In the first months of 1961, both the United States and the Soviet Union were preparing to put a man into space. The US, still smarting from being beaten to the punch to launch the first artificial satellite1, was preparing its Mercury capsule. It would be some time before it would go into orbit, since the Atlas ICBM that would launch it was still being developed to make it capable of carrying a man. But the smaller Redstone could be used to send Mercury on a sub-orbital lob that would nevertheless achieve the goal of getting an American astronaut into space2.
Nobody really knew what the Soviets were up to, for their space programme was carried out in almost total secrecy, enabling them to hide their failures from the eyes of the world. This meant, however, that hard facts were replaced by rumour and counter-rumour, and in the absence of official denial it was anyone's guess as to which (if any) was closest to the truth. On 7 April word spread that a Soviet Air Force pilot, Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Ilyushin (son of the famous aircraft designer) had been hospitalised after a space mission went wrong. Eventually the true facts emerged: Ilyushin was indeed recovering at a Chinese health resort, but his injuries had been sustained in nothing more exotic than a car accident. So the world had to wait - but not for long.
On 12 April at 9.07 local time, Flight Major Yuri Gagarin lifted off from what would become known as the Baikonur Cosmodrome aboard Vostok 1. The launch vehicle was an upgraded version of the rocket that had launched Sputnik 13: a central core plus four strap-on boosters, each with a single engine equipped with four combustion chambers, so that to the untrained eye it looked as if no fewer than twenty rocket motors powered the vehicle. Gagarin went into orbit and so became the first man to experience weightlessness for more than a few seconds at a time in a training aircraft. He later reported being able to see the geometric shapes of collective farms in the Soviet Union, as well as the shapes of land masses, familiar from maps.
At 9.59 Moscow time came the news that the world was waiting for.
The world's first spaceship, Vostok, with a man on board, was launched into orbit from the Soviet Union on 12 April 1961. The pilot space-navigator of the satellite-spaceship Vostok is a citizen of the USSR, Flight Major Yuri Gagarin.
The launching of the multi-stage space rocket was successful and, after attaining the first escape velocity4 and the separation of the last stage of the carrier rocket, the spaceship went into free flight on a round-the-Earth orbit. According to the preliminary data, the period of revolution of the satellite-spacecraft round the Earth is 89.1 min. The minimum distance from the Earth at perigee is 175km and the maximum at apogee is 302km, and the angle of inclination of the orbit plane to the Equator is 65 degrees 4 minutes. The spacecraft with the navigator weighs 4,725kg, excluding the weight of the final stage of the carrier rocket.
It was an electrifying announcement - made, as was later pointed out, while Gagarin was still in space. To this day there are persistent rumours that other attempts to put cosmonauts into space, both before and since Gagarin, had ended in failure5. Had this been the case, the Soviet authorities would certainly have waited until Gagarin was safely back on Earth before telling the world.
The Americans were stunned. They had been beaten again, but the congratulations they sent to Moscow were perfectly genuine.
At first, no pictures of Vostok were released, leading to further speculation about what the spacecraft looked like. The dozens of stamps issued by the Soviet Union and the other countries of the Eastern Block showed a Buck Rogers6-style winged spaceship, though no-one thought they were accurate portrayals. In July, however, a full-size mock-up of the capsule was exhibited at the Tushino Air Display, hanging beneath a military helicopter. In fact, this replica comprised the final stage of the launch vehicle, with the spacecraft itself concealed inside the aerodynamic shroud that protected Vostok during the early stages of the flight.
It was not until April 1965 that the true form of the spacecraft was revealed, at the Economic Exhibition in Moscow. Vostok comprised two main parts: a spherical cabin section, 2.5 metres in diameter and so considerably larger than the Mercury capsule. As demonstrated on later flights, it was large enough to allow the cosmonaut to unstrap from his couch and enjoy the freedom of weightlessness. This was quite out of the question with Mercury, which was so cramped that some astronauts joked that one did not so much climb into it as put it on like a garment.
The cabin was attached to an equipment module, shaped like two fat cones joined at the wide ends. This contained the support equipment, main batteries and of course the retro-rocket that would bring the spacecraft down at the end of the mission.
At 10.25 Moscow time, when Vostok 1 was passing over Africa, the retro-rocket was fired to bring Gagarin home. It was at this point that things began to go wrong, though this fact was not revealed for nearly 40 years. The spherical cabin section was attached to the equipment module by four steel straps that met at the top, plus a cable trunk that plugged into the side and carried electrical signals back and forward. Though the straps were severed on command, the cable trunk failed to disconnect and for several moments the discarded equipment module was being dragged along behind Gagarin's cabin. This was potentially serious, since the cabin was weighted so that it would rotate to point the thickest part of the heat-shield in the direction of flight to protect its occupant from the fiery heat of re-entry. With the equipment module still attached, the cabin could not take up the correct attitude. Fortunately, after a few moments, the cable trunk burned through and the cabin section was able to rotate as planned.
Until the advent of the Space Shuttle, American space capsules parachuted down into the ocean, but the Soviet Union always preferred to bring its cosmonauts down on land. The Voskhod and Soyuz craft which came later were equipped with retro-rockets that fired just a metre or so above the ground to cushion the impact of landing, but Vostok did not carry these and it was necessary for the cosmonaut to eject from the capsule and descend by his own parachute. Gagarin was no exception, though for more than 20 years the Soviet authorities claimed that he had remained in the capsule all the way down. The reason for this deception was to satisfy the rules of the FAI7, which stated that a pilot had to take off and land in his machine for a record to be officially recognised. If it became known that Gagarin had ejected before touchdown, the Soviets were concerned that his achievement would be wiped from the record books.
But Gagarin certainly did eject, and came down in a field near Smelovaka, not far from Saratov, watched by a woman planting potatoes with her six-year-old daughter. Legend has it that she asked him: 'Have you come from outer space?' after observing his pressure suit8 and space helmet.
Gagarin replied: 'Yes, would you believe it? I certainly have!' He then hastily added: 'I'm Soviet!' as if to reassure the woman that he was not the advance guard of an interplanetary invasion force!
Two days later Gagarin was back in Moscow, where he appeared on the balcony of the Kremlin with a clearly elated Nikita Khrushchev. Forty-eight hours earlier no-one had heard of him; now he was arguably the most famous man on Earth. He embarked on a whistle-stop world tour, during which cheering crowds greeted him wherever he went.
Gagarin never flew in space again. He was in training for an early flight aboard the new Soyuz capsule in 1967, but was grounded following orders from the authorities, who did not want to risk the life of a Hero of the Soviet Union in another risky mission9. Thus it is even more of a tragedy that Gagarin should perish in a conventional air crash, on 27 March, 1968. His ashes were placed in the Kremlin Wall.
Today, a 40m-high titanium obelisk marks the field where he landed: the spot where the first of all Man's space flights came to a successful conclusion.