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The First Human into Space

Shortly before 8 am Moscow time on 12th April 1961, the hatch of Vostok 1 slammed shut, leaving a single solitary face inside staring back. Thanks to some technical difficulties, another hour was needed to properly seal the hatch, while the man inside the small spacecraft did his best to remain calm as music played by mission control drifted through the spacecraft. 

vostok 1
Launch of Vostok 1, the first manned spaceflight.

At this point of the Space Race, the Soviet Union had about a 50% success rate with launches, meaning that half never even got off the launch pad, exploded shortly after take-off, or drifted miles off course before erupting with a fiery demise. Despite being one of the most well-respected aviation pilots and cosmonauts in the Soviet Union, these statistics must surely have weighed heavily on the mind of Yuri Gagarin as the time ticked down to launch. 

The mission that took the first human into space must surely be one of the most important days across all of humanity. A day when we stepped outside the confines of our planet for the first time, a day that changed everything. 

If you google, the first man in space, there is only one name that emerges. And yet, there has long been a nagging rumour – call it a conspiracy theory if you will – that in fact, Yuri Gagarin was only the first human to make it back from space alive, and that on several instances, Soviet cosmonauts made it up into orbit, but for whatever reason, never returned home. 

We’re not going to dedicate an entire video to this theory, and if anything we’d like to focus more on Yuri Gagarin and the flight of Vostok 1, but it’s something we’ll be touching on along the way. This is the dramatic, humanity-changing adventure of the first human in space.  

The Space Race

Sputnik 1, humanity's first artificial satellite, the United States directed the Space Race to landing humans on the Moon, the Soviet Union concentrated on low Earth orbit space stations such as Mir
Sputnik 1, humanity’s first artificial satellite, the United States directed the Space Race to landing humans on the Moon, the Soviet Union concentrated on low Earth orbit space stations such as Mir, By various is licensed under CC-BY-SA

What has come to be known as the Space Race exploded into life on 4th October 1957 when the now-iconic beeping coming from the Soviet spacecraft, Sputnik 1, began echoing around the world. All of sudden, one nation that considered itself the technological superior found itself well behind the Soviet Union, a country still thought of as relatively backward in many ways by the Americans. We’re not going to go into Sputnik 1 too much in this video, partly because we have a lot to talk about already and partly because we’ve already done an entire video on it here on Megaprojects, so if you’re having a Soviet-era space travel kind of a day, why not give that watch after this. 

Sputnik 1 was of course just the start, it was quickly followed by Sputnik 2, which carried a small dog named Laika into space on 3rd November 1957, while the Americans finally joined the party on 31st January 1958, when Explorer 1 reached orbit. 

But these small satellites were fairly rudimentary, especially compared to what we see today, and it wasn’t long until new targets needed to be set, and then achieved. I’d love to sit here and tell you that the U.S and the USSR went into the Space Race for the good of human progress and scientific advancement, but I think that we all know that that wasn’t entirely true. The two global superpowers were locking horns over supremacy, both ideologically around the world, but also technologically. Both nations were well on their way to developing a fearsome arsenal of nuclear weapons, and yet space offered an entirely different proposition 

Humans in Space   

Once the U.S and the Soviet Union had successfully launched a series of satellites, the next logical step was who could put the first human into space. A mongrel dog found on the streets of Moscow was one thing, but blasting a person into space at this precarious early stage of space travel was a proposition fraught with difficulties. 

Yuri Gagarin in Vostok 1

Sputnik 1 had essentially been a metal beach ball with almost no scientific or life-support instruments onboard and it would be another enormous step to create a spacecraft capable of sustaining human life in space and one which could bring that life safely back down to earth. Officially, these manned flights began in 1961, first with Yuri Gagarin, then with Alan Shepard less than a month later, though his flight was a 15-minute suborbital flight if we want to get really specific.   

From there, the U.S and USSR sent a steady stream of people skywards over the coming years. Let’s give a special mention to Valentina Tereshkova, who, on 16th June 1963 aged just 26 at the time, became the first female into space. She orbited the earth 48 times over three days and remains the youngest female ever in space and the only woman ever to do so solo. And if we want to talk about Cold War equality, the first U.S woman into space came 20 years after Tereshkova.     

But before we get carried away with what came after Yuri Gagarin, unofficially, there have long been whispers that some cosmonauts made it into space before him, but never returned home.   

The Lost Cosmonauts       

Let’s just get the disclaimer out of the way nice and early shall we? The theory of the Lost Cosmonauts is just that – a theory – one that is occasionally supported by some scraps of evidence, but it’s a story that has also suffered from some well-known hoaxes. 

Winston Churchill famously described the Soviet Union as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” in 1939 and by the late 1950s and early 1960s things had escalated significantly. Throughout its history, the Soviet Union experienced so many coverups, extreme exaggerations and just plain lies that it can at times be difficult to separate fact and fiction. What actually happened within the USSR and what the world was told, was often two very different versions of events.  

Winston Churchill on his desk 1940
Winston Churchill on his desk 1940

And this was never more apparent than with their space program which suffered numerous catastrophic accidents which weren’t always shared out of fear that they would reflect badly on the Soviet Union. Such was the case with the Nedelin disaster on 24th October 1960 at Baikonur test range, when an explosion during preparations for a launch of the Soviet R-16 ICBM killed Chief Marshal of Artillery Mitrofan Ivanovich Nedelin and close to 100 personnel on-site. The disaster was immediately suppressed by the Soviet authorities and it wasn’t officially acknowledged until 1989. 

Early Rumours  

As early as 1959, rumours began to circulate that the Soviet Union had already put a human into space, though it must be said there was little to no concrete evidence at this point. An unnamed high-ranking Czechoslovakian Communist was the first to leak the possibility of failed crewed launches in December 1959 and even named those who were said to have perished. 

More rumours followed when in 1960 an American scientific-fiction author was apparently told by Red Army cadets in Soviet Lithuania that the USSR had put a manned spacecraft into orbit that very day, a fact immediately denied by Soviet authorities. One potential explanation was that the mission in question had carried test dummies, something that was certainly done, but it only added fuel to the fire.  

The Torre Bert Recordings

Perhaps the most famous piece of supposed evidence regarding the lost cosmonauts was the Torre Bert recordings by Italian brothers Achille and Giovanni Battista Judica-Cordiglia. The two brothers had set up an experimental listening station near Turin in what had once been a German bunker during World War II. 

From there, the Judica-Cordiglia brothers began monitoring radio transmission from around the world, but also, allegedly, from outer space. Between May 1960 and April 1964, the brothers released nine separate recordings which they claimed were of Soviet cosmonauts at various stages of missions, most of which ultimately proved unsuccessful. 

If we want to talk specifically about missions that may or may not have been before Gagarin’s historic flight, four of the recordings are said to have been taken before 12th April 1961. The first, in May 1960, is of a manned crew reporting that their spacecraft was going off course, the second, on 28th November 1960, was reportedly a faint SOS signal coming down from space. 

In February 1961, a recording was released that was allegedly of a cosmonaut suffocating in space, while just days before Gagarin’s flight, another message was recorded, apparently of a Soviet spacecraft orbiting the earth then successfully reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. The mystery deepened with this final recording when a claim was made that Major General Vladimir Sergeyevich Ilyushin, who officially had been badly injured in a car accident, was, in fact, clinging to life after surviving a reentry crash landing somewhere in China mere days before Gagarin’s flight.     

From there, there were another five recordings, one of which was probably the most famous, of a female cosmonaut frantically relaying her situation to mission control before her spacecraft burned up upon reentry. If this recording is real, it is a truly chilling few minutes. 

But that brings us back nicely to the authenticity of these recordings. Their content was immediately dismissed by the Soviet Union and there have been some serious questions raised over their veracity. It was quickly pointed out that none of the cosmonauts followed official transmission procedures, while in several instances there are grammatical errors or completely meaningless sentences that seem entirely out of place. Over the years, the Italian brothers have been accused of fabricating the entire thing for their own publicity, something which of course they always firmly denied.  

The Torre Bert recordings have never been completely debunked nor have they provided definitive evidence of the lost cosmonauts. When information relating to the Soviet Union began to be declassified in the 1980s, there was not a single mention of a manned flight, successful or otherwise, before April 1961. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was all lies, and it’s perfectly likely that the Soviet authorities didn’t declassify everything anyway. This is a theory with plenty of holes in it, and perhaps not enough to base any firm assumptions on.  

Vostok 1

But let’s climb out from the conspiracy theory pit to a story that we definitely do know happened. Whether or not the Soviet Union actually launched manned flights before or not, by April 1961, they felt confident enough to give it a go. How much of this confidence was genuine and how much was simply to ensure that they beat the Americans again, we’ll never know. 

The name Yuri Gagarin has gone down in history and will forever be associated with pioneering space travel, but it could have so easily been Gherman Titov. Two weeks before launch, head of cosmonaut training, Nikolai Kamanin had still not made a final decision over which of the two men would head into space and who would act as backup. Word is Titov was slated for the slightly longer mission planned after Gagarin’s flight and he did head into orbit on 6th August 1961 onboard Vostok 2.    

Titov, Khruschev, Gagarin 1961
Titov, Khruschev, Gagarin 1961. is licensed under CC-BY-SA

It wasn’t until 9th April, just three days before launch, that Gargarin and Titov were told and the following day, the entire process was reenacted for the television cameras. On 11th April, both men underwent a series of medical and physiological tests before relaxing in the evening over a few games of pool. According to official state records, Gagarin slept well and was well rested for the mission, while his biographer claimed he hadn’t slept at all the night before the day that would forever change his life. I don’t know about you, but I doubt I would have slept well either.  

The Spacecraft

The small spacecraft that took Yuri Gagarin on his historic 108-minute flight was the Vostok 3KA, a small craft divided into two sections, a re-entry module, where the cosmonaut sat, and a service module with the booster to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere.  

The re-entry module was essentially a sphere measuring just 2.30 metres (7 ft 6.5 in) in diameter and weighing 2,460 kg, with a heat shield, totalling 837 kg, to protect the single occupant inside from being incinerated. The service module was 2.25 metres (7.3 ft) in length with a diameter of 2.43 metres (7.9 ft) and a total weight of 2,270 kg. All in all, Vostok 1 weighed 4,725 kg (10,417 lb) at launch.   

Powering it all was the mighty Vostok-K, an expendable carrier rocket that was used by the USSR for thirteen launches between 1960 and 1964. This rocket weighed a bulky 4,730 kilograms (10,430 lb) and was set over two stages, the first with a burn time of 301 seconds and the second 365 seconds. Four additional strap-on boosters would fire for the first 119 seconds of the flight before detaching and falling back to earth.   

The entirety of the mission was either controlled by mission control on the ground, or by automatic systems onboard Vostok 1. This was because nobody quite knew how a human body would react to space travel and it was decided that by minimizing what Yuri Garagain would have to do, he would have the best chance of making it safely back down to Earth. Though that being said, Vostok 1 did come with a sealed envelope onboard with the code to override the automatic controls. Apparently, Gagarin was even told the code before climbing into Vostok 1 but it wasn’t needed. Even though the flight was to be less than 2 hours in total, 13 days worth of food, water and oxygen were included on the spacecraft just in case.     

12th April 1961  

It’s impossible to imagine what must have been going through the mind of Yuri Gagarin as he sat down for a light breakfast early in the morning of 12th April 1961 – or indeed how much one might be able to eat before embarking on a journey into space. 

After breakfast, Gagarin and Titov, who as the backup went through exactly the same preparations as the main pilot, were suited up in spacesuits, before Gagarin took his place in the only seat onboard the Vostok 3KA spacecraft. As the countdown neared, he is recorded as having a heart rate of 64 beats per minute – which if true was quite remarkable for what was about to happen. 

At 06:07 UTC, the countdown reached zero and the vast bulk of the Vostok-K began inching off the launch pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome Site No.1. It was here that Gagarin uttered his famous words, which either translate into English as ‘let’s roll’ or ‘off we go’ that later became a much-repeated phrase across the Soviet Union. 

As far as we know, the launch went entirely as planned with the boosters dropping away after 119 seconds and after 300 seconds, with the rocket’s first stage propellant exhausted, the core stage detached and the second stage ignited as planned. 

Ten minutes after launch, the second stage of the rocket cut as, just as the spacecraft reached orbit, where the Vostok-K and the main capsule separated from each other. For the first time in human existence – that we’re entirely sure about that is – a human being was now orbiting the Earth. 

The Vostok 1 mission remained in orbit for just over an hour and completed just one lap of the Earth, reaching a maximum height of 327 kilometres ( 203 miles). At 7.25 UTC, the automatic re-entry system kicked in and the retrorockets fired for 42 seconds to bring the capsule in line with its planned re-entry point. Ten seconds later, the automated system separated the service module from the reentry module, though inexplicably, it appears that a few wires remained attached and as Vostok 1 began hurtling through the atmosphere, the two modules remained perilously attached.

Thankfully, they soon broke apart during the fierce vibrations and the reentry module settled into its final descent. Gagarin remained conscious throughout the flight and at 7.55 UTC, with the module still 7 km (4.3 miles) above the ground, the service door detached and mere seconds later, Gagarin was safely ejected. His parachute deployed almost immediately, while the parachute on the reentry module itself opened shortly after, and the two drifted slowly down to Earth. 

Gagarin landed at 08:05 UTC, 26 km (16 mi) south-west of Engels, in the Saratov region, in what is today western Russia and was said to have been seen by a farmer and his young daughter who backed away in understandable fright as the strange being in the orange suit who had just come from the sky began walking towards them. He said, in the most matter of fact way, “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!”  

History Maker

News of the momentous occasion was announced via radio even while Gagarin was still in orbit, by Yuri Levitan who had convinced Soviet authorities that great haste was needed for such an enormous event.  

A hero’s welcome doesn’t seem to quite do justice for what lay in store for Yuri Gagarin upon his return to Earth. Huge parades took place across the Soviet Union, many of the larger ones as big as the grand World War II victory parades. He was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, the nation’s highest honour, and his star exploded across the world where he instantly became a household name. 

The American reaction was understandably more muted, though official congratulations were sent from President John F Kennedy to the Soviet Union. For the Americans, it was another sobering bloody nose that showed the world that the USSR had a technological edge over the U.S and it was almost a year until the first American manned orbit, which occurred on 20th February 1962. 

Yuri Gagarin never went into space again, though he was the backup for the Soyuz 1 mission which blasted off on 23rd April 1967 and ended in disaster that killed his friend Vladimir Komarov when a parachute malfunction meant his reentry module crash-landed. As for Gagarin himself, his life ended prematurely too when the plane that he was flying crashed near the Chkalovsky Air Base on 27th March 1968. 

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