Strapped to a Vostok 8K72K launch vehicle, spacecraft Vostok 1 made history as it launched the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space.
It was a clear day on 12 April 1961 as soon-to-be cosmonaut, Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin stepped out to board the vessel that would make him the first person to not just pass the boundaries of our atmosphere into space but to also the first to orbit the Earth. The spacecraft that would make this a reality? Vostok 1 — a 4,725kg spacecraft that would mark the beginning of the Vostok programme; a fleet of six manned spacecraft that would launch humans into space.
Before climbing through the hatch of Vostok 1 at the world’s first and largest operational space launch facility, the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Gagarin would have just been about to board the most basic manned spacecraft possible.
The fruits of labour from a team of scientists and engineers led by the Soviet Union’s pioneering aerospace engineer, Sergei Korolev, Vostok 1 consisted of two modules. The manned module in which Gagarin sat during his history-making flight consisted of a spherical cabin concealed with a shielding material that would withstand the intense heat as the spacecraft tumbled through our planet’s atmosphere on re-entry after its single orbit around Earth. Three small portholes dotted around the cabin would afford the cosmonaut a look at the Earth or to peer into the realms of space during spaceflight while external radio antennas, protruding from Vostok, 1 would keep Gagarin in contact with mission control. Attached to his cabin by metal straps was a module carrying chemical batteries, small altitude control thrusters for orientating the spacecraft and the main retro system to brake the spacecraft out of orbit. Bottles of high-pressure nitrogen and oxygen that would make the air that Gagarin would breathe ringed the outer edge of the craft between both of the modules.
After a series of tests and checks, the voice of mission control crackled over the radio at 9:07am Moscow time. «Preliminary stage… intermediate… main. Lift off! We wish you a good flight. Everything is all right.»
«Let’s go!» Gagarin replied, before lifting from the ground. The four booster sections of the Vostok rocket exhausted their propellant and fell away from the core vehicle. Some five minutes into flight, the craft’s rocket core stage had also used up its propellant, switched itself off and tumbled back down to Earth, leaving Vostok 1 to propel itself into orbit
During his final push into Earth’s orbit, Gagarin lost radio communications with the Baikonur Ground Station and it wasn’t until 25 minutes after launch that mission control were aware of the news: Vostok 1 had made it.
Watching the Earth through the window at his feet, Gagarin passed over Siberia before embarking on a diagonal crossing of the Pacific Ocean. Inside his module, he was surrounded by manual controls that had been locked and were controlled by ground personnel. This was due to concerns of any adverse reaction he may have had brought about by weightlessness. However, using the control panel in his cockpit, Gagarin was able to keep up-to-date of his immediate conditions. «The lights are on on the descent mode monitor,» he radioed. «I’m feeling fine, and I’m in good spirits. Cockpit parameters [are] pressure 1; humidity 65; temperature 20; pressure in the compartment 1. pressure in the retro-rocket system 320 atmospheres.»
In and out of communication with ground control, Gagarin passed over the South Pacific Ocean before crossing the tip of South America leading him to the breathtaking sight of the Sun rising as Vostok 1 entered daylight over the South Atlantic.
The spacecraft, at this point, was 15 minutes from re-entry with Vostok 1’s automatic systems bringing it to a required altitude.
Falling through the Earth’s atmosphere, Gagarin was able to put his ejectable seat into action around 7,000 metres above the ground and, with a release of the hatch, the cosmonaut was thrust from the spacecraft where both he and Vostok 1 deployed their parachutes, drifting safely to the ground.
Ten minutes later he landed in his bright orange suit and gigantic white helmet, baffling a farmer and her daughter who were about to run away in fear. «Don’t be afraid,» he reasoned. «I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!»