Science, Art, Litt, Science based Art & Science Communication
Written by Vladimir Isachenkov
However, James Oberg, a NASA veteran and currently a space consultant who has studied the Soviet space program extensively, says Korolyov and his men did all they could to make the flight safe. "I don't see any dangerous shortcuts in their approach to the Vostok," he told the AP, adding that the two final launches before Gagarin's flight were fully successful.
Despite the risks, competition for the mission was strong among the 20 young pilots on the short list, and Gagarin was the favorite. He was a man who made people feel at ease and radiated kindness, former cosmonaut Vladimir Shatalov, now 83, recalled at the Star City training center, which he headed for 20 years.
Just three days before blastoff from what would later be known as the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Gagarin was told that he was chosen for the mission. In a letter to his wife, Valentina, he asked her to raise their daughters "not as little princesses, but as real people," and to feel free to remarry if his mission proved fatal. "My letter seems like a final will. But I don't think so and I hope you will never see this letter and I will feel shame later for that brief moment of weakness," he wrote.
"Gagarin was aware of the fears concerning zero gravity, and he also knew about all failed launches preceding his flight," but he never showed any fear or doubt, Ivanovsky said. On the eve of the flight, Gagarin and his backup, German Titov, went to bed early and were awakened at 5:30 a.m. Gagarin was joking, his pulse was an exemplary 64 beats a minute and it remained the same after he took his seat in the Vostok. Before boarding, Gagarin saw Korolyov looking haggard after a sleepless night. "Don't you worry, Sergei Pavlovich, he told the chief designer, "everything will be just fine."
"It was he who was comforting me!" Korolyov would marvel later. He thought of Gagarin as a son, and Gagarin carried Korolyov's picture in his wallet.
The security code for use in emergency was supposed to stay in a sealed envelope for the cosmonaut to open only if necessary, but Ivanovsky was too nervous to stick with protocol. As he escorted Gagarin to the capsule, he whispered the code to him: 1-2-5. Gagarin smiled and said he already knew; his instructor, equally protective, had already let him in on the secret.
Ivanovsky helped Gagarin up the ladder and into the cockpit, patted him on the helmet and wished him luck before closing the hatch, only to hear Korolyov telling him from the control room that a light that was meant to indicate the hatch was hermetically closed had failed to turn on. Ivanovsky and his two assistants had to remove all 32 screws sealing the hatch and then put them back at a frantic pace. Inside the capsule, Gagarin was whistling a tune. Later he would joke to Ivanovsky: "You should have seen yourself while you were working on the hatch; your face had all the colors of tarnished metal."
Gagarin's rocket lifted off as scheduled on April 12, 1961, at 9:07 a.m. Moscow time. "Poyekhali!" (Off we go!), the cosmonaut shouted as he took off.
Korolyov and his engineers quickly got their first jolt: a signal suggesting a problem with the booster. It turned out to be just a break of a few seconds in data transmission. Gagarin's confident reports from orbit eased the tension, and only after the flight, it emerged that an antenna malfunction had put the Vostok into a much higher and riskier orbit.
On re-entry, a glitch involving a retrorocket made the ship rotate swiftly, and the landing capsule was slow to jettison the service module. Scientists had to take a deep breath as they lost contact with the ship during its fiery earthward plunge.
Gagarin bailed out as planned, and parachuted onto a field near the Volga River about 720 kilometers (450 miles) southeast of Moscow. There he was spotted by a forester's wife and her granddaughter who tried to run away from the stranger in his bright orange space suit and white helmet. They may have thought he was a U.S. spy, given that less than a year before, U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers had been shot down over the Soviet Union in his U-2 spy plane, an incident that had badly strained U.S.-Soviet relations.
"Hey, where are you running? I'm one of us!" Gagarin shouted. Then others arrived, realizing he was the cosmonaut they had just heard about on the radio.
Gagarin learned to his great surprise that while aloft, he was being promoted two levels higher, to major. Korolyov and others flew to the landing area and met with Gagarin at a Communist Party guesthouse. Their raucous reunion lasted late into the night. On April 14 Gagarin was flown to Moscow, where he was greeted by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and driven into town on a highway lined with cheering Russians.
"People took to the streets; everybody felt excited, it felt like V-Day," Korolyov's daughter Natalya recalled.
But amid the triumph, Soviet officials, ever obsessed with secrecy and image, already were airbrushing history. Some local papers quoted witnesses who saw Gagarin parachuting down. But the official version had him landing in his capsule, so the KGB rushed to confiscate all the contradictory accounts in print. Soviet officials also lied about the launch pad's location, a foolish attempt to conceal what the West already knew.
Twenty-three days after Gagarin's flight, on May 5, 1961, American Alan Shepard became the second man in space. But his suborbital hop lasted just 15 minutes. It wasn't until John Glenn's flight on Feb. 20, 1962, that an American managed to emulate Gagarin's globe-circling feat. "Now let the other countries try to catch us," Gagarin had declared after returning from space, and the U.S. quickly set out to do so. Barely three weeks after Shepard's launch, President John F. Kennedy committed the nation to putting a man on the moon by decade's end. The goal was achieved in July 20, 1969.
Gagarin's flight on the Vostok was entirely automated, yet simply by having the courage to face the unknown, he taught his fellow humans a vital lesson: that they had a future in space.
"Before this first flight there were reasonable suspicions that human beings weren't made for this environment," Oberg said. "And once Gagarin answered that question, I think every other discovery on every other manned spaceflight was just details. He answered the most challenging, the most awesome question by his performance."
Source: Art newspaper