On This Day

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Associated Press
Yuri Gagarin

On This Day: Yuri Gagarin Completes First Manned Orbit of Earth

April 12, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin rode the first manned capsule out of Earth’s atmosphere, launching human space exploration.

The Vostok 1 Voyage

The Soviet space program achieved a number of firsts in the 1950s and ‘60s, including the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957 and the first moon impact in 1959. In 1961, its Vostok program put the first man into outer space.

Led by engineer Sergei Korolev, the space program designed a two-section spacecraft with a small spherical manned module (about 7.5 feet in diameter) attached to module containing the spacecraft’s equipment.

Twenty-seven-year-old Yuri Gagarin was selected from a group of six cosmonauts (the Russian term for astronaut) to fly the first Vostok mission. Vostok 1 took off from a secret test site located in a remote area of Kazakhstan at 9:07 a.m. on April 12. Gagarin radioed from the capsule, “Poyekhali!” (“Let’s Go!”) and the craft was launched into orbit.

Gagarin ate some food out of tubes and watched the Earth below. “What beauty. I saw clouds and their light shadows on the distant dear Earth,” he reported the next day.

Before re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, the manned capsule was supposed to separate cleanly from its equipment module, but a series of malfunctions left the two tethered. Within minutes, the craft began spinning wildly.

“It happened over Africa,” said Gagarin in his April 12 report on the mission. “One moment I see Africa … another the horizon, another the sky. I barely had time to shade myself from the sun, so the light did not blind my eyes.”

Ten minutes past schedule, a back-up system kicked in and the instrument module finally broke away, allowing a safe re-entry. The incident was not made public until 1996, when the Soviet mission commander’s notes were auctioned off, revealing that the malfunction had nearly caused Gagarin’s death.

At 10:44 a.m., Gagarin ejected from the capsule and parachuted to earth, gently landing on a field in the Volgograd region of Western Russia.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev later told Gagarin, “You have made yourself immortal because you are the first man to penetrate space.” Gagarin replied, “Now let the other countries try to catch us.”

Key Player: Yuri Alexyevich Gagarin

Yuri Alexyevich Gagarin was born to a farming family west of Moscow. As a child, he was so passionate about planes that he slept in a tent just outside the airfield for an entire summer. As an aviation cadet, he graduated with top marks and became one of 20 cosmonauts in the country.

After his mission in space and a subsequent world tour, Gagarin was eager to make a second trip. However, he was now considered a national treasure, and the government did not want to risk losing him. Instead, he became deputy director at the cosmonaut training center.

Unfortunately, he died at the age of 34, just seven years after his Vostok mission, while flying a MiG 15 aircraft with an instructor.

Related Topic: NASA Mercury project

Less than a month after Gagarin’s mission, NASA’s Mercury project sent the first American into space when Alan B. Shepard made a sub-orbital trip. It would be another 10 months until Mercury astronaut John Glenn was able to replicate Gagarin’s orbital voyage.

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