The training was indeed gruelling as Korolev had indicated it might be. Yuri Gagarin was one of 20 pilots selected for the Vostok Program. In addition to tests of his piloting abilities, there were mental tests, tests of his ability to concentrate and a seemingly endless battery of medical tests. There were sessions in centrefuges, classes in astronomy, classes in orbital mechanics. There was survival training. There were classes in mechanical and electrical engineering. There was flight training and micro-gravity simulations, spacecraft system briefings and spacecraft simulations. There was strenuous physical exercise and yet more medical tests. As the training progressed, it became somewhat impractical to train all twenty mission candidates at the same. The six most promising pilots, including Gagarin were given additional training in order to prepare them for the first flight of the Vostok program. As a result they became known as the Vanguard Six. As the date of the launch grew closer, Korolev brought all the candidates together for a special meeting. “You have all trained very hard,” said Korolev, “and your test results have been uniformly excellent. If given the opportunity, I believe that you could all fly the mission flawlessly, however, only one of you will have the opportunity to fly first. It would be easy for us to simply point at one of you, but in the interests of fairness, we value your input. We would like you to write down the name of the person, other than yourself, who you feel is most qualified to make the first Vostok flight.”
Ten minutes later, Korolev and Mishin examined the 20 slips of paper that the candidates had cast their votes on.
“Extraordinary,” said Mishin.
“Indeed,” responded Korolev, slightly amazed. “17 votes for Gagarin.”
“Yes,” said Mishin. “His test scores are excellent.”
“And his preparations for the field exercises have been absolutely meticulous.”
“Yes,” agreed Mishin. “I think the choice has been made for us.”
“I agree,” said Korolev.
April 12, 1961
The cosomonauts’ quarters were dark. The only light in the room was that little bit that spilled in under the door from the common room as the light clicked on. The door opened quietly as the base doctor walked into the room. He leaned over the bed and gently shook Yuri Gagarin awake. Gagarin blinked sleeply.
“It is time.”
An hour later, Gagarin was sitting in the back of a van, dressed in his spacesuit. Nobody said anything. The quiet tension was cut only by the hum of the portable cooling unit attached to Gagarin’s spacesuit. It was still dark outside, but over the driver’s shoulder, Gagarin could see the Vostok rocket suspended vertically in its launch cradle, hanging in mid-air over the flame trench. It gleamed in the harsh glare of the flood lights, surrounded by clouds of vapour that evaporated in the still morning air. The van pulled up in at the base of the rocket. Gagarin got up and paused for a moment, allowing his eye to wander over the rocket’s sleek lines. Then he turned and walked to the elevator waiting at the base of the gantry. As he rode up the gantry to the White Room, he could hear all manner of sounds all around him, from the hissing of liquid oxygen, to the rattling of froze pipes to the incessant whoosh of over pressure valves venting excess air pressure out of the fuel tanks. To Gagarin, all the hissing and cracking and rattling by the Vostok rocket seem like it was a living thing.
The elevator came to a stop and Gagarin got out, stepping on to a long catwalk that connected the elevator to the White Room where he would enter the spacecraft. He took a couple of steps and paused on the catwalk, looking over the edge. The rocket fell away beneath him, its conical strap-on boosters flared out far below his feet at the bottom of the gantry. Gagarin must have look nervous because Gherman Titov, who had ridden up the elevator with him, took Gagarin’s arm and said, “Relax, Yuri, everything will be fine.” Gagarin nodded, turned and walked to the far end of the catwalk. He pushed open the door and stepped inside.
The White Room gleamed brightly under the glow of fluorescent lights. It was totally bare and spotlessly clean. Inside the door, three pad technicians were waiting for Gagarin. They unplugged his portable cooling unit and took the rubber overshoes off of his spacesuit boots. He walked across the room, knelt down and climbed through the spacecraft hatch. The Vostok spacecraft was very cramped on the inside, with only 2.3 meters of space on the inside. Much of the spacecraft’s internal volume was taken up with navigation and attitude control equipment equipment, communications and diagnostic systems and the life support system.
Gagarin settled into his seat as the technicians plugged his spacesuit into the spacecraft’s life support system. He keyed his helmet mike. “Control, this is Vostok I. Com check. How do you read?”
“Roger, Vostok I. Com check confirmed. We read you loud and clear.”
“Control to Pad leader. You are clear for hatch closure.”
Above and behind him, Gagarin could hear the pad technicians lowering the spacecraft hatch into place. There was a scraping sound, then a thunk and the sound of ratchets turning as the heavy hatch was bolted into place. Next there came more muffled noises as the outer shell was moved into position and secured.
“Control, this is Vostok I. Commencing pre-launch checklist.”
“Roger, Vostok I.”
Gagarin spent most of the next hour running through the long pre-flight checklist and bringing the spacecraft’s systems on line one by one.
“Cryo system chill down sequence complete.”
“Switching guidance computer to primary power bus.”
“Spacecraft’s internal power is at 100%.”
“Life support is at 100%”
In the background, Gagarin could hear a faint rumbling noise as rocket fuel began to flow from the tanks into the fuel manifolds. He shut and locked his visor. In his ear, Gagarin heard
Then he heard a muffled roar and the spacecraft began to vibrate. The timer on the instrument panel began to tick. At three seconds after ignition the engines throttled up to full power and the lock down clamps released the rocket. At the same moment he heard, Korolev’s voice in his ear.
“Preliminary stage is go! Intermediate stage is go! Main stage is go! Lift off! Have a good flight. Everything is all right.”
“Roger, Control,” said Gagarin. “Let’s ride.” Gagarin found it difficult to breath. It was as though an elephant standing on his chest. At the same time, he could feel the rocket rising off the pad. It was like moving upward in a fast elevator, but considerably more violent. The rocket vibrated from the power of its engines. It wobbled this way and that as it was caught in gusts of wind and air currents. The ride was so uneven that at times Gagarin found it difficult to call out instrument readings.
Approximately two minutes after lift-off there was a loud thud and a violent jolt as the four conical strap-on boosters expended the last of their fuel and were jettisoned. A minute after that, Gagarin heard more muffled thuds and then the whoosh of retro rockets as the escape tower and the aerodynamic nosecone covering the spherical spacecraft were jettisons. Bright sunlight streamed into the cockpit through the window at Gagarin’s feet.
“Tower jettison confirmed,” he called out.
“Confirmed. Tower away.”
The ride was much smoother now. The rocket was above most of the atmosphere. Through his window, Gagarin could see the Earth rapidly falling away. The Baikonur Comsodrome a tiny speck, rapidly shrinking into the distance. All the nerves and tension that Gagarin had felt before the launch were gone. He looked in wonder at the world as it spread itself below him. He was passing over the forests of central Russia. The trees seemed to blur to together. From this altitude they looked like the piles in a carpet.
The spacecraft continued to climb, now nearly silently. There was another thud, this one more felt than heard as the core stage of the Vostok rocket was jettisoned and fell away. “Control, this is Vostok I. Please come in.”
“We read you Vostok I. What is your status?”
“Control, the flight is continuing well. I can see the Earth. The visibility is good. I can see almost everything. There is a certain amount of space under the cumulus cloud cover. I am continuing the flight. Everything is good.” A minute or two later, Gagarin began to pass over Siberia. He radioed the ground again. “Everything is working very well. All systems are working. Let’s keep going!”
“Roger that Vostok I.” There was more static this time, as Gagarin moved farther and farther down range.
“Control, Control, I can’t hear you very well. I feel fine. I am in good spirits. I’m continuing the flight.”
“Cop……at……..stok……” The transmission was very garbled then there was nothing but the soft hiss of static in Gagarin’s ear.
On the ground, Korolev paced nervously. “What happened?” he snapped.
“We have lost contact,” said Titov, who was acting as the Capsule Communicator, or Capcom. “He is moving very quickly. We will have to wait until he passes over the Khabarovsk ground station.”
In space, the third stage of the Vostok rocket expended the last of its fuel and fell away to burn up in the atmosphere. Shorn of its booster rocket, the Vostok spacecraft glided silently into orbit over Siberia.
Gagarin keyed his mike and spoke into the on-board voice recorder. “The craft is operating normally. I can see Earth in the view port. Everything is proceeding as planned.”
Below him, even at this altitude, Siberia seemed endless stretching away in all directions. He soared over the endless Russian wilderness, where time seemed to have stood still. There were no visible signs of civilization, just endless forests, trackless steppes and winding rivers. What Gagarin later recalled most vividly was not the expansive view of the Earth. It was the colours. The rivers were dark blue. The lakes were the colour of sapphires. The steppes were a dusty brown. The fields were a verdant green. The apparently smooth surface was broken by rearing mountains and dotted with puffy, white clouds.
Vostok I continued on, passing over the Sea of Okhotsk and the long finger of the Kamchatck Peninsula. Far below, the volcanoes of Kamchatka poked up through the clouds, smoking ominously. Gagarin keyed his mike again. “The lights are on on the descent monitor,” he said. “I’m feeling fine, and I’m in good spirits. Cockpit parameters: pressure 1, humidity 65, temperature 20, compartment pressure 1, first automatic 155, second automatic 155, retro-rocket pressure 320 atmospheres….” Gagarin’s recitation of his instrument readings was interrupted by a burst of static in his ear.
“Vostok I, this is Khabarovsk. Do you read?”
“I hear you, Khabarovsk,” answered Gagarin. “What can you tell me about the flight? What can you tell me?” Gagarin was hoping that the flight controllers could give him specifics about the inclination of his orbit. There was a minute or two of silence that began carry Gagarin out over the coast, but they must have read his mind because they said, “We do not have that data yet. By our estimation, you have only been in orbit for six minutes, however, telemetry downlinks indicate that the spacecraft is performing well. There are no instructions from Number 20.” Gagarin knew that they meant Korolev. “The flight is proceeding normally.”
Gagarin waited a few minutes, then tried contacting the ground again. “I feel splendid, very well, very well, very well. Give me some results on the flight,” but he was almost out of range and he knew that his transmissions were beginning to break up. He heard a garbled response in his ear, but couldn’t make any sense of it. He tried again. “I feel very good. Give me your data on the flight.” All Gagarin got in return was static. It was too late he had passed out of voice range. He switched to the high frequency antenna.
He crossed over the Siberian coast into night over the North Pacific Ocean. He could see the lights of ships on the open ocean. He passed over Hawaii, the lights of Honolulu and Pearl Harbour were like bright jewels in the darkness. To the north, a storm swirled silently. Its presence betrayed by sullen flashes of lightening.
A burst of dots and dashes chattered in his ear. Khabarovsk was sending him a message via telegraph. KK. “Report the monitoring of commands.”
Gagarin crossed the equator at 170 degrees west longitude. He was travelling south east over the South Pacific. He began to send back a message of his own. “I am transmitting the regular message report: 9 hours 48 minutes, Moscow time,” he began. “The flight is proceeding successfully. Spusk 1 is operating normally. The mobile index of the descent monitor mode is moving. Pressure in the cockpit is 1, humidity 65, temperature 20, pressure in the compartment 1.2, manual 150, first automatic 155, second automatic 155, retro rocket system tanks 320 atmospheres. I feel fine.”
Gagarin pushed a button on his control panel, activating the spacecraft’s attitude control system. The proper functioning of the attitude control system was vital for the de-orbit burn, otherwise Gagarin ran the risk of re-entering at the wrong angle. If he was too steep, he would burn up in the atmosphere. If he was too shallow, he would skip off the top of the atmosphere and head out into open space.
The dots and dashes chattered in Gagarin’s ear again. Khabarovsk was sending him another message. “By order of Number 33,” General Nikolai Kaminin, the head of the Cosmonaut training program, “the transmitters have been switched on and we are transmitting this: the flight is proceeding is planned and the orbit is as calculated.”
“Understood, Khabarovsk,” Gagarin sent back. “I am continuing, and I am over America. I transmitted the telegraph signal ‘ON.’”
Gagarin flew on into the night, crossing over the South Pacific. He saw the lights of Auckland and Wellington and more ships. He passed over the coast of Chile and rounded the tip of South America, crossing over the Strait of Magellan, at the tip of South America. He saw the southern most tip of South America, and the northern tip of Antarctica reaching toward each other, but they were a thousand mile short. From his perspective high above, it looked to Gagarin as though he could step from one to the other with ease.
Gagarin tried to send another status up-date to the ground, but he was out of range of Khabarovsk, even on the high frequency antenna. As Gagarin flew over the South Atlantic, the sun came up. It was as sudden as flipping on a light switch. One second, Gagarin was on the night side of the world. Then he crossed the terminator, which was as clear and as precise as if it had been drawn with a ruler, and he was in full day light. He crossed over the stormy waters of the South Atlantic. As he was approaching the coast of Africa, Gagarin felt the hand on his chest again and he heard a series of staccato thuds as the retrorockets fired in anticipation of re-entry. Then there was a loud bang, as the service module was jettisoned. Something must have malfunctioned though because Gagarin’s view began to shift. He didn’t realize it, but the service module was still connected to the re-entry module by one bundle of wires.
On the ground Titov was listening intently. “We are receiving another message,” he said. A telegraph message was coming in over the air to ground loop. “I read you well. The flight is going…”
“We have lost contact again,” he said.
As he flew over Africa, Gagarin began to notice the increasingly heavy pressure on his chest. He also felt a sinking feeling his stomach, as though he were falling in a very fast elevator. He looked at the altitude indicator. The needle was moving smoothly backwards around the dial. Gagarin’s altitude was dropping steadily He next looked at the G force indicator. The needle was moving slowly upward. It was currently hovering as just below 1 G.
As the descent continued, the leading edge of Gagarin’s heat shield began to bite into the atmosphere. The spacecraft rocket rocked back and forth, buffeted by the increasingly dense atmosphere. There were a series of loud bangs as the still attached service module rocked back and forth, buffeted by the drag of re-entry. The bundle of wires gave and the service module went tumbling away. Relieved of the dead weight, the spacecraft leap upward. It also began to gyrate wildly, tumbling end over end. As the G forces increased, Gagarin was pressed further and further into his seat. He couldn’t move. He felt like he weighed a thousand pounds. It was as though an elephant as standing on his chest. He tried to send another message to the ground, that everything was OK, but the spacecraft was surrounded by a superheated ball of ionized plasma, created by its own descent through the atmosphere. He tried to read the G force indicator, but with all the turbulence and the spacecraft’s wild gyrations, it was very difficult. He thought that the gage was peaking at somewhere between 8 and 10 Gs. Gagarin’s eyes, which were practically the part of his body that he could move, flicked to the altitude indicator. The needle was spinning very quickly. He was dropping like a rock. At 23,000 feet, the hatch blew open with a bang. With difficulty, Gagarin unbuckled his safety harness. He pried himself out of his seat and crouched in the hatch combing. He counted to five and jumped.
He heard the wind whistling around him, then felt the sharp tug of his parachute deploying. Gagarin felt himself being jerked upward by his parachute, while the spacecraft went whistling past him, still falling. At 8,200 feet the spacecraft’s main parachute open with a loud snap. It slowed the spacecraft’s descent somewhat, but not much. When the spacecraft finally hit the ground, it did so with a deep throated boom! and a billowing cloud of dust. It bounced high in the air, then came down, bounced again and rolled to a stop.