On April 12, 1961 at 9:07 AM Moscow time, the engines of the Vostok (East) rocket ignited. The rocket flawlessly cleared the launch pad carrying 27-year-old Soviet Air Force pilot Major Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin inside the 4,725 kg Vostok 1 spacecraft into outer space.
The launch from the Baikonur spaceport marked a historic movement in human quest for space travel. This one small step in space exploration opened the gates to the heavens for mankind.
In an orbital spaceflight lasting 108 minutes which included 89 minutes in space, Gagarin completed one single orbit around the earth covering a distance of 40,200 km (25,000 miles) to become the first human being in space and to orbit the earth.
At the lowest point during the orbit the Vostok spacecraft was at a height of 175 km and at its highest point it was at 302 km from the earth’s surface.
On February 20, 1962 John Herschel Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth and the fifth human being in space.
Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova became the first woman in space and to orbit the earth on June 16, 1963 in her Vostok 6 spacecraft.
The big question was can human beings survive space flight?
Though numerous experiments were conducted on ground and 3 test launches were done using dogs, no one was sure how exactly the human body would cope with the stress and G-forces of a rocket launch. No one was sure about the effects of space travel on human bodies.
The scientist and engineers designing the Vostok 1 spacecraft decided to make the entire mission to work in full automatic mode with additional control from the ground due to the fact that they were unsure if a human being would be able to pilot a spacecraft safely in these extreme conditions.
Scientist also feared that human beings may lose consciousness once the effects of gravity is lost.
There were minimum onboard control options available for the cosmonaut because no one was sure how effectively can a human being work in space when there is no gravity and effects weightlessness sets on.
An emergency override for manual control was however provided for the cosmonaut as a backup if the automatic systems were to fail.
Gagarin was one of the most cheerful cosmonaut to fly into space. He happily reported everything he saw and felt during the entire mission.
Every status report he sent contained details about how he was feeling physically and mentally onboard the spacecraft. This information was of particular interest for the scientist at mission control.
During Gagarin’s first flight his pulse rate, pneumogram and ECG in two leads were monitored and relayed back to ground stations. Pneumogram (Test: pneumography) monitors the breathing rate, oxygen levels in blood and the heart rates.
Among other parameters the following are main parameters currently monitored on astronauts on extended space missions to the International Space Station (ISS)
- Blood pressure, pulse rate and pneumogram
- 12 leads ECG
- Ballistocardiography (BCG)
- Seismocardiography (SCG)
- Rheoplethysmography (RPG)
- Blood and urine lab and biochemical analysis
Vostok 1 was designed to stay in orbit for many days and had enough supplies for 10 days in orbit. The first mission was limited to less than 2 hours and a single orbit because the scientists were not sure how the effects of weightlessness would affect a human being in space. In fact, the second cosmonaut to orbit the earth did suffer from space sickness due to his mission lasting one day.
Another reason for the spacecraft to carry so much backup was to make sure that if the braking rockets (retrorockets) were to fail or did not provide sufficient braking then the spacecraft could use natural orbital decay to reenter the earth’s atmosphere in the coming days.
Timeline of Gagarin’s historic 108-minute space adventure
0:00 – The 2 stage Vostok rocket is brought to life at 9:07 AM Moscow time by Sergei Korolev when he radios the launch commands for engine start and the mission officially starts at his command “lift off”.
0:01 – The Vostok rocket lifts off and flawlessly clears the launch pad and starts accelerating towards the sky. Korolev wishes Gagarin a good flight with an assurance that everything will be all right. Gagarin replies by radio with an eager Let’s go! (Russian: Poyekhali!)
01:59 minute – The four side boosters successfully separate from the central booster.
2:59 minutes – The central booster accelerates Gagarin to 28,000 km/h (17,500 mph) fast enough to escape the earth’s gravity. Gagarin is experiencing maximum G forces and the flight is at its most stressful point.
3 minutes – The central booster separates from the final stage and start to decelerate and finally falls back to the earth.
3:01 minutes – The rocket after shedding its used weight is now lighter and capable of traveling much further to escape the pull of the earth’s gravity. The engines of the 2nd stage ignites taking the spacecraft into space.
5 minutes – Gagarin becomes the first human being to look back at our planet from outer space.
He says that his view of the earth is perfect and he describes how the earth looks covered with clouds from space to mission control.
He radios back to the mission control that he feels perfectly fine and gives a status update that flight is continuing normally and everything seems to be working fine.
7 minutes – The Vostok spacecraft travels over central Russia. He radios back a status update indicating that all systems are functioning normally and says “Let’s keep going”.
8 minutes – The Vostok spacecraft travels beyond the range of the ground station receivers at the launch site and the quality of communication drops rapidly. The telemetry data suggests that the missions is progressing as planned.
Gagarin radios back one final status update before radio contact is lost. He says that he feels perfectly fine and the flight is progressing normally.
The final stage keeps accelerating the spacecraft higher and faster in order to completely escape the grips of earth’s gravity.
9 minutes – All perceived sensation of speed and movement stops and Gagarin starts to experience the effects of lack of gravity on his body.
10 minutes – The finally stage completes its mission and shuts down. The spacecraft reaches its desired orbit.
10:10 minutes – The finally stage separates from the spacecraft which continues to orbit the earth.
11:26 minutes – The Vostok spacecraft travels over Siberia and reestablishes communication with a ground station there. Gagarin radios back a status update indicating that all systems are functioning normally.
14 minutes – The Vostok spacecraft travels over Kamchatka peninsula which is at the eastern end of Russia.
Gagarin radios back a status update which included various system parameters indicating that all systems are functioning normally.
He also mentions about his wellbeing and says the pressure, humidity and temperature inside the capsule is normal.
Doctors and scientists at the mission control are carefully monitoring Gagarin’s vital signs and are happy to learn that he seems to be perfectly fine.
18 minutes – The Vostok space craft starts to cross the Pacific Ocean from Kamchatka peninsula located at the north most eastern end of the Pacific Ocean in a diagonal manner towards the south most western end of South America.
Gagarin has established a new radio link with a ground station in the region and at this point Gagarin is eager to know from ground station how his mission is progressing as per their telemetry data.
They do not have sufficient data and is not able to fulfill Gagarin’s request.
24 minutes – He radios back a status update indicate his overall wellbeing and in an eager and happy tone.
At this point the spacecraft travels beyond the range of the ground station in the region and the message is not clear and Gagarin’s request for data updates from ground station is not fulfilled.
25 minutes – Mission control finally receives confirmation that the Vostok space craft had reached its desired orbit and all flight parameters are perfectly normal.
30 minutes – The Vostok spacecraft travels over the Pacific Ocean north of Hawaiian Islands into the skies over the southern tip of South America.
39 minutes – The ground station request Gagarin to monitor the instruments and report back when the spacecraft’s automatic braking system (retrorocket) is activated after it successfully receives the activation command from ground control. This system helps the spacecraft decent from orbit.
41 minutes – Gagarin radios back the regular status update about his wellbeing and includes the parameters about the pressure, humidity and temperature inside the capsule. All systems are working perfectly fine.
42 minutes – Gagarin reports back that he is on the night side of the earth
44 minutes – Gagarin reports that the systems required to realign the spacecraft for braking is activated.
53 minutes – The Vostok space craft reaches the south most tip of south America.
54 minutes – A regular status update is sent, but it is not received by the ground stations because it is beyond the range of their antennas.
60 minutes – The automatic systems have realigned the spacecraft in the required position for the braking rockets to fire.
62 minutes – Another lost status report. Gagarin sends a few more reports for the next 14 minutes with most of the status reports not being received by the ground station.
76 minutes - The retrorockets are activated. The braking engines fire for 42 seconds which is long enough to slow down the Vostok spacecraft for reentry back into the earth’s atmosphere. The spacecraft is above the west coast of Africa and is about 8000 km from its destination.
76:42 minutes - The retrorocket completes the deceleration and braking process.
76:52 minutes – A command is sent from the ground control for the retrorocket module to separate from the main capsule containing Gagarin.
A malfunction occurs and the service module and the Gagarin’s capsule remain attached to each other
88 minutes – The service module containing the used braking rocket and Gagarin’s capsule enters the earth’s orbit tumbling around violently.
If they will not separate, Gagarin may not be able to exit the capsule and deploy the braking parachute. The whole mission could be compromised.
90 minutes – All radio contact is lost due to interference with the earth’s atmosphere and high surface temperatures of the capsule.
All what the mission control can do now is to wait for the automatic systems to work as per plan and wait till the capsule descends to lower atmosphere.
During this phase of the flight, Gagarin was experiencing more than 8G on his body but never lost consciousness during the entire flight.
90-95 minutes – As the spacecraft crosses over Egypt, somewhere around this time the extreme heat of reentry finally burns through the cables attaching the main module and the retrorockets and safely separates them.
107:58 minutes - Gagarin exits the main module as per mission requirements at 7 km above the ground using a ejection seat.
108 minutes – After clearing the main module, Gagarin deploys his parachute successfully. Parachutes are also deployed automatically to slow down the main module a little later at an altitude of 2.5 km.
10 minutes later - Gagarin lands back in Russian soil after successfully completing his mission.
Near his landing site, he met a farmer and her daughter who were shocked and terrified to see a man in a bulky orange suit dragging his parachute.
Gagarin tried to calm them down by saying that they need not fear him and he was a simple Soviet citizen just like them and he just landed from space.
He asked them where the nearest telephone was because he needs to call Moscow.
The man behind the scenes
Legendary soviet scientist Sergei Pavlovich Korolev was the rocket’s chief designer and the mission carried his lifelong dream of space exploration.
His rockets also helped put the world’s first satellite (Suptnik-1) into orbit. In fact his work is so legendary that even today a version (Soyuz) of his rocket is used to carry astronauts to the international space station.
Vostok rocket family was a modified rocket based on the world’s first ICBM the R7 rocket.
It was modified to be able to carry the Vostok 1 spacecraft with a human being into space and return back to earth safety.
It is important to note that he also had designed a moon rocket called the N1 for landing a cosmonaut on the moon surface. In fact, he also had a lunar lander almost ready for the mission.
The N1 was almost as powerful as the American Saturn V designed by German born Wernher von Braun which took Neil Armstrong to the moon on his Apollo 11 mission.
N1 project was started 5 years after the Saturn V project and it had a shoe string budget that made it largely underfunded.
The project was also engulfed in a fierce political struggle with the government and a conflict of interest between its chief designer and chief engine designer.
Against all odds, Korolev managed to deliver the rocket design. After the launch of Sputnik, he once said, I wish I am given enough time because I have so much more to do.
Like all his previous rockets, Korolev's plan was to build the N1 first and then perfect it through trial and error method for which he needed time. However, time was a luxury that Korolev did not have.
During a routine surgery, he passed away on January, 14 1966 which lead to the derailing, mismanagement and finally cancelling of the N1 project.
There was no one influential enough to head such ambitious project and his rivals envied his success and was determined to stall the N1 project so that they could start fresh on a new project own their own.
The Soviets were only interested in quick propaganda "first" victories and the military unlike previous rocket projects did not support the N1 project. With the 1969 American moon landing, they were not interested in starting a fresh project for landing a cosmonaut on the moon and so the funds were diverted into other projects.
With the death of Sergei Korolev died the Soviet plan to put a man on the moon with a soviet made spacecraft.
The invisible man
Sergei Korolev was first to design the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), launch the first satellite, first man and woman into orbit, engineer the first spacewalk.
His identity was kept a state secret and because of this secrecy he lost the chance to win two Nobel Prizes.
The Nobel committee asked for his name twice in order to award the person behind the success and if revealed he could have easily won two Nobel Prizes for his work that lead to the launch of the first satellite and first human being in space.
He always remained as a shadow figure among his colleagues and was known only by his designation “The Chief Designer” outside the tight knit community. He was never appreciated in public for his works till his death in 1966.
Some interesting facts
Here is a list of interesting facts behind Gagarin and his first space flight
Gagarin’s landing spot
The precise location of the landing was difficult to calculate due to various factors that could sent the spacecraft off the planned course. Gagarin landed 280km west of the originally planned landing site.
As per mission requirements, Gagarin had to exit the spacecraft above 23,000 ft (7km) and parachute back to earth. There was a possibility that the local police or security forces may find Gagarin first before the rescue team arrived.
Gagarin’s first flight into space came at a time of heightened tensions between USSR and USA after the shooting down of the U2 spy plane by the Soviets while flying over Russia the previous year.
Francis Gary Powers’s U2 plane was struck by a surface-to-air missile and he had to bail out and land using a parachute.
It was decided to paint CCCP (USSR) in big bright red letters on Gagarin’s helmet to make sure he was not harmed by any of the local police or security forces after his landing by mistaking him for a foreign agent after he parachuted back to earth.
The entire mission was kept secret and the public was made aware only after Gagarin completed his mission.
Asif like a miracle, Gagarin after his first space flight landed in the exact same location where he first took to the skies six years back in a small airplane (YAK 18) from the Saratov flying school. He was very familiar with the location and quickly recognized it.
There were many other candidates that were more skilled than Gagarin, but most of them failed to clear the strict medical and physical endurance test required for early space flights. One of the most difficult test was the endurance test in a hyperbaric chamber at an altitude of 14,000 meters with just a simple oxygen mask and plain cloths. Many suffered nitrogen boiling in their blood and this test eliminated many potential candidates.
First in line
During the first interview for the selecting of potential future cosmonauts, Gagarin was the first candidate to attended the interview and he made an ever lasting impressions on everyone on the interview board, especially its chief director who was one of the key people to make the decision on who should fly first.
When the chief designer Sergei Korolev finally met the shortlisted future cosmonauts, it was again Gagarin who talked with him first and once again he made a positive impression on the chief.
20 Cosmonauts were selected from a huge list of more than 3000 potential candidates. After training 6 cosmonauts were shortlisted for the first Vostok flight. On 8th April Gagarin was selected as the first person to fly and Titov was kept as his backup. Titov was selected as the second cosmonaut for the Vostok 2 mission.
Psychologists have long debated that it is important to be early and if possible one of the first candidates for interviews due to the possibility of the interviewers making up their mind after the first few candidates, we will never know for sure, maybe this helped favor Gagarin during the final selection.
What's in a name?
Gagarins’s backup cosmonaut was Gherman Stepanovich Titov who became the second person to orbit the earth and fourth person in space on August 6, 1961 in his Vostok 2 spacecraft.
The Soviets knew that the first flight will be a big propaganda victory for USSR and the man to achieve this will make news headlines all around the world. So they needed someone with a Russian sounding name.
It is rumored that Gherman was supposed to the first cosmonaut in place of Gagarin, but was kept as backup instead due to his name that sounded more like “German” and the fact that Gagarin had a more pleasing personality.
Others say he was physically more fit than Gagarin and that the second mission Vostok-2 required more hours in space. So he was selected for the more physically intensive mission. Again, we will never really know the truth.
Being composed under stress
During previous test launches the Vostok rocket did not perform well and many of the test launches ended in failures. Gagarin was aware about these failures and while he was strapped down to the world’s most powerful rocket at the time he knew that he had a little more than 50% chance that his mission would be a success.
Just before launch it was noted that Gagarin was unusually calm, relaxed and his pulse was record at just 64 beats per minute. At the same time, the rocket’s chief designer almost had a heart attack due to the level of stress he was under before the launch.
Gagarin during his early teenage years had worked in a smelting factory for many years where the conditions were very stressful and harsh.
During his reentry into the earth’s atmosphere after his first space flight, the Vostok capsule started tumbling and burning up due to the atmospheric friction.
Gagarin could see this though his view port and believed that capsule may not be able to withstand the reentry forces. However, he remained relaxed, composed and even radioed back mission status to mission control in a calm voice.
He did not want to create panic at mission control by sounding that he was in fear even when the capsule was tumbling violently.
As per mission plan and requirements, he was able to undertake the necessary steps to exit the capsule in time and land safely back on earth.
The controversy behind the first space flight
Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) is the world authority for air sports and aeronautics related achievements. As per FAI rules in 1961 for a spaceflight to be considered official, the pilot must land inside his spacecraft.
Soviet engineers had not yet perfected the Vostok spacecraft braking technology that was necessary for a soft landing.
To be on a safer side, Gagarin was instructed as planned to exit the Vostok spacecraft almost 7km above the ground during the final phase of the mission.
FAI later decided to rework the parameters of human spaceflight because they concluded that most important facts were the technological achievement behind the launch, orbiting and safe return of the human being and it was not important and insignificant how they landed after the mission was completed.
In honor of this great achievement the FAI annually awards the Gagarin Medal for that year’s aviation and space achievement.
Opening the gates to the heavens
With the historic space flight of Gagarin, he proved to the world that human beings can survive in space and got a place in the history books as the first human being to open the gates to the heavens.
His backup Gherman Titov became the second man to orbit the earth on August 6, 1961.
He also proved that human beings can work and live in space by spending more than a day in space and orbiting the earth a total of 17 times.
He was also the first person to manually pilot a space craft and take manual photographs and video from space.
All this he achieved before his 26th birthday making him the youngest human being to travel to space.
It is interesting to note that the launch pad used for Gagarin’s historic flight is being still used to this day.
Message to people around the world from the first human being to see our planet from outer space after his space flight:
Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!
- Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin
Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky is considered as the founding fathers of rocketry, spaceflight and astronautics. His works inspired many legendary rocket scientists including Sergey Korolev, Valentin Glushko and Wernher von Braun.
Yuri Gagarin was born in 1934 and Tsiolkovsky wrote in one of his final writings in 1935 “I can easily imagine who will be the first human to overcome gravity, he is Russian, he is the citizen of Soviet Union, most probably a pilot by profession. I can imagine his honest Russian face, his sharp blue eyes”
It’s amazing how accurate was his vision into the future and by all means his description perfectly fits Yuri Gagarin.
Space Medicine: After Gagarin’s first flight the data related to his vital signs during and after the flight were carefully studied and analyzed by medical experts.
They concluded that short terms exposure to weightlessness and space radiation did not cause any physiological or psychological changes in human beings.
Following flights also proved that human beings can work and live in space for an extended period of time. This also marked the beginning of a new discipline in medicine called space medicine.