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.
With the world still reeling from the myriad of celebration events signalling the 40th anniversary of America’s greatest achievement in space to date you would be forgiven for forgetting about the primary reason they went there, to beat the Russians (then the Soviet Union). Over time the stories of the United States greatest competitor have been drowned out and there are many little know facts about their aspirations to get to the moon. Granted part of this was due to the secrecy of the Soviet Union of the time who wanted to belittle the American’s achievements by making it look like they weren’t interested in a race at all. With the arrival of Glasnost almost 20 years ago all the secrets came out, and the reds secret dream for the moon was revealed. It makes for quite an interesting story.
For a long time the Soviet Union held the lead in the space race. Back in October of 1957 they surprised everyone by launching the first ever artificial satellite Sputnik-1, which the United States played down at the time but in fact sent them into quite the flurry. With this simple move the Soviets then aggressively built upon their success by sending several more sputnik class vehicles into space. This all culminated in April of 1961 when they succeeded in sending Yuri Gagarin into space and orbit, making him the first human to travel into outer space. Yet again America was shaken to the core, as they had believed that their aggressive pursuit of space had put them ahead again. This did little to stop the Americans however, and they continued to actively pursue the further goal of landing on the moon.
The next 3 years saw the Soviets achieve several firsts in space namely mutli-manned crews, longer duration flights and extra-vehicular activities but after that their manned accomplishments seemed to end. They continued sending probes out (to Venus and to the Moon) however any further progress appear to have been ceased. The official line at the time was that they had already won the space race and were no longer interested in fighting the Americans. However behind the scenes the tale was far more interesting.
In order to win the race to the moon the Soviets developed a lunar lander called the Lunniy Korabl which would take a single soviet cosmonaut to the moon for a couple of hours and return him home safely. This was a marked change from their original plan which was to assemble a massive lunar lander in earth orbit before attempting a moon landing. The idea was that they could use only 1 of their heavy lifting rockets to win rather than the 3 they had originally planned. This was the glimmer of hope that kept their program going although they were to suffer another failure which would knock them out of the race completely.
With the United States already well on the way to successfully launching their first heavy lift vehicle the Saturn V the Soviets needed a similar launch vehicle if they were going to have any chance of getting to the moon. Enter the N1 rocket which made some different trade offs in order to achieve their goals. Whilst the rocket produced more thrust and was cheaper overall than the Saturn V it lacked the payload capacity. Additionally the insanely complicated arrangement of rocket engines on all stages (30 engines vs the Saturn’s 5) plus the added complexity of 5 stages (Saturn had 3) lead to an incredibly fragile launch system. Adding in the additional complexity that the rocket had to be fully assembled first at their construction plant, disassembled so it could shipped, and then reassembled at the launch center. All of these issues lead to all 4 N1 rockets that were built as flight ready to fail, with the longest flight lasting only 1 minute and not even making it into stage separation.
It’s an unfortunate trend for the Russian space endeavours as they are usually the pioneers in the field (check out their impressive list of firsts) but fail to take it any further then that. Whilst a lot of this can be blamed on the political turmoil they have suffered throughout their space program they also have a very ingrained belief in “if it works, don’t change it” as demonstrated by their continued use of the Soyuz space vehicles. For the most part though this works well for them, and for a while they will be the only government owned way of getting to the International Space Station (although NASA is probably more likely to buy rides from SpaceX than the Russians if they can avoid it).
As the old saying goes “history is written by the winners” and it pays to look back and see what the people who were on the other side achieved despite the eventual outcome. Truly we owe much of where we are today in terms of space endeavours to the Russians as they blazed the path that we now tread.