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Gagarin’s First Flight

On April 12, 1961, Soviet Air Force pilot Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, riding atop a powerful booster rocket, inside the Vostok spaceship developed by Chief Designer Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, ascended into low Earth orbit.

The first ever manned space mission and a great boost to Soviet science and technology in the eyes of the world ensured that Gagarin entered the ranks of the immortals.

Despite many sensational contemporary stories of cosmonauts being stranded and dying in orbit, or returning to Earth in a mentally unbalanced state and other fates, it is now established that Gagarin’s flight was the first attempt by the Soviets to launch a manned spacecraft.

A young pilot risked his life to pave the new frontier for humanity.

Countless books and films have been made which glorify him and the achievement of that day in 1961.

Gagarin was chosen from an initial batch of 20 candidates who began to report to their training camp in March 1960. Six were chosen from this group to train intensively for the first manned flight into outer space. They were: Yuri Gagarin, German Titov, Gregori Nelyubov, Andrian Nikolaev, Pavel Popovich and Valeri Bykovski.

The small group was chosen after the Vostok simulator had been built on the understanding that it would be too time-consuming to train all the candidates in the group. The simulator instructor was test pilot Mark Gallei.

Gagarin was the first to volunteer to try out the spherical Vostok capsule. By all accounts, Gagarin was the overwhelming choice of the group of candidates to make the first flight, in a poll, only three other names were suggested by the cosmonauts as candidates for the first mission.

The Vostok spacecraft made several flights before the first manned launch, with a mixture of success and failure.

The first Vostok spacecraft launched on May 15, 1960, had no thermal coating; no parachute system and no ejection seat mechanism. It was launched to test flight control systems and was not intended for return to Earth. However, the spacecraft’s infrared sensor failed and the spacecraft was oriented with its braking nozzles downwards. The braking system, when it was activated, fired the spacecraft into a higher orbit.

The second Vostok, launched August 19, 1960, landed safely with the first live specimens flown into space and returned to Earth. These were two dogs – Belka (who vomited on the fourth orbit) and Strelka, two rats, 28 mice and a swarm of pomace flies.

The third mission, launched on December 1, 1960, failed to return safely to Earth when the braking system malfunctioned and the craft burned up in the atmosphere. The test animal aboard became the first to die during reentry from a space mission.

Three weeks late a Vostok was involved in a launch failure. The descent section of the craft was safely separated and the animals aboard survived.

The next launch was on March 9, 1961. The craft carried a dog, Chernushka, and an anthropometric mannequin which held cages with rats, mice and tissue and microorganism samples attached to its chest, stomach and legs. The flight lasted 115 minutes.

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