The Russian Icarus
Our subject of interest today is another iconic space mission that earned its place in the pages of history books forever. On April 12, 1961, Russian pilot and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to leave the Earth’s orbit, and to cross over into space, which marked the beginning of human space travel. Launched from Baikonur cosmodrome, a rocket carrying Gagarin’s Vostok 1 spacecraft pulled free of Earth’s gravity and entered into orbit around the planet, making a single full circle before re-entering the atmosphere and landing back on Soviet territory. The following facts should provide for an interesting read if you’re even remotely interested in space travel.
The entire duration of the mission was just 108 minutes, which is how long it took Vostok 1 to complete one orbit around the Earth, reaching a maximum altitude of 203 miles. The capsule then slowed down just enough to be pulled back into the atmosphere by the Earth’s gravity. As for the Vostok 1 itself, it had a spherical shape, which was done in order to neutralize the changes in center of gravity. That way, the craft would provide comfort for the one-man crew regardless of orientation. However, it had one major flaw: it wasn’t designed for landing with a human in board. Vostok 1, unlike the modern Soyuz capsule, wasn’t equipped with landing thrusters to help slow it down for smooth landing, so Gagarin had to eject about 4 miles above ground. The flight itself wouldn’t have been classified as the first manned mission to outer space, so the Russians omitted this little detail from official press releases.
The reason why previous missions failed to escape the Earth’s gravity and reach space was very simple: lack of power, and as a consequence, speed. In order for the spacecraft to achieve such a feat, it has to reach speed of about 17,500 miles per hour. This was finally achieved with Vostok 1, which had a rocket powerful enough to launch it into space. Vostok 1’s aerodynamic spherical shape also helped reduce air resistance, and the spacecraft succeeded in reaching outer space. But before all of this, tests had to performed. A prototype of Gagarin’s craft, dubbed the Vostok 3KA-2, was launched few weeks before the legendary mission, carrying a life-size dummy named Ivan Ivanovich in its cockpit, along with a dog named Zvezdochka.
A few words about the legendary man himself, Yuri Gagarin. He was a 27 year old Russian fighter pilot, and upon his return from space, he was regarded as a national treasure and symbol of Russian success, and as such, too valuable for them, and they avoided sending him on dangerous missions from then on. However, when he was finally scheduled for another mission, he died during a training exercise. The monuments that celebrate him as a hero still stand, surviving the fall of the Soviet Union, when many monuments dedicated to Soviet leaders were torn down. The launch pad from which Vostok 1 was launched with Gagarin on board is still in use today, with the crew of the International Space Station being the latest to blast off from the site. Curiously enough, the pad is now located in Kazakhstan, which was a part of the Soviet Union once.