The successful single-orbiting flight made Yuri Gagarin a hero and cemented Soviet supremacy in space until the United States put a man on the moon more than eight years later.
MOSCOW, RUSSIA – Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin was crushed in the pilot’s seat by the heavy J-forces, saw flames outside his spacecraft and prepared for death. His voice broke through the tense silence at the control center: “I’m burning. Goodbye, comrades.”
Little did Gagarin know that the smoldering inferno that he noticed through the alcove was a cloud of plasma that had flooded Vostok 1 while he was returning to Earth’s atmosphere, and he was still on his way back safely.
It was his calm calm under pressure that helped him make him the first human in space in 60 years.
Jagarin’s steel restraint was a major factor behind the success of his groundbreaking 108-minute flight. The April 12, 1961 mission encountered glitches and emergencies – from the failure of the capsule hatch to close properly just before the explosion to parachute problems in the last moments before landing.
Since 20 Soviet Air Force pilots were selected to train for the first manned space flight, Gagarin’s calm demeanor, quick learning skills and cheerful smile made him an early favorite.
Two days before the cruise took off, 27-year-old Gagarin wrote a farewell letter to his wife, Valentina, sharing his pride in being chosen to ride Vostok 1 but also trying to console her in the event of his death.
“I completely trust the equipment, you must not let me down. But if something happens, I ask Faliusha not to break the grief,” he wrote, using a nickname for her.
Authorities held on to the letter and eventually handed it over to Gagarin’s widow seven years later, after he died in a plane crash. She never remarried.
Gagarin’s pioneering flight in one orbit made him a hero of the Soviet Union and a world figure. After putting the world’s first satellite into orbit with the successful launch of Sputnik in October 1957, the Soviet space program rushed to secure its dominance over the United States by sending a man into space.
“The mission was set, and people were sleeping in their offices and shops in the factories, as in time of war,” recalls Fyodor Yurchikhin, the Russian astronaut who eventually made five space flights.
As the Soviet missile and space program raced to defeat the Americans, it suffered a series of launch failures throughout 1960, including the disastrous launch pad explosion in October that killed 126 people. Among the casualties was the commander of the missile forces, Marshal Mitrovan Nedlin.
Like Gagarin, Soviet officials were prepared for the worst. No safety system has been installed to rescue the astronaut in the event that another rocket explodes upon or after the explosion.
Authorities drafted three copies of a flyer about Gagarin’s trip for the official TASS news agency: one announcing a successful trip, the other in case of trouble, and the third for a mission ending in disaster.
Aside from possible engine malfunctions and other equipment malfunctions, scientists questioned an individual’s ability to withstand spaceflight conditions. Many worried that a pilot could go crazy in orbit.
Soviet engineers prepared for this position by developing a fully automatic control system. As an additional precaution, the pilot will receive a sealed envelope containing a secret code to activate manual controls of the capsule. The theory was that the person who could enter the symbol must be reasonable enough to operate the ship.
Everyone in the space program liked Gagarin very much, however, a senior instructor and chief engineer independently shared the secret code before the flight to save him the trouble of tampering with the envelope in case of an emergency.
Problems began immediately after Gagarin entered Vostok 1, when a light confirming that the hatch was closed did not turn on. Working at a frantic pace, a senior engineer and co-worker removed 32 bolts, found and repaired a defective contact, and put the screws back in just in time for the exact release.
Sitting in the capsule, Gagarin shot a tone. “Poyekhali!” – “We have to come back!” – He shouted when the missile fired.
As another precaution, the orbit has been planned so that the spacecraft will land on its own after a week if an engine failure causes the ship to strand strand. Instead, it resulted in a malfunction in a higher orbit that would have left Gagarin dead if the engine had failed at that point.
While the engine was running as planned to send the ship home, the loss of fuel led to an unexpected re-entry path and a higher speed that made the ship violently spin for an agonizing 10 minutes.
Gagarin later said that he nearly fainted while exposed to G forces exceeding 10 times the force of gravity. “There was a moment of two or three seconds when the machines started fading before my eyes,” he recalls.
When he saw a cloud of fiery plasma around his ship upon return, he thought his ship was on fire.
The soft landing system was not designed yet, so Gagarin kicked out of the unit with his spacesuit and deployed a parachute. While descending, he had to tamper with a viscous valve in his space suit to start breathing the outside air. A reserve waterfall was detected in addition to the main parachute, which made it difficult for him to control his descent, but he landed safely in a field near the Volga River in the Saratov region.
Gagarin was taken to Moscow to receive the heroes, where Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev praised him and was greeted by enthusiastic fans who cheered his trip as a victory on par with victory in World War II. In the years leading up to his death at the age of 34, he was basking in international glory, visiting dozens of countries to celebrate his historic mission.
“The huge propaganda impact of the launch of Sputnik, especially the Gagarin flight, was very important,” said Moscow aviation and space expert Vadim Lukashevich. “We have defeated America suddenly even though our country has not yet recovered from the heavy damage and losses” of World War II.
Gagarin was killed in a trainer plane crash on March 27, 1968. Not 16 months later, the United States defeated the Soviet Union in the Space Race, placing an astronaut on the surface of the Moon.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended the era of rivalry. Russia’s efforts to develop new missiles and spacecraft faced endless delays, and the country continued to rely on Soviet-era technology. Amid the recession, the heavily criticized state space company Roscosmos has focused on an expensive plan to build its new rocket-shaped headquarters at the site of a disassembled rocket factory.
Associated Press journalists, Kostya Manenkov and Kirill Zarubin in Moscow contributed to this report.