: “I read you well. The flight is going….”
- 07:18 UT Gagarin sent another spacecraft status message, not received by ground stations.
- 07:23 UT Gagarin sent another spacecraft status message, not received by ground stations.
The automatic orientation system brought Vostok 1 into alignment for retrofire about 1 hour into the flight. At about 7,000 metres (23,000 ft), Gagarin ejected from the descending capsule as planned and landed using a parachute. There were concerns Gagarin’s spaceflight record would not be certified by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the world governing body for setting standards and keeping records in the field, which at the time required that the pilot land with the craft. Gagarin and Soviet officials initially refused to admit that he had not landed with his spacecraft, an omission which became apparent after Titov’s subsequent flight on Vostok 2 four months later. Gagarin’s spaceflight records were nonetheless certified and again reaffirmed by the FAI, which revised its rules, and acknowledged that the crucial steps of the safe launch, orbit, and return of the pilot had been accomplished. Gagarin continues to be internationally recognised as the first human in space and first to orbit the Earth.
Later life and death
After the flight, Gagarin became an international celebrity, toured the world and was showered with honors by his country. Krushchev’s government awarded him the Order of Lenin, and named him a Hero of the Soviet Union. Gagarin’s triumph was a painful blow to the United States, which had scheduled its first space flight for May 1961. What’s more, a U.S. astronaut wouldn’t match Gagarin’s feat of orbiting the Earth until February 1962, when astronaut John Glenn made three orbits in Friendship 7. (By that time, Titov had already become the second Soviet to make it to space, making 17 orbits of Earth over 25 hours in Vostok 2 in August 1961.)In 1962, he began serving as a deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. He later returned to the Star City training facility, where he spent some years working on designs for a reusable spacecraft. He was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in June 1962, and then to colonel in November 1963. Soviet officials tried to keep him away from flying aircraft, being worried of losing their hero in an accident. Gagarin had served as back-up pilot for Vladimir Komarov on Soyuz 1. When Komarov’s flight ended in a fatal crash, Gagarin was ultimately banned from training for and participating in further spaceflights.
Less than a year later, on March 27, 1968, Gagarin himself was killed when a two-seater MiG-15 fighter jet he was flying with Vladimir Seryogin, crashed outside a small town near Moscow during a routine training flight. Gagarin’s ashes were placed in a niche in the Kremlin wall, while his hometown of Gzhatsk was renamed Gagarin in his honor.
An official investigation into the accident concluded that Gagarin swerved to avoid a foreign object—such as a bird or weather balloon—sending the plane into a tailspin that ended with its crash into the ground. But many aviation professionals viewed this conclusion as implausible, and rumors continued to swirl around the crash. Some thought Gagarin might have been drinking, or that he and Seryogin might have been distracted by taking photographs from the plane’s window. Others suggested a cabin pressurization valve could have failed, causing both pilots to suffer hypoxia. More outlandish theories included sabotage for political motives, suicide or even collision with a UFO.
Gagarin’s friend and fellow Russian cosmonaut, Alexei Leonov, was in the area on the day of the crash and served (along with Gherman Titov) on the board that investigated the accident. In 2013, Leonov announced on the Russia Today TV network that another report on the crash, recently declassified, confirmed the real story: A second plane being tested that day, an Su-15 jet, mistakenly flew far lower than its planned altitude of 33,000 feet, instead passing close to where Gagarin’s plane had been flying, around 2,000 feet. Such a large aircraft would be able to roll over a smaller one (like the MiG-15) in its wake if the two planes came too close to each other.
After running various computer simulations, the report concluded that the only viable explanation for the crash was that the Su-15 flew too close to Gagarin’s plane that day, flipping it and forcing it into an unrecoverable spiral dive towards the ground. When asked why the report remained classified for so long, Leonov replied “My guess would be that one of the reasons for covering up the truth was to hide the fact that there was such a lapse so close to Moscow.” Leonov agreed not to identity the test pilot of the Su-15, who was 80 years old at the time, as a condition of being able to go public with the truth nearly five decades after the history-making cosmonaut’s fatal crash.
A man CAN go to space and survive! Science Fiction became reality.
Space race continued, and Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961. Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon in 1969. Salyut 1 became the first space station in 1971. Reusable spacecraft became reality in 1981 with Space Shuttle Columbia.
Space exploration continues to fuel our imaginations and stories of adventures and new frontiers, from just beyond our atmosphere, to other galaxies, just as it did all those years ago when Jules Verne wrote about spaceflight. But we now know that it’s not just science fiction. It’s a science fact. And maybe, sometime, other things from science fiction will become science fact, like interstellar travel, artificial gravity, alien life forms….
But the first one to cross over into that final frontier, space, was Yuri Gagarin.
Yuri’s Night 2020 Goes Virtual
This year, the celebration called Yuri’s Night, celebrating Yuri Gagarin’s contribution to space exploration, planned in various parts of the world, have either been cancelled or gone virtual for the sake of keeping everyone safe during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Due to health concerns, and in cooperation with local health officials, the large Yuri’s Night parties planned in Los Angeles, CA, at the Kennedy Space Center in FL, and in London have been cancelled. This is the same of many events around the world this year. Although some events may be rescheduled for later in the year, our dedicated crew of volunteers is working hard to develop at Global Webcast for April 11 so that we can all celebrate together! This online event will be free and available to anyone around the globe. It will be an opportunity for people around the world to connect with each other while avoiding crowds. Join us on April 11! Details and more information will be available at http://party.yurisnight.net/globalwebcast.
A Sci-Fi and Fantasy fan, gamer (computer, tabletop, pen and paper) and dad from Zagreb, Croatia.
Love doing interviews, reading and cooking.