Soviet cosmonaut made pioneering spaceflight 60 years ago

PTI | Moscow | Updated: 12-04-2021 12:52 IST | Created: 12-04-2021 12:45 IST
Soviet cosmonaut made pioneering spaceflight 60 years ago
Representative image Image Credit: Snappy Goat

Crushed into the pilot's seat by heavy G-forces, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin saw flames outside his spacecraft and prepared to die. His voice broke the tense silence at ground control: "I'm burning. Goodbye, comrades." Gagarin didn't know that the blazing inferno he observed through a porthole was a cloud of plasma engulfing Vostok 1 during its re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, and he was still on track to return safely. It was his quiet composure under pressure that helped make him the first human in space 60 years ago. Gagarin's steely self-control was a key factor behind the success of his pioneering 108-minute flight. April 12, 1961, mission encountered glitches and emergencies — from a capsule hatch failing to shut properly just before blastoff to parachute problems in the final moments before touchdown.

From the time 20 Soviet air force pilots were selected to train for the first crewed spaceflight, Gagarin's calm demeanor, quick learning skills, and beaming smile made him an early favorite.

Two days before blastoff, the 27-year-old Gagarin wrote a farewell letter to his wife, Valentina, sharing his pride in being chosen to ride in Vostok 1 but also trying to console her in the event of his death.

"I fully trust the equipment, it mustn't let me down. But if something happens, I ask you Valyusha not to become broken by grief," he wrote, using a nickname for her. Authorities held onto the letter and eventually gave it to Gagarin's widow seven years later after he died in an airplane crash. She never remarried.

Gagarin's pioneering, the single-orbit flight made him a hero in the Soviet Union and an international celebrity. After putting the world's first satellite into orbit with the successful launch of Sputnik in October 1957, the Soviet space program rushed to secure its dominance over the United States by putting a man into space. "The task was set, and people were sleeping in their offices and factory shops, like at wartime," Fyodor Yurchikhin, a Russian cosmonaut who eventually made five spaceflights, recalled.

As the Soviet rocket and space program raced to beat the Americans, it suffered a series of launch failures throughout 1960, including a disastrous launch pad explosion in October that killed 126 people. Missile Forces chief Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin was among the victims.

Like Gagarin, Soviet officials were prepared for the worst. No safety system had been installed to save the cosmonaut in case of another rocket explosion at blastoff or after. Authorities drafted three versions of a bulletin about Gagarin's flight for the official TASS news agency: one announcing a successful flight, another in case of problems, and the third one for a mission ending in disaster.

Apart from potential engine failures and other equipment malfunctions, scientists questioned an individual's ability to withstand the conditions of spaceflight. Many worried that a pilot could go mad in orbit.

Soviet engineers prepared for that situation by developing a fully automatic control system. As an extra precaution, the pilot would receive a sealed envelope containing a secret code for activating the capsule's manual controls. The theory was that a person who could enter the code must be sane enough to operate the ship.

Everyone in the space program liked Gagarin so much, however, that a senior instructor and a top engineer independently shared the secret code with him before the flight to save him the trouble of fiddling with the envelope in case of an emergency.

Problems began right after Gagarin got into Vostok 1, when a light confirming the hatch's closure did not go on. Working at a frantic pace, a leading engineer and a co-worker removed 32 screws, found and fixed a faulty contact, and put the screws back just in time for the scheduled launch.

Sitting in the capsule, Gagarin whistled a tune. "Poyekhali!" — "Off we go!" — he shouted as the rocket blasted off.

As another precaution, the orbit was planned so the spacecraft would descend on its own after a week if an engine burns failure stranded the ship. Instead, a glitch resulted in a higher orbit that would have left Gagarin dead if the engine had malfunctioned at that stage. While the engine worked as planned to send the ship home, a fuel loss resulted in an unexpected reentry path and a higher velocity that made the ship rotate wildly for 10 agonizing minutes.

Gagarin later said he nearly blacked out while experiencing G-forces exceeding 10 times the pull of gravity. "There was a moment lasting two or three seconds when instruments started fading before my eyes," he recalled.

Seeing a cloud of fiery plasma around his ship on re-entry, he thought his ship was burning. A soft-landing system hadn't been designed yet, so Gagarin ejected from the module in his spacesuit and deployed a parachute. While descending, he had to fiddle with a sticky valve on his spacesuit to start breathing outside air. A reserve chute unfolded in addition to the main parachute, making it hard for him to control his descent, but he landed safely on a field near the Volga River in the Saratov region.

Gagarin was flown to Moscow to a hero's welcome, hailed by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and greeted by enthusiastic crowds cheering his flight as a triumph on par with the victory in World War II. In the years before he died at age 34, he basked in international glory, visiting dozens of countries to celebrate his historic mission.

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)


TRENDING

OPINION / BLOG / INTERVIEW

Blockchain in Healthcare: Opportunities and challenges

The use of blockchain in healthcare is a relatively new innovation with many of its uses still being explored and related technologies being developed, improved, and scaled. ...

Debate surrounding vaccine passports and development misses bigger picture

... ...

Blockchain vs IOTA: Looking for a better alternative

... ...

For stability, Iraq needs to crack down on corruption

... ...

Videos

Latest News

Study reveals smartphone breathalyzer alcohol testing devices vary widely in accuracy

The latest generation of personal alcohol breath testing devices pair with smartphones. While some of these devices were found to be relatively accurate, others may mislead users into thinking that they are fit to drive, according to a new ...

At 220-9, Zimbabwe avoids another 3-day defeat vs Pakistan

Pakistan requires just one more wicket to complete another easy win after Zimbabwe resumed Sunday on 52-4 in its first innings of the second Test and reached stumps at 220-9 in its second innings.Pacer Hasan Ali took five wickets on the thi...

Myanmar military deploys Chinese drones to guide its lethal clampdown on pro-democracy demonstrators

As violent protests continue in the country, Myanmars military has deployed Chinese-made drones to survey the situation and to guide its lethal clampdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. The drones have recently been seen flying over protest...

Reuters Sports News Summary

Following is a summary of current sports news briefs.MLB roundup Yankees outlast Nationals in 11 inningsGleyber Torres hit a bases-loaded infield single with no outs in the 11th inning, lifting the New York Yankees to a dramatic 4-3 victory...

Give Feedback