Yuri Gagarin before the start

Yuri Gagarin before the start; Image credit: Ministry of Defence of the Russian FederationCC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

60 years ago today Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. In the early hours of April 12th, 1961, he climbed into his tiny Vostok 3KA capsule and ventured into the – literally – unknown. No emergency retrorockets, no knowledge of what a spaceflight can do to a human body. Gagarin was well aware that only about a half of all Soviet launches were successful. His chances of safely returning back to Earth were not so great. “Poehali” (Let’s go), he said as the rocket lifted off. 

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The 108 minutes that it took Gagarin to circle around the Earth once changed history: now humankind was no longer Earthbound. For the Soviet government Gagarin’s achievement was of more practical significance: the country became the first to achieve yet another milestone in the Space Race. Three weeks after Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight, on May 5th 1961, USA successfully launched Alan Shepard into space. 

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Today, over 300 crewed take-offs and 500 astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts later, launching men and women into space became rather routine. So it is hard to even imagine what Gagarin should have felt in his unsafe – by modern standards – spacecraft, having no control over the flight and no previous experience to refer to. It took extraordinary bravery, self control and trust in Sergei Korolev, the Soviet Chief Designer, and other engineers who built Vostok as well as an immense desire to serve his country. ”If to be, than to be the first” (Если быть, то быть первым)  – these are the words of the Soviet test pilot Valery Chkalov that Gagarin would often quote. And first he was!

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Sadly, Gagarin is no longer with us to tell the story of his legendary flight. It is with awe (and some envy) that we hear our Star Dome visitors’ recollections of Gagarin’s visit to London and Manchester in the Summer of 1961. The first man to go into space died in a plane crush during a routine flight in March 1968. The details of the crush were initially classified and are still surrounded by rumors and myths.

 

Some interesting facts about Gagarin’s historic flight

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At the time of Gagarin’s lift-off not even the Soviet people knew of what was happening. The government made the announcement while the cosmonaut was in orbit. Privately, Gagarin also wrote a good-bye letter to his wife Valentina and their daughters, the letter that the family was given after Gagarin’s death in 1968. 

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Vostok 1 was not designed to land with a cosmonaut still inside –  the spacecraft’s braking system wasn’t good enough. Instead, the pilot had to elect and parachute – land separately from the landing capsule. Yuri Gagarin landed in the field 26 kilometers south-west of Engels (Saratov region). In 2012 the landing site gained the status of Federal Landmark. Today a monument of the rocket with Gagarin standing at the front marks the spot where the cosmonaut touched down. Thousands of people visit this place every year to pay their respect to the Soviet hero. 

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As Vostok began its reentry, the descent module failed to separate from the service module causing the spacecraft to go into a violent spin. Luckily, the connector cables eventually snapped and the separation occurred. Unfortunately, the descent module continued to spin so that Gagarin had a rather uncomfortable return. 

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The anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, April 12th, is celebrated annually as День Космонавтики, or Cosmonautics Day, in Russia and many other former Soviet Union countries and as the International Day of Human Spaceflight around the World.

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These days, all male astronauts and cosmonauts travelling to the International Space Station from the Baikonur spaceport take part in many ‘traditional’ pre-flight activities, such as stopping on the way to the launchpad and urinating on a back wheel of the bus for luck. This tradition goes back to Yuri Gagarin (who did it out of necessity, rather than superstition). Interestingly, the design of the new suit, Sokol-M, currently under development by the Russian space suit manufacturer Zvezda, might not allow for this tradition to continue.

 

Happy Cosmonautics Day!

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