Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, a carpenter’s son from the village of Klushino, Smolensk Oblast, did not have a promising start in life. In 1941, when Yuri was 7 years old, the Nazis captured his village, confiscated his family’s land and livestock, and burned down the town school, ending Yuri’s first year of education. The Gagarin family spent the next 4 years under German occupation.
After the war, the Gagarin family moved to Gzhatsk, where Yuri learned to read using old Soviet military manuals. (He was 12 years old.) For the next 4 years, he learned mathematics and science from a former Soviet airman in the Gzhatsk schoolhouse.
In the year 1950, a 16-year-old Yuri started as a foundryman’s apprentice at the Lyubertsy steel works, continuing his education at night. A year later, he completed his apprenticeship and moved up to the Saratov Industrial Technical School, where he studied tractors. He paid his way through school as a part-time dock laborer on the Volga River.
The busy young man found time for one other pursuit – one that would end up changing his life, his country’s place in the world, and the course of history. He began spending weekends at a local flying club in Saratov.
At age 21, Gagarin (who by this time had racked up several hours in biplanes and the Yakolev Yak-18) was accepted to the Higher Air Force Pilots School in Chkalov. He started in the Yak-18 in 1955, graduated to the MiG-15 in 1956, and first soloed in 1957. After logging 166 flying hours, he was commissioned as a Soviet Air Force lieutenant on 5 November 1957 – 25 days after Sputnik. The next day, Gagarin reported to his first active-duty Air Force assignment: a stint at Luostari Air Base near the Norwegian border. As the nearest Soviet air base to NATO territory, Luostari maintained MiG-15s on alert status, ready to take off to defend the Kola Peninsula. For the next two years, one of those alert pilots was Lieutenant Y. A. Gagarin – a man who had just 5 years previously been nothing more than a journeyman moldmaker and dockworker. By now, it was clear to everyone who knew this easygoing man from the remote northwest that beneath his calm features, there was a first-class brain.
While serving in a MiG-15 squadron at Luostari, Gagarin’s interest in spaceflight was piqued by the publicized flight of Luna 3 from 4-22 October 1959. Luna 3 was the latest in the increasingly ambitious Soviet Luna program, and the first spacecraft to transmit images of the Moon’s far side. Gagarin was spellbound, and he immediately applied to be considered for the Soviet space program. His commander endorsed his recommendation, and by November 1959, Gagarin was actually in the cosmonaut selection pipeline. He was a 25-year old first lieutenant with 265 flight hours.
The Vostok program was on a break-neck schedule to place the first human being in Earth orbit, competing with the American Mercury program to do so. 154 qualified Soviet Air Force pilots were recommended for Vostok from all over the country, and were whittled down to just 20 cosmonaut candidates – Gagarin among them. Now, Gagarin began training at Khodynka Airfield in Moscow. He and the other candidates were subjected to tremendously strenuous physical, psychological, and academic training. Even here, Gagarin’s peers recognized his capable nature: in an anonymous survey, all but three of the other candidates chose Gagarin as the man they would most like to see fly in space first (besides themselves).
On 30 May 1960, Gagarin’s top performance earned him a spot in the “Sochi Six,” the elite pool of candidates from which the first cosmonauts would be chosen for Vostok. (Cf. the “Mercury Seven” in the USA.) From here, the training grew only more arduous. Gagarin was subjected to oxygen starvation in an altitude chamber, spun in a high-G centrifuge, and even locked in an anechoic chamber for 10 days of absolute silence. By April 1961, the State Commission formally selected Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin as the primary pilot of the Vostok program.
On the morning of 12 April 1961, a Vostok-K rocket stood on the pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. Atop the Vostok-K was the Vostok 3KA No.3 spacecraft, and within that spacecraft was Yuri Gagarin. Five secret test flights of this vehicle type had been made. Those vehicles, Korabl-Sputnik 1 through 5, had carried mannequins, dogs, and scientific equipment, and their flights had met with varying levels of success. By this point, the Soviet record for space launches was 50-50; 12 out of 24 launches had failed. Moreover, two previous Vostok spacecraft had failed to reach orbit due to launch vehicle malfunctions and two more Vostoks had malfunctioned while in orbit.
Nevertheless, for two hours Gagarin sat atop 139,225 kg of explosives with astonishing calm. 30 minutes prior to launch, his heart rate was recorded at just 64 beats per minute.
With a burst of flame, at 06:07 UTC, 12 April 1961, Vostok 1 leapt from the lonely Kazakh steppes and onto the page of history. At liftoff, the Chief Designer of the Soviet space program, Sergey Korolev, radioed to Gagarin that everything was all right. Gagarin replied, “Поехали!” (Poyekhali – “Let’s go!”) – a phrase which would reverberate among the entire Eastern Bloc just as “Godspeed, John Glenn” or “One small step …” would in the West. In just ten minutes, Gagarin went from a dead stop to a blistering 7.76 km/s (27,919 km/h). At this speed, it would have taken just 8 hours for Gagarin to cover the same distance he had flown during his past 4 years in the Air Force.
By modern standards, Vostok 1 was hair-raisingly unsafe. Due to launch mass restrictions, the deorbit motors had no redundancy. This was mitigated during mission planning: the life-support system could run for 13 days and there were 13 days of rations in the capsule; this would supposedly have kept Gagarin alive long enough for his trajectory to decay naturally. (Gagarin’s actual orbit was higher than the planned orbit and would have taken 20 days to decay. Gagarin would actually have died a week prior to reentry if his retros had failed.) There was no onboard computer to speak of, only an electromechanical device known as Globus – essentially a souped-up World War II bombsight that could display the ship’s current position or indicate where the landing point would be if the reentry procedure were started. Finally, there were no worldwide communications. Later Vostok missions would have tracking ships dispersed far afield to keep the ship in contact with ground control, but Vostok 1 could only talk to stations within Soviet territory. Nevertheless, there were no serious problems during Gagarin’s single orbit.
At 07:25 UTC, 78 minutes after launch, Vostok 1 automatically oriented itself for retrorocket firing and burned the engine for about 40 seconds while off the Angolan coast. Ten seconds after retrofire, frangible bolts were exploded to separate the service module (containing support equipment) from the reentry module (containing Gagarin). However, the two modules unexpectedly remained connected by some wires which had failed to break. Around 07:35 UTC, Vostok 1 began reentry. The two modules began to spin wildly as they were still connected by the wires. If this kept up, Gagarin could have been spun to his death.
Thankfully, the wire bundle burned up somewhere over the Middle East and the attitude of the reentry vehicle stabilized. Gagarin experienced 8 to 10 Gs of acceleration during reentry but remained conscious.
At 07:55 UTC, at an altitude of 7,000 m, Vostok 1’s hatch was automatically blown off. Two seconds later, Gagarin’s ejection seat fired. He descended under a parachute, landing about 10 minutes later at 08:05 UTC on a farm field in the Saratov region.
According to the FAI rules in 1961, it was required that a pilot land with his spacecraft for it to be considered an official spaceflight. The Soviet Union officially reported that Gagarin had done so, even going so far as to instruct him to lie during press conferences. It was not until the year 1971 that the USSR publicly admitted that Gagarin had ejected and landed separately from the reentry module. However, despite this bit of underhandedness on the part of his government (as an American, I cannot but hasten to point out that the Mercury spacecraft was technically superior to Vostok in every way and was built to meet the FAI standards), Yuri Gagarin rightfully earned his place in history as the first man to fly in space, to orbit the earth, and to return safely. His rise from humble villager to Pilot-Cosmonaut of the USSR along with his immense bravery make him an international hero worthy of admiration and respect.
Naturally, Gagarin was highly decorated by his government following his famous flight. He was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union, Order of Lenin, Merited Master of Sports of the Soviet Union, and the inaugural award of Pilot-Cosmonaut of the USSR.
In addition to a pile of Soviet and other decorations, various other honors have been heaped on him. All Russian cosmonauts are trained at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City. Russian Air Force officers are commissioned from the Gagarin Air Force Academy. The town of Gzhatsk was renamed Gagarin in 1968. Even the United States paid tribute to Gagarin during the height of the Cold War: the Apollo 11 crew, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, left a satchel containing medals memorializing Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov (another fallen cosmonaut) at the Sea of Tranquility. Later, the crew of Apollo 15, Dave Scott and James Irwin, left a sculpture called Fallen Astronaut at their landing site on the eastern edge of Mare Imbrium. The sculpture is accompanied by a plaque containing Gagarin’s name along with other fallen astronauts and cosmonauts. In 1970, the crater Gagarin, a 262 km-wide crater on the Moon’s far side was named for him.
Even the date of Gagarin’s flight has been commemorated. From 1962 to 1990 in the Soviet Union and from 1991 onwards in Russia, 12 April has been celebrated as Cosmonautics Day. In 2001, the first “Yuri’s Night” celebration took place in the USA on the 40th anniversary of Vostok 1. It has continued every year as a celebration of spaceflight milestones. In 2011, on the 50th anniversary of Vostok 1, the UN designated 12 April as the International Day of Human Space Flight.
Tragically, Yuri Gagarin was killed in a MiG-15 crash on 27 March 1968. He was just 34 years old. The circumstances leading to the crash that killed him and test pilot Vladimir Seryogin remain unclear to the present day. Various sources implicate air traffic control errors, out-of-date meteorological data, and even unsafe maneuvering by a nearby Su-15. Whatever the reason, this was certainly an ingnominious end for such a celebrated man.
On this anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight, I invite you to contemplate the strides that have been made since that day 62 years ago. Since then, spaceflight has only increased in scale and technical achievement. Men have been to the moon; the USSR, Russia, the United States, and China have built progressively larger and more complex space stations; people have lived and worked in low Earth orbit continuously for 22 years now. Robotic probes have visited every planet of the Solar System and some have even left it entirely. Television, voice, and data now come to us via space. Truly exquisite weather and climate data are now available due to space-based platforms. GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, and Beidou provide position, navigation, and timing signals that are crucial to 21st-century life. We’re almost to the point of ridiculously capable fully-reusable spacecraft. As if the importance of these (and other) technologies weren’t obvious enough, military services have been established to organize, train, and equip forces to control spacepower for their respective nations. (Yes, the USSF is not the world’s first space force; just the first English-speaking one.)
All these technologies and the progress they have brought would not be here today if it were not for the men who took part in the heroic age of spaceflight. And among those men, it is only right to consider Yuri Gagarin to be the first among equals.
Topics: history politics technology