50 years is an almost incomprehensible amount of time for a young person like myself. That’s nearly double my entire time on this planet and even in my short 26 years I’ve seen wild changes to this world, so I can only imagine the changes anyone someone who has lived 50 years or more has seen. One of the most incredible changes that the last 5 decades has brought us has been the invention of space flight which has dramatically influenced humanity as we know it today, even if its presence is mostly invisible. Two days ago saw the anniversary of our very first tenuous steps into the final frontier with the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first ever human to enter space and orbit our beautiful blue marble.
Winding the clock back 50 years puts us right in the middle of the cold war, a political battle fought over decades on a global scale. The first artificial satellite was created just 4 years prior and the space race between the then USSR and the USA had reached a fever pitch. Both sides were working fervently to stake their claim on being the first to accomplish anything in space and at this point the Russians were winning after their success with Sputnik. They weren’t resting on the laurels however and they were aggressively pursuing the goal of getting the first man into space. The mission was to be called Vostok 1.
The craft Gagarin was to ride into space wasn’t a large one by any stretch of the imagination, being a mere 2.3 meters in diameter and looking a lot more like a submersible craft than one destined for the vacuum of space. In true Russian fashion it was also incredibly robust and when compared to its American counterparts it was incredibly simple. The craft also lacked any control surfaces and didn’t have any backup thrusters, which is why the craft was mostly spherical, since unlike the American craft it couldn’t orientate a heat shield to protect it on re-entry. This also meant that in the event that retrorockets didn’t fire Gagarin would have been stuck in orbit for up to 10 days, and as such the craft was equipped with enough supplies to ensure that he’d survive.
The mission began at 5:30AM, 12th of April 1961. Both Gagarin and his backup pilot, Gherman Titov, were awoken at this time with the launch scheduled to start 2 hours later. Things went pretty smoothly although doctors reported that Gagarin wasn’t himself at this time, being somewhat pale and unusually reserved. Still in comparison to Titov, who had to take medication to calm himself down, Gagarin was as calm as ever with a resting heart rate of that of a long distance runner. About an hour after being awoken he was secured in the Vostok capsule (which had to be resealed once due to it failing the first time) and was left in there for another 40 minutes before blasting off into space.
In total Gagarin spent just over an hour orbiting the earth, completing one full orbit and touching down in a field outside of Engels in the Saratov region. His descent from the heavens startled a farmer and his daughter who witnessed this alien like creature in an orange suit with a white helmet descending from the heavens. He later recalled the situation:
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!
Gagarin and his capsule were both successfully recovered. He returned back to Moscow a hero and a figure that will be remembered as one of the great pioneers of the final frontier. Although he never orbited the earth again he was heavily involved in the USSR’s space program afterwards, helping design new craft and was a backup pilot for the very first Soyuz mission a craft that is still in use today. Tragically his life was cut short in 1968 in a routine test flight over a Russian air base, but the legacy he laid down will last on for as long as humanity exists.
I’ve often said that I don’t give the Russians enough attention on this blog and they should be recognized for their amazing accomplishments in space. 50 years on the influence of early pioneers like Gagarin and his team are clearly visible in all facets of the Russian space program. It’s a testament to their strong ideals of simplicity and robustness that a craft designed decades ago can still be in service today and still meet the needs of both NASA and the ROSCOSMOS. Whilst I may be a bit late to the party in remembering the great feats of the Russian space program I hope you’ll join me today in recognizing their accomplishments, and wishing them all the best for the next 50 years.