First Man in Space

April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. The 27-year-old cosmonaut’s mission lasted just 108 minutes and was fraught with drama: a break in data transmission, glitches involving antennas, a retrorocket and the separation of modules. And there was an overarching question that science had yet to answer: What would weightlessness do to a human being?
The flight was to be fully automatic, but what if weightlessness caused Gagarin to go mad and override the programmed controls? The engineers’ solution was to add a three-digit security code that the cosmonaut would have to enter to gain command of the spacecraft.
The flight was limited to a single orbit because of the questions about weightlessness, and Gagarin was supposed to parachute out of the capsule on return because a soft-landing system was not ready yet.
A top design official at the time, Boris Chertok, wrote in his memoirs that “Judging by modern standards of rockets reliability, we had no reasons for optimism by April 1961.”
However, James Oberg, a NASA veteran and currently a space consultant who has studied the Soviet space program extensively, says Korolyov( chief designer) and his men did all they could to make the flight safe.
“I don’t see any dangerous shortcuts in their approach to the Vostok,” he told the AP, adding that the two final launches before Gagarin’s flight were fully successful.
Despite the risks, competition for the mission was strong among the 20 young pilots on the short list, and Gagarin was the favorite. He was a man who made people feel at ease and radiated kindness, former cosmonaut Vladimir ShatalovGagarin, now 83, recalled at the Star City training center, which he headed for 20 years.
Just three days before blastoff from what would later be known as the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Gagarin was told that he was chosen for the mission. In a letter to his wife, Valentina, he asked her to raise their daughters “not as little princesses, but as real people,” and to feel free to remarry if his mission proved fatal.
“My letter seems like a final will. But I don’t think so and I hope you will never see this letter and I will feel shame later for that brief moment of weakness,” he wrote.
Gagarin’s rocket lifted off as scheduled on April 12, 1961, at 9:07 a.m. Moscow time. “Poyekhali!” (Off we go!), the cosmonaut shouted as he took off.
Korolyov and his engineers quickly got their first jolt: a signal suggesting a problem with the booster. It turned out to be just a break of a few seconds in data transmission. Gagarin’s confident reports from orbit eased the tension, and only after the flight, it emerged that an antenna malfunction had put the Vostok into a much higher and riskier orbit.
On re-entry, a glitch involving a retrorocket made the ship rotate swiftly, and the landing capsule was slow to jettison the service module. Scientists had to take a deep breath as they lost contact with the ship during its fiery earthward plunge.
Gagarin bailed out as planned, and parachuted onto a field near the Volga River about 720 kilometers (450 miles) southeast of Moscow. There he was spotted by a forester’s wife and her granddaughter who tried to run away from the stranger in his bright orange space suit and white helmet. They may have thought he was a U.S. spy “Hey, where are you running? I’m one of us!” Gagarin shouted. Then others arrived, realizing he was the cosmonaut they had just heard about on the radio.
First man in SpaceGagarin learned to his great surprise that while aloft, he was being promoted two levels higher, to major. Korolyov and others flew to the landing area and met with Gagarin at a Communist Party guesthouse. Their raucous reunion lasted late into the night. On April 14 Gagarin was flown to Moscow, where he was greeted by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and driven into town on a highway lined with cheering Russians.
Twenty-three days after Gagarin’s flight, on May 5, 1961, American Alan Shepard became the second man in space. But his suborbital hop lasted just 15 minutes. It wasn’t until John Glenn’s flight on Feb. 20, 1962, that an American managed to emulate Gagarin’s globe-circling feat. “Now let the other countries try to catch us,” Gagarin had declared after returning from space, and the U.S. quickly set out to do so. Barely three weeks after Shepard’s launch, President John F. Kennedy committed the nation to putting a man on the moon by decade’s end. The goal was achieved in July 20, 1969.
The first cooperative human space flight project between the United States and the Soviet Union took place in 1975. The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was designed to test the compatibility of rendezvous and docking systems for American and Soviet spacecraft and to open the way for future joint manned flights.
Since 1993, the U.S. and Russia have worked together on a number of other space flight projects. The Space Shuttle began visiting the Russian Mir space station in 1994, and in 1995 Norm Thagard became the first U.S. astronaut to take up residency on Mir. Seven U.S. astronauts served with their Russian counterparts aboard the orbiting Mir laboratory from 1995 to 1998. The experience gained from the Mir cooperative effort, as well as lessons learned, paved the way for the International Space Station.
In-orbit construction on the Station began in November 1998, and it has been staffed non-stop with international crews since November 2000. The first Station crew, made up of U.S. commander Bill Shepherd and cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev, was launched on board a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The crew returned to Earth on the Space Shuttle Discovery in March 2001.

Comments

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  1. Super says:

    I did not know the story. Thank you. It was very interesting.

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