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Yuri Gagarin, 12 April 1961: “I come from outer space!” (1)



By Théo Pirard

108 minutes. They were very long minutes for the mission controllers of the Baikonur Cosmodrome. These 108 minutes of the first manned space flight ended with the descent of its hero at the end of a parachute...He had ejected from the spherical capsule of the Vostok spacecraft. Allow him to evoke this historic moment on 12 April 1961, of his arrival in open countryside, near the village of Smelovka:

“Having stepped onto firm ground,
I saw a woman and a girl who were standing near a spotted calf
and who were watching me with bewilderment.
"When they saw me in my space suit
and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked,
they started to back away in fear.

I told them, don't be afraid, I am a Soviet like you,
who has descended from space
and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!"

GagarineandKorolevIt is this moving encounter that Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin (1934-1968) recounted in his log book following his journey around the earth. Being the first to have been propelled at the orbital speed of nearly 28 000 km/h (7.8 km/s), this citizen of the URSS (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was turning a page of history. Henceforth Man was entering into another world of nothingness, weightlessness and radiation. Cosmonaut number 1 was the first in a long line of men and women who were to go into space. In the fifty years since Gagarin's feat, 519 people - 463 men and 55 women -  have braved and discovered the space environment. Of them, seven died during the launch (in the Challenger shuttle); eleven died on re-entry ) on board Soyoux-1, Soyouz 11, the Columbia shuttle).

Gagarin was chosen out of a group of six candidates - cosmonauts who were considered to be the best. They were part of twenty Red Army pilots who had been recruited in February 1960 after a strict selection process and who trained in the utmost secrecy to be the first to go into space. Although he wasn't the most physically fit, Gagarin had the advantage of being young and short (1 m 58), likeable and intelligent (a brilliant mathematician), son of an agricultural worker and above all, a great friend of the lead engineer, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev (1907-1966). He threw himself into mastering the systems of survival on board the 4.7 tonne Vostok spacecraft which was to take him around the earth.

Two years in development

The URSS's first two Sputniks, or "man-made moons" had opened the road to the stars from the end of 1957. In 1959 the Soviet Union Communist Party authorised the Kremlin to fund a programme of manned space flights. Korolev's team who developed the Sputniks and their launchers, the Semyorka rockets, designed and oversaw the building of the Vostok, which had a spherical re-entry capsule, christened Sharik.  This configuration, which was difficult to complete, given its diameter of 2.3 m and mass of 2.4 tonnes, allowed an aerodynamic re-entry into the atmosphere:  no need for a complex stabilisation system which might break down.  But this re-entry led to a strong deceleration of around 8 g, with the cosmonaut having to endure a force of 8 times his body weight for a few minutes. In the capsule, in addition to a portholes, three circular openings were fitted out:  the access hatch through which the cosmonaut took his place in the cabin, the hatch for the ejector seat, the parachute container. The cosmonaut did not re board the space craft but ejected at an altitude of around 7000 metres. This procedure, which offered great security, was an issue for the International Aeronautical Federation:  to be recognised, a flight, even a space flight, requires that the pilot remain aboard his vessel until landing.

Vostok craftSuborbital flight tests - without sattellisation - took place in January 1960 to test the delicate re-entry phase. Under the generic term of Sputnik-4, the Vostok prototype was tested on 15 May 1960 - barely a year after the Vostok had started to be built -, but the capsule could not be jettisoned. Sputnik 5 was launched on 19 August with two dogs in the capsule. This was recovered the next day when the vessel was orbitting the globe for the 18th time. For the first time, living beings had returned after an orbital flight. In December 1960, the Sputnik 6 capsule, which tested a new on-board computer, disintegrated in the atmosphere with the two dogs that were on board. The two following tests - on 9 March, then on 25 March, - were successes. The green light was given for a manned mission which was scheduled for 12 April.

Three and a half years went by between Sputnik-1 and Vostok-1. The Soviet spacecraft was developed in two years. A real challenge at a time when there were no high-performance portable computers. The computer machines which took up big rooms processed data from perforated cards. Everything was drawn up on simple drawing boards with slide-rules. Communication was by telephone and telex alone. Transistor radios were beginning to appear. Radiocommunications worked with lights. But there was enthusiasm in the face of the technical challenges to be overcome.


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