The Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States, the two Cold War superpowers, began just before the Soviet Union launched the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957. Both countries wanted to develop spaceflight technology quickly, particularly by launching the first successful human spaceflight. The Soviet Union secretly pursued the Vostok programme in competition with the United States Project Mercury. Vostok launched several precursor unmanned missions between May 1960 and March 1961, to test and develop the Vostok rocket family and space capsule. These missions had varied degrees of success, but the final two—Korabl-Sputnik 4 and Korabl-Sputnik 5—were complete successes, allowing the first manned flight.See also Selection and training of the Vostok programme
The Vostok 1 capsule was designed to carry a single cosmonaut. Yuri Gagarin, 27, was chosen as the prime pilot of Vostok 1, with Gherman Titov and Grigori Nelyubov as backups. These assignments were formally made on April 8, four days before the mission, but Gagarin had been a favourite among the cosmonaut candidates for at least several months.
The final decision of who would fly the mission relied heavily on the opinion of the head of cosmonaut training, Nikolai Kamanin. In an April 5 diary entry, Kamanin wrote that he was still undecided between Gagarin and Titov. "The only thing that keeps me from picking [Titov] is the need to have the stronger person for the one day flight." Kamanin was referring to the second mission, Vostok 2, compared to the relatively short single-orbit mission of Vostok 1. When Gagarin and Titov were informed of the decision during a meeting on April 9, Gagarin was very happy, and Titov was disappointed. On April 10, this meeting was reenacted in front of television cameras, so there would be official footage of the event. This included an acceptance speech by Gagarin. As an indication of the level of secrecy involved, one of the other cosmonaut candidates, Alexei Leonov, later recalled that he did not know who was chosen for the mission until after the spaceflight had begun.
Gagarin was examined by a team of doctors prior to his flight. One doctor gave her recollection of the events in an interview with RT in April 2011: "Gagarin looked more pale than usual. He was unsociable and quiet, which was not like him at all. He would answer by nodding or a short 'yes' to all questions. Sometimes he would start humming some tunes. This was a different Gagarin. We geared him up, and hugged. And I said, 'Yuri, everything will be fine.' And he nodded back."
Unlike later Vostok missions, there were no dedicated tracking ships available to receive signals from the spacecraft. Instead they relied on the network of ground stations, also called Command Points, to communicate with the spacecraft; all of these Command Points were located within the Soviet Union.
Because of weight constraints, there was no backup retrorocket engine. The spacecraft carried 10 days of provisions to allow for survival and natural orbital decay in the event the retrorockets failed.
During prelaunch preparations, it was decided to paint "СССР" on Gagarin's helmet in large red letters as a form of identification after landing so that any local police or security personnel who spotted him would know he wasn't a foreign agent parachuted from an aircraft into the Soviet Union (it had been less than a year since U2 pilot Gary Powers was shot down).
The entire mission would be controlled by either automatic systems or by ground control. This was because medical staff and spacecraft engineers were unsure how a human might react to weightlessness, and therefore it was decided to lock the pilot's manual controls. In an unusual move, a code to unlock the controls was placed in an onboard envelope, for Gagarin's use in case of emergency. Prior to the flight, Kamanin and others told Gagarin the code anyway.
On Baikonur Cosmodrome on the morning of April 11, 1961, the Vostok-K rocket, together with the attached Vostok 3KA space capsule, were transported several kilometers to the launch pad, in a horizontal position. Once they arrived at the launch pad, a quick examination of the booster was conducted by technicians to make sure everything was in order. When no visible problems were found, the booster was erected on LC-1. At 10:00 (Moscow Time), Gagarin and Titov were given a final review of the flight plan. They were informed that launch was scheduled to occur the following day, at 09:07 Moscow Time. This time was chosen so that when the capsule started to fly over Africa, which was when the retrorockets would need to fire for reentry, the solar illumination would be ideal for the orientation system's sensors.
At 18:00, once various physiological readings had been taken, the doctors instructed the cosmonauts not to discuss the upcoming missions. That evening Gagarin and Titov relaxed by listening to music, playing pool, and chatting about their childhoods. At 21:50, both men were offered sleeping pills, to ensure a good night's sleep, but they both declined. Physicians had attached sensors to the cosmonauts, to monitor their condition throughout the night, and they believed that both had slept well. Gagarin's biographers Doran and Bizony say that neither Gagarin nor Titov slept that night. Korolev didn't sleep that night, due to anxiety caused by the imminent spaceflight.
At 05:30 Moscow time, on the morning of April 12, 1961, both Gagarin and his backup Titov were woken. They were given breakfast, assisted into their spacesuits, and then were transported to the launch pad. Gagarin entered the Vostok 1 spacecraft, and at 07:10 local time (04:10 UTC), the radio communication system was turned on. Once Gagarin was in the spacecraft, his picture appeared on television screens in the launch control room from an onboard camera. Launch would not occur for another two hours, and during the time Gagarin chatted with the mission's main CapCom, as well as Chief Designer Sergei Korolev, Nikolai Kamanin, and a few others. Following a series of tests and checks, about forty minutes after Gagarin entered the spacecraft, its hatch was closed. Gagarin, however, reported that the hatch was not sealed properly, and technicians spent nearly an hour removing all the screws and sealing the hatch again. According to a 2014 obituary, Vostok's chief designer, Oleg Ivanovsky, personally helped rebolt the hatch. There is some disagreement over whether the hatch was in fact not sealed correctly, as a more recent account stated the indication was false.
During this time Gagarin requested some music to be played over the radio. Korolev was suffering from chest pains and close to a nervous breakdown. This was the 24th Soviet space launch and the 16th involving a Luna/Vostok booster. So far, 12 launches had failed, for a success rate of exactly 50%. Two Vostoks had failed to reach orbit due to launch vehicle malfunctions and another two malfunctioned in orbit. Korolev was given a pill to calm him down. Gagarin, on the other hand, was described as calm; about half an hour before launch his pulse was recorded at 64 beats per minute.06:07 UT Launch occurred from the Baikonur Cosmodrome Site No.1. Korolev radioed, "Preliminary stage..... intermediate..... main..... lift off! We wish you a good flight. Everything is all right." Gagarin replied, "Let's go! (Poyekhali!)."06:09 UT (T+ 119 s) The four strap-on boosters of the Vostok rocket used up the last of their propellant and dropped away from the core vehicle.06:10 UT (T+ 156 s) The payload shroud covering Vostok 1 was released, uncovering a window at Gagarin's feet, with an optical orientation device Vzor (lit. "look" or "glance").06:12 UT (T+ 300 s) The rocket core stage used up its propellant and fell away from the capsule and final rocket stage. The final rocket stage ignited.06:13 UT Gagarin reported, "...the flight is continuing well. I can see the Earth. The visibility is good.... I almost see everything. There's a certain amount of space under cumulus cloud cover. I continue the flight, everything is good."06:14 UT Vostok 1 passed over central Russia. Gagarin reported, "Everything is working very well. All systems are working. Let's keep going!"06:15 UT Three minutes into the burn of the final rocket stage, Gagarin radioed, "Zarya-1, Zarya-1, I can't hear you very well. I feel fine. I'm in good spirits. I'm continuing the flight..." Vostok 1 started to move out of radio range of the Baikonur ground station.06:17 UT The rocket final stage shut down and Vostok 1 reached orbit. Ten seconds later the rocket separated from the capsule.06:18 UT (T+ 676 s) Gagarin reported, "The craft is operating normally. I can see Earth in the view port of the Vzor. Everything is proceeding as planned". Vostok 1 passed over the Soviet Union and moved on over Siberia.06:21 UT Vostok 1 passed over the Kamchatka peninsula and out over the North Pacific Ocean. Gagarin radioed, "...the lights are on on the descent mode monitor. I'm feeling fine, and I'm in good spirits. Cockpit parameters: pressure 1; humidity 65; temperature 20; pressure in the compartment 1; first automatic 155; second automatic 155; pressure in the retro-rocket system 320 atmospheres...."06:25 UT As Vostok 1 began its diagonal crossing of the Pacific Ocean from Kamchatka peninsula to the southern tip of South America, Gagarin requested information about his orbital parameters: "What can you tell me about the flight? What can you tell me?". The ground station at Khabarovsk didn't have his orbital parameters yet, and reported back, "There are no instructions from No. 20 [code name for Korolyov], and the flight is proceeding normally." (Ground control did not know until 25 minutes after launch that a stable orbit had been achieved.)06:31 UT Gagarin transmitted to the Khabarovsk ground station, "I feel splendid, very well, very well, very well. Give me some results on the flight!". At this time, Vostok 1 was nearing the VHF radio horizon for Khabarovsk, and they responded, "Repeat. I can't hear you very well". Gagarin transmitted again, "I feel very good. Give me your data on the flight!" Vostok 1 then passed out of VHF range of the Khabarovsk ground station.06:37 UT Vostok 1 continued on its journey as the Sun set over the North Pacific. Gagarin crossed into night, northwest of the Hawaiian Islands. Out of VHF range with ground stations, communications continued via HF radio.06:46 UT Khabarovsk ground station sent the message "KK" via telegraph (on HF radio to Vostok 1). This was a code meaning, "Report the monitoring of commands," a request for Gagarin to report when the spacecraft automated descent system had received its instructions from ground control.06:48 UT Vostok 1 crossed the equator at about 170° West in a southeast direction, and began crossing the South Pacific. Gagarin transmitted over HF radio, "I am transmitting the regular report message: 9 hours 48 minutes (Moscow Time), the flight is proceeding successfully. Spusk-1 is operating normally. The mobile index of the descent mode monitor 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...."06:49 UT Gagarin reported he was on the night side of the Earth.06:51 UT Gagarin reported the sun-seeking attitude control system was switched on; this oriented Vostok 1 for retrofire. The automatic/solar system was backed up by a manual/visual system; either one could operate the two redundant cold nitrogen gas thruster systems, each with 10 kg (22 lb) of gas.06:53 UT The Khabarovsk ground station sent Gagarin via HF radio, "By order of No.33 (General Nikolai Kamanin), the transmitters have been switched on, and we are transmitting this: the flight is proceeding as planned and the orbit is as calculated." Vostok 1 was now known to be in a stable orbit; Gagarin acknowledged.06:57 UT Vostok 1 was over the South Pacific between New Zealand and Chile as Gagarin radioed, "...I'm continuing the flight, and I'm over America. I transmitted the telegraph signal "ON".07:00 UT Vostok 1 crossed the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America. News of the Vostok 1 mission was broadcast on Radio Moscow.07:04 UT Gagarin sent another spacecraft status message, similar to the one at 06:48. This was not received by ground stations.07:09 UT Gagarin sent another spacecraft status message, also not received by ground stations.07:10 UT Vostok 1 passed over the South Atlantic, into daylight again. At this point, retrofire is 15 minutes away.07:13 UT Gagarin sent a fourth spacecraft status message; Moscow received this partial message: "I read you well. The flight is going...."07:18 UT Gagarin sent another spacecraft status message, not received by ground stations.07:23 UT Gagarin sent another spacecraft status message, not received by ground stations.
The automatic orientation system brought Vostok 1 into alignment for retrofire about 1 hour into the flight.
At 07:25 UT, the spacecraft's automatic systems brought it into the required attitude (orientation) for the retrorocket firing, and shortly afterwards, the liquid-fueled engine fired for about 42 seconds over the west coast of Africa, near Angola, about 8,000 kilometers (4,300 nautical miles) uprange of the landing point. The orbit's perigee and apogee had been selected to cause reentry due to orbital decay within 10 days (the limit of the life support system function) in the event of retrorocket malfunction. However, the actual orbit differed from the planned and would not have allowed descent until 20 days.
Ten seconds after retrofire, commands were sent to separate the Vostok service module from the reentry module (code name sharik, "little ball"), but the equipment module unexpectedly remained attached to the reentry module by a bundle of wires. At around 07:35 UT, the two parts of the spacecraft began reentry and went through strong gyrations as Vostok 1 neared Egypt. At this point the wires broke, the two modules separated, and the descent module settled into the proper reentry attitude. Gagarin telegraphed "Everything is OK" despite continuing gyrations; he later reported that he did not want to "make noise" as he had (correctly) reasoned that the gyrations did not endanger the mission (and were apparently caused by the spherical shape of the reentry module). As Gagarin continued his descent, he remained conscious as he experienced about 8 g during reentry. (Gagarin's own report states "over 10 g".)
At 07:55 UT, when Vostok 1 was still 7 km from the ground, the hatch of the spacecraft was released, and two seconds later Gagarin was ejected. At 2.5 km (8,200 ft) altitude, the main parachute was deployed from the Vostok spacecraft. Two schoolgirls witnessed the Vostok landing and described the scene: "It was a huge ball, about two or three meters high. It fell, then it bounced and then it fell again. There was a huge hole where it hit the first time."
Gagarin's parachute opened almost right away, and about ten minutes later, at 08:05 UT, Gagarin landed. Both he and the spacecraft landed via parachute 26 km (16 mi) south west of Engels, in the Saratov region at 51.270682°N 45.99727°E / 51.270682; 45.99727. It was 280 km to the west of the planned landing site (near Baikonur).
A farmer and her daughter observed the strange scene of a figure in a bright orange suit with a large white helmet landing near them by parachute. Gagarin later recalled, "When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don't be afraid, I am a Soviet citizen like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!"
Gagarin's flight was announced on the Soviet radio by Yuri Levitan, the speaker who had announced all major events in the Great Patriotic War (WW2). As with all previous and most subsequent Soviet rocket launches, the flight preparation was kept secret and the news was aired only post-factum. The flight was celebrated as a great triumph of the Soviet science and technology demonstrating the superiority of the socialist system over capitalism. Moscow and other cities in the USSR held mass demonstrations, the scale of which was comparable to World War II Victory Parades. Gagarin was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, the nation's highest honour. He also became an international celebrity with numerous honours and awards.
April 12 was declared Cosmonautics Day in the USSR, and is celebrated today in Russia as one of the official "Commemorative Dates of Russia." In 2011, it was declared the International Day of Human Space Flight by the United Nations.
Gagarin's informal reply poyekhali! became a historical phrase used to refer to the arrival of the Space Age in human history. Later it was included in the refrain of a Soviet patriotic song written by Alexandra Pakhmutova and Nikolai Dobronravov (He said "let's go!" He waved his hand).
The Soviet press later reported that, minutes before boarding the spacecraft, Gagarin made a speech: "Dear friends, you who are close to me, and you whom I do not know, fellow Russians, and people of all countries and all continents: in a few minutes a powerful space vehicle will carry me into the distant realm of space. What can I tell you in these last minutes before the launch? My whole life appears to me as one beautiful moment. All that I previously lived through and did, was lived through and done for the sake of this moment." According to historian Asif Siddiqi, Gagarin actually "was essentially forced to utter a stream of banalities prepared by anonymous speechwriters" taped much earlier in Moscow.
Officially, the U.S. congratulated the Soviet Union on its accomplishments.
Writing for the New York Times shortly after the flight, however, journalist Arthur Krock described mixed feelings in the United States due to fears of the spaceflight's potential military implications for the Cold War, and the Detroit Free Press wrote that "the people of Washington, London, Paris and all points between might have been dancing in the streets" if it were not for "doubts and suspicions" about Soviet intentions. Other US writers reported worries that the spaceflight had won a propaganda victory on behalf of communism. President John F. Kennedy was quoted as saying that it would be "some time" before the US could match the Soviet launch vehicle technology, and that "the news will be worse before it's better." Kennedy also sent congratulations to the Soviet Union for their "outstanding technical achievement." Opinion pages of many US newspapers urged renewed efforts to overtake the Soviet scientific accomplishments.
Adlai Stevenson, then the US ambassador to the United Nations, was quoted as saying, "Now that the Soviet scientists have put a man into space and brought him back alive, I hope they will also help to bring the United Nations back alive," and on a more serious note urged international agreements covering the use of space (which did not occur until the Outer Space Treaty of 1967).
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India praised the Soviet Union for "a great victory of man over the forces of nature" and urged that it be "considered as a victory for peace." The Economist voiced worries that orbital platforms might be used for surprise nuclear attacks. The Svenska Dagbladet in Sweden chided "free countries" for "splitting up and frittering away" their resources, while West Germany's Die Welt argued that America had the resources to have sent a man into space first but was beaten by Soviet purposefulness. Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun urged "that both the United States and the Soviet Union should use their new knowledge and techniques for the good of mankind," and Egypt's Akhbar El Yom likewise expressed hopes that the cold war would "turn into a peaceful race in infinite space" and turn away from armed conflicts such as the Laotian Civil War.
The FAI rules in 1961 required that a pilot must land with the spacecraft to be considered an official spaceflight for the FAI record books. Although some contemporary Soviet sources stated that Gagarin had parachuted separately to the ground, the Soviet Union officially insisted that he had landed with the Vostok; the government forced the cosmonaut to lie in press conferences, and the FAI certified the flight. The Soviet Union did not admit until 1971 that Gagarin had ejected and landed separately from the Vostok descent module.
When Soviet officials filled out the FAI papers to register the flight of Vostok 1, they stated that the launch site was Baykonur at 47°22′00″N 65°29′00″E. In reality, the launch site was near Tyuratam at 45°55′12.72″N 63°20′32.32″E, 250 km (160 mi) to the south west of "Baykonur". They did this to try to keep the location of the Space Center a secret. In 1995, Russian and Kazakh officials renamed Tyuratam Baikonur.
Four decades after the flight, historian Asif Azam Siddiqi wrote that Vostok 1
will undoubtedly remain one of the major milestones in not only the history of space exploration, but also the history of the human race itself. The fact that this accomplishment was successfully carried out by the Soviet Union, a country completely devastated by war just sixteen years prior, makes the achievement even more impressive. Unlike the United States, the USSR had to begin from a position of tremendous disadvantage. Its industrial infrastructure had been ruined, and its technological capabilities were outdated at best. A good portion of its land had been devastated by war, and it had lost about 25 million citizens ... but it was the totalitarian state that overwhelmingly took the lead [in the space race].
The landing site is now a monument park. The central feature in the park is a 25 meter tall monument that consists of a silver metallic rocketship rising on a curved metallic column of flame, from a wedge shaped, white stone base. In front of this is a 3 meter tall, white stone statue of Yuri Gagarin, wearing a spacesuit, with one arm raised in greeting and the other holding a space helmet.
The Vostok 1 re-entry capsule is now on display at the RKK Energiya museum in Korolyov, near Moscow.
In 2011, documentary film maker Christopher Riley partnered with European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli to record a new film of what Gagarin would have seen of the Earth from his spaceship, by matching historical audio recordings to video from the International Space Station following the ground path taken by Vostok 1. The resulting film, First Orbit, was released online to celebrate the 50th anniversary of human spaceflight.