On April 12th, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made history as the first man in space during his groundbreaking flight as part of the Vostok program. Aboard the Vostok 3KA spacecraft, Gagarin successfully completed an orbit of the Earth fifty years ago today. During the Cold War, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were high, with the two countries locked into a rivalry with each other. Both nations were focused on achieving supremacy in space exploration. Gagarin’s spaceflight, less than four years after the USSR launched the first artificial satellite into space, intensified the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Yuri Gagarin, a pilot in the Soviet Air Force, was selected in 1960 along with 19 other pilots for the Soviet space program. Upon entering the space program, Gagarin was selected to be a member of an elite training group formed to select cosmonauts for the Vostok program. Upon undergoing physical and psychological endurance testing, Gagarin was selected due to a combination of his optimal physical characteristics and his intellectual capacity. At only 5 ft 2 in tall, Gagarin’s small stature gave him an advantage in the small cockpit he would later fly in. An Air Force doctor observed that Gagarin possessed a “high degree of intellectual development” and noted that “it appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends.”
Vostok 3KA, the spacecraft that would take Gagarin into space, was designed by Sergei Korolev and was originally designed as not only a spacecraft, but also as a camera platform to be used in the Soviet Union’s spy satellite program. The craft consisted of several parts: a spherical descent module, which contained instruments and an escape system as well as room for the cosmonaut, and a conical instrument module, which housed the engine system and propellant. The cosmonaut and the craft were intended to land separately; upon reentry, the cosmonaut would eject from the spherical descent module at an elevation of 23,000 feet and return to Earth via parachute.
Gagarin’s spaceflight consisted of a single orbit around the Earth lasting 108 minutes from launch to landing. Tucked into the Vostok 3KA, Gagarin launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome Site No. 1, located in present day Kazakhstan. As the spacecraft took off, Gagarin said “Off we go!” Six minutes after launch, Gagarin noted good visibility and was able to observe the Earth from his spacecraft. Five minutes later, Gagarin successfully entered the Earth’s orbit.
Orbiting the Earth
Upon entering the Earth’s orbit, the spacecraft began its journey by moving over Siberia and crossing over the Pacific Ocean diagonally. Twenty minutes after entering orbit, Gagarin reported feeling “splendid” before he crossed into night northwest of Hawaii. Eleven minutes later, he crossed over the equator, and began to travel over the South Pacific. After a brief period of being out of touch with ground stations, Gagarin once again crossed into daylight. Fifteen minutes after, Gagarin began to prepare for reentry.
To prepare for reentry and landing, the spacecraft began to undergo engine firing, also known as retrofire. Ten minutes after retrofire occurred, the spacecraft began reentry. When the spacecraft was 7 kilometers from the ground, the hatch released, ejecting Gagarin. Gagarin’s parachute opened almost automatically, and ten minutes later, Gagarin landed back on Earth. His first words upon landing, spoken to a woman and a girl near the site of landing, were “I am a friend, comrades, a friend!” In total, Gagarin spent 89.34 minutes in orbit at an orbital inclination of 64.95 degrees.
Gagarin’s experience in flight inspired him to encourage others to preserve the natural beauty of the earth. After his space flight, Gagarin noted “Orbiting Earth in the space ship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!” For a visual account of Gagarin’s voyage into space, check out the film ‘First Orbit,’ available on YouTube. The film recreates Gagarin’s Earth orbit with footage shot on board the International Space Station and also includes audio from Gagarin’s groundbreaking mission as the first man in space.
Photo credit: NASA