Chapter Four

1958

            With the successful launch of Explorer 1, the Americans had finally gotten into the Space Race. The Explorer 1 mission lasted for 111 days and relayed much valuable scientific data. Explorer 1 carried a number of experiments, including temperature sensors, a Gieger-Muller tube, designed to detect cosmic ray in space and experiments designed to detect micrometeor impacts. Of considerable surprise to the scientists and the mission controllers, was the behaviour of the spacecraft itself. Explorer 1 had been designed to rotate around its longitudinal axis. It had been thought that this would minimize the forces of inertia acting on the spacecraft. To the surprise of the scientists, Explorer 1 immediately began to turn end over end. This was the result of previously unconsidered inertial forces acting on the spacecraft and led to the rediscovery of the mathematical theories of the Swiss mathematician Leohnard Euler, whose work had been forgotten for over two hundred years. Through this rediscovery it was learned that the Explorer 1 spacecraft behaved in the way it did because all spinning bodies in space spin in the direction that minimizes the kinetic forces of rapid rotation. Explorer 1 was the first in a long line of unmanned exploratory spacecraft that continues to this day. Explorer 1 re-entered the atmosphere and burned up during re-entry on Marc 31, 1970.

            At the same time, signing of the National Air and Space Act led to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Often referred to simply as NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration absorbed its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, along with its 8,000 employees and testing facilities intact. NASA’s purpose was to explore the universe in peace and to develop space for the benefit of all mankind. This stood in sharp contrast to the Soviet space program, which was overseen by the Russian Air Force and existed mainly for military and propaganda purposes.

Luostari-Pechenga Airbase,

Murmansk, USSR,

January, 1959

     The sleek MIG-15 fighter jet touched down and rolled to a stop at the end of the runway. The aircraft had barely come to a stop in front of the hangar before the ground crew rushed up to begin servicing the jet. Yuri Gagarin was just popping the canopy when an official looking car pulled up. It stopped about ten feet away. The driver got out, walked around the front of the car and opened the back door. Interesting, thought Gagarin. I wonder what this is about. Maybe they’ve mistaken me for somebody else. Gagarin unbuckled his safety harness and climbed out of the airplane. He walked across the snowy tarmac to the man waiting next to the car. The insignia on the man’s epaulettes indicated that he was a sergeant of aviation. Gagarin saluted.

            “Comarde Senior Lieutenant Gagarin?”

            “Yes.”

            “I am Sergeant Ivanova. Please get in sir. I have orders to take you to the Base Commandant at once.”

            “What is this about?” asked Gagarin. “Have I done something wrong?”

            “I don’t know sir. I am only following orders.”

            “Very well.” Gagarin got in and shut the door. “Take me to the Base Commandant.”

            The drive from the air field to the base’s administrative centre wasn’t very long, only about 15 minutes. They pulled up in front of a large brick building and got out. Sergeant Ivanova escorted Gagarin inside and took him up to the third floor, to a wood paneled waiting room.

            “Wait here,” said Ivanova, “I will tell the General that you are here to see him.” He went through a door and returned a few seconds later.

            Gagarin opened the same door and found himself in a large and comfortably appointed office.  He walked across the room to stand in front of a large desk. He saluted. “General Tolsky, Senior Lieutenant Gagarin reporting as ordered.”

            General Tolsky returned Gagarin’s salute. He gestured to the chairs on the other side of the desk. “Comrade Gagarin, please sit.” Gagarin sat down. “Either you have very powerful friends or you have offended somebody very important.”

            Gagarin was confused. “I don’t know what you mean, General.”

            “Then I will tell you,” said General Tolsky. He handed Gagarin a sealed envelope. “I received a personal phone call yesterday from Admiral Chabanenko. It seems that special instructions have been prepared for you. There is an aircraft waiting to take you to Moscow. You are to be on it in four hours. You are to open your orders in flight. That is all.”

            Gagarin stood up. “Understood sir.” He saluted again.

            “Dismissed.”

Special Design Bureau #1

Moscow, USSR

               Yuri Gagarin entered the non-descript looking building and walked up the receptionist. “Excuse me,” he said, “I am looking for Room 264.”

                “Go up the stairs, go left and it will be the third door on your right.”

                  “Thank you,” said Gagarin.

               Gagarin had read his orders yesterday on the flight from Murmansk. He hadn’t understood them then and he still hadn’t understood when he had read them again this morning. All they had said was to go to Special Design Bureau #1 first thing in the morning and present himself at Room 264. Gagarin didn’t understand his orders, but he didn’t have to. All he had to do was show up. Gagarin stopped in front of the door to Room 264 and knocked.

                    A voice said, “come in.”

                 Gagarin opened the door and stepped inside. The office was small and cluttered. The walls were covered with tacked up blueprints of experimental aircraft. More blueprints and schematics were rolled up in the corners. Technical manuals were scattered haphazardly around the floor. Clustered around the desk in the middle of the room were three people sitting around the desk in the middle of the room. The man in the middle stood up and stretched out his hand. “Comrade Gagarin, welcome, I imagine that you are wondering why you have been sent to us.”

                “Yes, Comrade,” answered Gagarin. “My instructions were very vague.”

               “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Sergey Korolev. This is my deputy Vasily Mishin and my chief designer, Valentin Glushko.”

            Sergey Korolev. The name jogged a memory. “I know your work, Comrade Korolev,” said Gagarin. “I read your book, Rocket Flight in Stratosphere.”

           “Did you?” asked Korelev modestly. “Well it seems that my reputation has preceeded me.”

           “Yes,” responded Gagarin. “I have always had an interest in astronomy.”

        “Comrades,” interjected Glushko, “before we continue, I feel that we should remind Comrade Gagarin that Comrade Korolev’s association with Soviet rocket research is a state secret and his name is not spoken aloud in public, or to be written down. Do you understand Comrade?”

           “Yes, I understand, Comrades” responded Gagarin.

           “Excellent,” said Mishin. “To business.”

          Korolev picked up a folder off the desk and glanced through it. “The truth is we know much about you, Lieutenant Gagarin. We know of your life long interest in astronomy and outer space. We know that you are an avid sportsman, that you play ice hockey and that you have coached basketball. We also know that you are an excellent pilot and highly observant.”

          Gagarin was confused. “So you have read my service record. Why exactly have you summoned me to this meeting?”

          “We are assembling a list of uniquely qualified pilots and we feel that you fit the bill,” said Mishin.

           “For what?” asked Gagarin.

           “To be the first human being to fly in space,” said Korolev.

            “Understand, Comrade Gagarin,” said Glushko, “the training will be gruelling and difficult and the missions will be dangerous, but we are offering you something historic. Will you accept?”

             “Yes,” said Gagarin at once.

         “Very well,” Korolev. “For now you will return to Murmansk. In a few weeks you will receive your new assignment. Welcome to the Soviet space program.”

Previous Chapter    Start Over     Next Chapter

Advertisements

About this entry