The Department of History
of Space Explorations
and Roketry

St. Petersburg


The first spaceflight

It was on April, 12 1961 when the dream of most prominent thinkers of the humanity came true. Man defied the laws of terrestrial gravity and performed the first ever flight to space.

It was Soviet citizen Yuri Alekseyevitch Gagarin.

How was this flight prepared?

After the first artificial satellite was launched, it became quite evident, that soon it will be possible for man to explore space, too. Both the USSR and the USA started designing manned spacecrafts.

In the USSR this research was carried out under direction of Sergei Pavlovitch Korolyov. As early as in the middle of the year of 1958 year the general plan of manned spacecraft was designed: the ship was to consist of two modules, one of them being the module for the cosmonaut to return to the Earth, and the other - instrument module that was to house service systems and retrorocket (the Russian for retrorocket is "Tormoznaya Dvigatelnaya Ustanovka", which abbreviates as "TDU").

The lander was shaped as a sphere, which considerably simplified all the necessary calculations concerning the return of the capsule back to the Earth. By the spring of 1960 the first flight model of the spacecraft was ready. Simultaneously new rocket was being constructed, as the launch vehicle for a spacecraft with man on board should be more powerful than the one that launched a satellite. Preliminary research showed that the weight of the spacecraft was to be approximately 5 tons. According to the plan, 3rd stage was attached to the famous rocket R-7, which made it possible to solve the whole problem, as the engine of the 3rd stage was to be started in vacuum.

Before the space ship with man on board was launched, there came a series of preliminary launches, the first of them being that of the first artificial satellite, that was put into orbit on May, 15 1960. Both the launching and the flight were successful. Nevertheless, at the attempt of directing the spacecraft towards the Earth a failure in the attitude control system occurred, and the retroburn did not diminish the orbital velocity of the spacecraft, but increased it. It was an unpleasant surprise, but, as S.P. Korolyov ironically put it, "We have now some practice in space manoeuvre".

The next launch, which took place on July, 23 1960, failed during the first stage burning due to the defects of the launch vehicle. The re-entry module with dogs named Chaika (Sea-gulf) and Lisichka (Fox) on board separated safely from launch vehicle but destroyed on impact with the ground. At that time this attempt was not officially reported about.

On August, 19 1960 there came a successful launch of a spacecraft officially called the 2nd korabl-sputnik with two dogs on board. These mix dogs called Belka and Strelka were chosen among the others for their endurance. After 24 hours flight the two dogs successfully returned to the Earth. This was an outstanding result. During the flight two different attitude control systems were worked off, devices testing the radiation safety were attached to the spacecraft. It was at that time and with the help of that devices when the evolution of a solar flare in the spectral region, that could not be seen from the surface of the Earth, was observed for the first time.

The next launch was a failure. On December, 1 1960 the spacecraft with another two dogs (Ptchyolka and Moushka) on board was destroyed during the re-entry into atmosphare due to the off-design descent profile.

One more attempt of launching a spaceship with dogs on board was made on December, 22, 1960. The third stage failed to start and the re-entry module landed in wild taiga near Nizhnaya Toungouska. Immediate steps were taken for the rescue of the ship and "the cosmonauts". The expedition was directed by Arvid Vladimirovitch Pallo, the old co-worker of S.P. Korolyov, who was in charge for turning off the alert mode that should detonate the re-entry module in case of landing in a place away from the territory of the Soviet Union. The spacecraft was successfully found. The dogs Comet and Shutka (the Russian for "joke") (Zhoulka and Alfa; other sources give different names because it was customary to change common names into more euphonious ones before the launch) suffered severe negative accelerative forces and frost of about -40C, but they were finally rescued in two days. "The cosmonauts" survived because the catapult failed and they stayed in the re-entry module.

After this failure, serious steps were taken to toughen the acceptance procedure of the launcher models. All the engineering solutions were revised to ensure the safe return of landing module at every phase of the flight. As Boris Victorivitch Raushenbakch reported, some necessary simplifications were included into the flight plan, e.g. for the purpose of the braking manoeuvre, the orientation of the spacecraft during the descent was made by the sun, which somewhat restricted the possible time of the launch. For successful return of the spacecraft the Sun should be at a particular spot of firmament. At the moment of retro-firing, that pushed the spacecraft off the orbit, the angle between the vector of the orbital velocity and the direction to the Sun was to be not more than 20-30.] This required retroburn of a greater magnitude, but it guaranteed proper orientation of the spacecraft at the moment of ignition the retro-engine. And what is more, the orbit of the first flight was designed so that even without the retro-burning, re-entry module was capable of landing by itself in 192-240 hours, due to aerobraking in the atmosphere.

Two more test launches were prepared; they took place on March, 9 and March, 25 1961 and were successful. They were dress rehearsals of the flight with man on board. The flights went as follows: the start, single orbit flight, the landing. In the place of future cosmonaut there sat anthropometric model, ironically called "Ivan Ivanovitch" (Russian for "an average man"). Surprisingly, it was dressed in civil clothes. Wearing space-suit, this model looked very much like real man: it was decided to cover its "face" that could be seen through the helmet glass with a piece of paper with the word "model", so that those, who would find it before rescuers, should not take it for a man and get scared. In order to check if the telecommunication worked well, inside the model there was a recorder with a tape reproducing a song sung by the Pyatnitsky Choir, to prevent the least suspicion that it was a man in case of failure. During these flights Ivan Ivanovitch was accompanied by two dogs, Chiernoushka and Zvyozdochka ("Starlet", this name was given by Yuri A. Gagarin himself), sitting in a special container, designed to store food supplies for future cosmonaut.

The second launch on March, 25 was performed in the presence of the "shock brigade" from the first group of 20 soviet cosmonauts. By the date of the flight, six of them were selected as members of this "shock brigade". They were: Yuri Alekseevitch Gagarin, German Stepanovitch Titov, Grigori Grigorievitch Nelyubov, Andrian Grigorievitch Nikolayev, Pavel Romanovitch Popovich and Valeri Fyodorovitch Bykovsky. G.G. Nelyubov and V.F.Bykovsky substituted A.Y. Kartashov and V.S. Varlamov, who were rejected due to medical problems.

The next flight was planned to be that with man on board.

On the running session of the State Commission it was decided that the first man to perform this flight would be Yuri Alekseyevitch Gagarin, reserve pilots would be G.S. Titov and G.G. Nelyubov. Before the ceremonial session of the State Commission the pilot training supervisor, the Hero of the Soviet Union, Nikolai Pietrovitch Kamanin, reported to Gagarin and Titov the decision that everybody would know only the next day. The ceremonial session of the State Comission shot by the documentalists was broadcasted all over the world, when the statute of limitation allowed it.

On April, 12 1961 at 9:07 a.m. powerful rocket with the spaceship "Vostok" ("East") was launched. The telecommunication transmitted the famous Gagarin's word: "Poyekhali!" (Russian for "Let's go!"). The launch didn't turn out to be completely smooth. During the prelaunch preparation test, the sensor signaled that the hatch-cover, through which the cosmonaut got into the ship, was not sealed tightly enough. Unbelievably pressed, the group of technicians unscrewed the hatch-cover and set right its clamp electric contact, signaling if the tightness was proper. They hardly had time to cast a glance at Gagarin without uttering a word, put the hatch-cover back and after new impermeability test confirmed that everything was ready for the flight. Although usually the staff was evacuated before the launch, this time S.P.Korolyov insisted on braking this rule to support the cosmonaut and show the confidence of success. Was Gagarin agitated? Everybody reported his excellent, even temper on the day of the launch. The tests of pulsation reported differently: four hours before the launch - 65 beats per min., five minutes before the start - 108, during the first stage burning (the first minute of the flight) - over 150, by the end of the final stage firing - again about 108, at the moment of ignition of the retro-rocket and on entering the atmosphere - 112. During the flight in the state of weightlessness the pulsation was 97 beats per min.

During the lift off (the first seconds of the flight) a temporary failure of communication occurred, but soon the communication was fixed. Actual orbital injection velocity was somewhat greater than the designed speed. Special support group (with the assistance of Svyatoslav Sergeevitch Lavrov) immediately started calculations aimed to estimate the consequences of this divergence. The calculations showed that without retro-firing, the return of the spacecraft will take place at the time wich will be close to time-limit of resources of life-support system, that is, in 10 days.

The retroburn was produced in time. Unexpectedly the retrorocket worked 40 seconds until the fuel went out, though it was designed that the engine should stop after the signal made by the integrator as soon as designed speed of braking was achieved. According to the plan the separation of the instrument module from the descent module with the cosmonaut in it was to take place at 10:25:57, yet in fact it took place only at 10:35:00. During this delay the rotation of the spacecraft at the angular velocity of 30per second was observed. After the separation of the modules when entering the dense layers of atmosphere the position of the descent module was stabilized as designed. Nevertheless, the cosmonaut didn't loose his self-control, although he knew that the separation was to take place in 10-12 seconds after the stopping of the retrorocket.

There existed several communication links between the cosmonaut and the Earth, and he used them actively. In two minutes after the beginning of the rotation Y.A. Gagarin reported through short-wave communication that the retropack worked and then used telephone to inform that the separation failed and a key to say "VN" ("Vsyo normalno", the Russian for Ok).

The descent trajectory of the re-entry module was ballistic. Negative acceleration forces were as high as 10 units, the landing module was "aligned" so that they acted in the direction "chest - back". At the height of 7 km the cosmonaut catapulted and parachuted.

Due to the retropack and separation faults the cosmonaut landed near the town of Saratov, which was somewhat symbolic: it was there where Y.A.Gagarin first aviated and it was there where he practiced parachuting before the launch.

The report made by Y.A.Gagarin in front of the State Commission was most detailed. For example, he reported that during the parachuting the reserve parachute worked as well, but it's canopy never opened; that the emergency stock attached with a separate halliard came off. Certain difficulties occurred while opening the breath valve in the air. The locking of the valve accidentally was covered with the decamouflage jacket - the famous orange flying suit. It took the cosmonaut about 6 min to open the valve, as the parachute straps were fastened tightly; he had to unbutton the decamouflage jacket and use a mirror to let free the cable and open it. Before that he disconnected the joint oxygen inlet block, and the glass shutter of the space suit was opened only after landing. Thus the flight of Y.A. Gagarin was successfully finished.

The rejoicing of soviet people was indescribable. They came out into the streets; everywhere spontaneous meetings took place. The whole world was impressed by this great event.

Everybody understood that a new age had begun - the age of manned space exploration. It seemed incredible, it excited and evoked most daring plans.

People of my generation will never feel such elation and pride for their country again.

Valerii N. Koupriyanov

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