MOSCOW — Crushed into the pilot’s chair by significant G-forces, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin saw flames outside his spacecraft and prepared to die. His voice broke the tense silence at ground control:”I’m burning.
Gagarin did not understand that the blazing inferno he observed via a porthole was a cloud of plasma engulfing Vostok 1 during its re-entry to the planet’s atmosphere, and he was on course to return safely.
It was his silent composure under stress which helped make him the first human in space 60 years ago.
Gagarin’s steely self-control was a crucial factor behind the success of his pioneering 108-minute flight. The April 12, 1961, assignment struck glitches and emergencies — from a capsule failing to close correctly just before blastoff to parachute issues in the final moments before touchdown.
From the time 20 Soviet air force pilots had been selected to prepare for the first crewed spaceflight, Gagarin’s calm demeanor, fast learning skills and shining grin made him an early favorite.
Two times before blastoff, the 27-year-old Gagarin wrote a farewell letter to his wife, Valentina, sharing his pride in being picked to ride in Vostok 1 but also trying to console her in case of his passing.
“I completely trust that the equipment, it should not let me down. However, if something happens, I ask you Valyusha not to become broken by despair,” he wrote, with a nickname for her.
Authorities held on the letter and eventually gave it to Gagarin’s widow seven decades later after he died in an airplane crash. She never remarried.
Gagarin’s pioneering, single-orbit flight made him a hero in the Soviet Union and also an global celebrity. After placing the world’s first satellite to orbit with the successful launching of Sputnik in October 1957, the Soviet space program, hurried to secure its dominance over the USA by putting a man into space.
“The task was set, and people were sleeping in their offices and factory stores, such as at wartime,” Fyodor Yurchikhin, a Russian cosmonaut who eventually made five spaceflights, remembered.
Since the Soviet rocket and space program raced to beat the Americans, it endured a series of launch failures during 1960, such as a devastating launch pad explosion in October that killed 126 people. Missile Forces chief Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin was one of the victims.
Much like Gagarin, Soviet officials were ready for the worst. No security system had been installed to conserve the cosmonaut in case of some other rocket explosion at blastoff or after.
Authorities drafted three variations of a bulletin about Gagarin’s flight to the official TASS news service: you declaring a successful flight, another in the event of issues, and the third one for a mission end in tragedy.
Apart from potential engine failures and other gear malfunctions, scientists contested an individual’s ability to withstand the conditions of spaceflight. Many stressed that a pilot would go insane in orbit.
Soviet engineers prepared for that situation by developing a fully automatic control system. As an extra precaution, the pilot would receive a sealed envelope containing a key code for triggering the capsule’s guide controls. The theory was that somebody who might enter the code has to be sane enough to run the ship.
Everyone in the space program liked Gagarin so much, nevertheless, a senior teacher and a top engineer independently shared the secret code before the airport to spare him the trouble of fiddling with the envelope in case of an emergency.
Issues began right after Gagarin got into Vostok 1, when a mild confirming the hatch’s closure did not go on. Working at a frantic speed, a top engineer and a co-worker removed 32 screws, found and fixed a faulty contact, and put the screws back just in time for the scheduled launch.
Sitting from the capsule, Gagarin whistled a song. “Poyekhali!” –“Off we go!” — he cried as the rocket blasted off.
As another precaution, the orbit has been planned so the spacecraft would descend on its own after a week if a motor burn collapse stranded the boat. Instead, a glitch resulted in a higher orbit that could have left Gagarin dead if the engine had malfunctioned at the stage.
While the motor worked as intended to ship the ship home, a fuel loss resulted in an unexpected reentry route and a greater velocity that made the boat rotate exceptionally for 10 agonizing minutes.
Gagarin later said he nearly blacked out while experiencing G-forces exceeding 10 times the pull of gravity. “There was a second lasting two or three seconds when instruments began fading before my eyes,” he recalled.
Viewing a cloud of fiery plasma around his boat on re-entry, he believed his boat was burning.
A soft-landing system hadn’t been designed yet, therefore Gagarin ejected in the module into his spacesuit and deployed a parachute. While descending, he needed to fiddle with a sticky valve on his spacesuit to start breathing out air. A book chute unfolded in addition to the main parachute, which makes it difficult for him to control his own descent, but he landed safely on a field near the Volga River in the Saratov region.
Gagarin has been flown to Moscow to a hero’s welcome, hailed by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and greeted with enthusiastic audiences cheering his flight as a victory on par with the victory in World War II. In the years before he died at age 34, he basked in international glory, seeing dozens of countries to celebrate his historic mission.
“The colossal propaganda effect of the Sputnik launch and especially Gagarin’s flight was quite important,” Moscow-based aviation and space specialist Vadim Lukashevich said. “We suddenly beat America although our nation had not recovered yet from the massive damage and casualties” from World War II.
Not quite 16 weeks afterwards, the U.S. beat the Soviet Union in the space race, putting an astronaut on the moon.
Russia’s efforts to develop new rockets and spacecraft have confronted endless delays, and the country has continued to rely on Soviet-era technology. Amid the stagnation, the much-criticized state distance company Roscosmos has focused on a costly plan to build its new, rocket-shaped headquarters on the website of a dismantled rocket mill.