On the night of April 11th 1961, 50 years ago, Lieutenant Yuri Gagarin of the Russian Air Force slept soundly.
His colleague, Gherman Titov, on ‘the reserve bench’ to take over if anything happened to Yuri, hardly slept at all.
On April 12th, Gagarin and Titoy had breakfast together, and then, dressed in his flight suit, Gagarin presented to work at Baikonur Cosmodrome’s Site 1, in Kazakhstan. Although he was an exceptional fighter pilot, he would have no control over the ship he was commanding this day. He would be sitting on top of the world’s biggest rocket, his destiny determined not by his flying skills but by the bomb that would be unleashed below him – 150 tons of highly explosive kerosene and liquid oxygen. He was bolted into the tiny Vostok space capsule, chatting calmly throughout to the engineering team and then via radio to Sergei Korolyov, the chief designer of the rocket, . Korolyov was so nervous he had to keep taking pills for his heart.
Noone knew for sure that a man could survive the acceleration forces that Gagarin was about to experience, nor that he would survive the conditions of space. Certainly, no-one could guarantee that this rocket would not explode uncontrollably as many of the test rockets had done. So Gagarin’s heart beat was monitored remotely throughout the launch.
His pulse never rose above 64. 64! My heart beat is higher than that even thinking about it.
Yuri Gagarin is the coolest person ever.
At launch, Gagarin was heard to say ‘oyekhali!’ – “off we go!”
Such was the power of the Vostok rocket, in just a few minutes he was the first man in space, and then the first man in orbit around the earth. In awe, he said “The Earth is blue. How wonderful. It is amazing.”
After one full orbit, retro-rockets slowed the capsule and it fell back into Russia. Gagarin ejected at a height of 7km, as planned, and parachuted to earth separated from the space craft. It is said that he scared the life out of the peasant farmer and daughter at whose farm he landed. The entire flight took 108 minutes.
There is no doubt that Yuri Gagarin had ‘the right stuff’. He was the son of a peasant farmer who rose by merit through the Russian military to be one of 20 cosmonauts.
He was assessed by the air force doctor in 1960 as follows:
“Modest; embarrasses when his humor gets a little too racy; high degree of intellectual development evident in Yuriy; fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his sharp and far-ranging sense of attention to his surroundings; a well-developed imagination; quick reactions; persevering, prepares himself painstakingly for his activities and training exercises, handles celestial mechanics and mathematical formulae with ease as well as excels in higher mathematics; does not feel constrained when he has to defend his point of view if he considers himself right; appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends.”
He was the obvious candidate to be chosen for the first space flight.
After the flight, Yuri Gagarin became the most famous man in the world. He was considered too ‘valuable’ to fly as a cosmonaut again, and retrained as a fighter pilot. Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, he died in a crash on a routine training flight in 1968.
Gizmodo today has a special tribute to Yuri Gagarin., which includes this video of the launch.