Secrets of the First Manned Spaceflight

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space; his mission lasted 108 minutes and he made one orbit around the globe. Upon his return to Earth, he was lauded as a hero.

By Amy Teitel

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space; his mission lasted 108 minutes and he made one orbit around the globe. Upon his return to Earth, he was lauded as a hero and the Soviet Union enjoyed its continued position as the leading power in space.

But in the years and decades that followed, details of the flight revealed a very different picture of this historic Soviet accomplishment. Indeed, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, documentation was slowly released to reveal the secretive nature of the Soviet Space Program as a whole. In honour of the fiftieth anniversary of Gagarin's flight, I thought I'd unravel some of the mystery. For those steeped in the history of spaceflight, these anecdotes may not be new. But for the casual reader, I hope to shed some light on the lesser-known aspects of the launch heard 'round the world. I don't in any way intend to denigrate the Soviet accomplishment; if anything I hope to add some depth to the stories most people find in history books surrounding Gagarin and Vostok 1.

In the wake of the Second World War, the US and the USSR were in very different situations: the Soviet Union was a devastated totalitarian state with old machines and the US was a democracy with state-of-the-art technology. Despite its disadvantaged technological position, the launch of Sputnik in October of 1957 proved the totalitarian system worked, at least where goals in space were concerned. As the leader of the Soviet Union, if Khrushchev wanted a launch, he got one.

Sputnik II was launched successfully a month later, effectively demonstrating that the first satellite wasn't a fluke; the Soviet Union had indeed developed a brute force method of reaching space. The two launches also solidified the Soviet Union as an advanced state and a burgeoning power. The euphoria felt throughout the nation was infectious and put pressure on continued support of the space program. The space race was one the Soviet Union had begun and they were in no position to call it off.

Both the US and USSR had begun taking steps towards manned spaceflight in 1959 – American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts were selected and entered into strict training regimes. Flight tests of launch vehicles and unmanned capsules progressed at steady rates in both countries. For NASA engineer Wernher von Braun and Soviet Chief Designer Sergei Korolev the desire to get a man in orbit was a personal one; a long-standing rivalry existed between the two rocketeers.

The Soviets won the race to put a man in orbit first with Yuri Gagarin's Vostok 1 flight. The totalitarian system had triumphed in consolidating resources towards a singular goal. It would be almost a year before NASA would put John Glenn into orbit around the Earth; Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom's 1961 suborbital flights paled in comparison.

Three weeks after Gagarin's flight, NASA released an official translation of the post-mission press conferences and reports. The official communications from the Soviet Union presented the world with a flawless orbital mission piloted by the perfect Soviet cosmonaut.

According to reports published by the Soviet Union, a calm Gagarin met launch day with resolve. He and his backup pilot Titov suited up together before piling into the van that would take the men to the launch pad. Upon arrival, Gagarin faced the men gathered around the launch vehicle and addressed them as a group with a stirring farewell speech. He announced he was ready for his mission before climbing into his capsule.

Vostok 1 launched on time at 9:22 am Moscow time. The mission was like clockwork with Gagarin performing perfectly. The launch vehicle performed perfectly, enabling the capsule to achieve an optimal orbit. Orientation of the capsule and the all-important retrofire manoeuvres were on time. The capsule's sections separated cleanly – the instrument section and the descent vehicle were meant to come down separately to ensure the two pieces didn't collide upon landing. Gagarin landed safely inside his capsule at 10:55 am Moscow time.

Immediately after the flight, the pilot's first comment was a formal mention to the Communist Party and specifically Khrushchev that the mission was successfully accomplished and that he landed safely at his preselected point without injury.

The elation of the Soviet people was evident in their press releases and public announcements. Great attention was drawn to the symbolism of the flight. Vostok translates as "east" or "dawn" and the flight was in the morning. The morning was said to be the true morning of a new era. Central to praise was Gagarin, the model Soviet and communist who would lead the world into the future.

These reports and press conferences, however, carried a strange tone. Speeches were filled with imagery highlighting the new era and praising Gagarin as its ambassador, but little was said about the actual flight. Actual reports were vague with repeating emphasis on Vostok's perfect landing.

In his post-mission address, Gagarin said very little of substance and his responses to questions were almost evasive. When asked at what point he'd been told he would be the first cosmonaut, he responded that he had been told "in good time".

Slowly, over the years and decades that followed, the perfect flight of Vostok 1 was unravelled to reveal an imperfect mission. The Soviets did put Gagarin into orbit and he did land safely, but the perfection of the mission was largely fabricated.

The morning of launch, Gagarin was indeed calm and in good spirits. His heart rate and breathing were both normal. His only complaint was boredom while waiting for launch. He requested some music to keep him company inside the capsule; the ground crew obliged and transmitted Russian love songs for his entertainment. Throughout the mission, his spirits remained high. Every time a ground tracking station asked how he was doing, he would inquire as to their well being as well.

His speech on the launch pad, however, is a myth perpetuated by Soviet media outlets. The snippets of stirring speeches heard over the radio were in fact pieced together from a previous speech Gagarin had been told to read to an audience in Moscow months prior. He hadn't written the words, either; it was the work of some anonymous speechwriter.

Not everyone was calm, however. Chief Designer Sergei Korolev (pictured above) was so anxious the morning of the launch that he took tranquilizers to calm himself. His Confidence in his own system had been badly shaken by the relatively high failure rate of the Korabl launch vehicle, particularly its third stage. He was terrified the problem would return, failing to put the Vostok capsule in orbit and sending Gagarin splashing down South of Africa where the weather was bad and help was far away.

The flight itself was also far more problematic than the Soviet space program was willing to admit. The third stage didn't fail as catastrophically as Korolev feared, but it didn't perform perfectly either. Gagarin's orbit was higher than intended, making the already all-important reentry that much more important. With a high orbit, a missed retrofire would necessarily extend the mission beyond what the space program had trained for. Unlike the Americans, the Soviets only had one landing area: the Soviet landmass, much of which was a less than desirable landing spot.

The higher-than-intended orbit turned out to be an innocuous problem. As the space program was wont to express, Gagarin landed safely and on target. It would turn out that this wasn't the case either. Not only did Gagarin not land on target, he didn't land inside the capsule. He ejected from his Vostok 1 and landed softly with his own parachute.

Gagarin's off-target landing was the result of the only major malfunction in the mission. Just after the retrofire burn during the early reentry and early descent, Vostok 1 began to roll. The roll got worse when the instrument unit failed to separate from the descent portion of the spacecraft. A series of cables failed to sever completely, keeping the two portions linked. They eventually separated ten minutes later when the heat from atmospheric reentry burned through the cables. Gagarin was spared a dangerous tumbling reentry.

Vostok's main chute was also late to deploy, forcing Gagarin to eject from the capsule early. He separated from his ejection seat and opened his own parachute. Vostok's chute did eventually open, but well after Gagarin's. The cosmonaut landed ten minutes after and miles away from his capsule in the Saratova, a region of Soviet Union not far from the border with Kazakhstan. He touched down on rural farmland, startling curious onlookers with his spacesuit and helmet. His first concern was to find a phone. He knew he was off target, and had to alert ground control that he had landed safely.

Gagarin's true descent method, which makes it abundantly clear that Gagarin didn't land inside his capsule, wasn't revealed until 1971. The Soviet's deliberate veiling of this fact was done in an attempt to secure a formal record of the accomplishment. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, a French organization established in 1905 to maintain all records of accomplishments in aviation, had grown to include aeronautic and astronautic in the 1950s. Knowing the Soviets and the Americans intended to put a man in space, the FAI set the standard for what would constitute spaceflight. One of the conditions was that the pilot control the vehicle and land inside it.

Vostok 1 mission profile. 1961.

The fact that Gagarin had orbited the Earth was certainly incontrovertible evidence of a flight in space, but the Soveit Union wanted to be sure their flight met the necessary guidelines.

The question of pilot control was another fabricated part of the story. Reports praised Gagarin for his perfect flight, but in fact he didn't pilot the Vostok capsule. Psychologists working with the Soviet Space Program were worried that exposure to weightlessness would impact the pilot's decision-making faculties. And so, the pilot was effectively locked out of controlling his capsule.

The capsule's controls were locked; only a pre-determined six-digit code could unlock to control when entered into a special onboard "logic clock". The pilot was only told the first three digits. If he lost contact with the ground or if he was in danger and needed to control the capsule to save his life and the mission, he could open a sealed envelope that contained the missing digits. Without forcibly unlocking the controls, the capsule would be entirely controlled either by its automatic systems of by the ground. Gagarin didn't open the sealed envelope.

The veiled truth of the Vostok 1 mission is not entirely shocking. The Soviet Union was, after all, in the midst of a Cold War with the United States. Secrecy was a central part of Soviet activities at the time.

The secrecy surrounding the Soviet Space Program was due in part to the nature of the Communist party, which worked to maintain a certain image of strength and success through totalitarian means. Unwilling to admit any failure, test results were kept secret unless the test was successful. A clear example is the way planetary probes were named. If a launch failed, planetary probed was publicized as a test. If the launch was successful, it would take on a proper name such as Mars 2.

Another reason for such secrecy was the space program's roots in the Soviet military, particularly its ballistic missile program. The soviet ballistic missile program was a closely guarded secret, and the cosmonauts were equally protected. It was almost as if they were the protected warheads of the manned space program.

One manifestation of this military-influenced secrecy was the falsified location of the launch site. The location of the Soviet launch site was even kept a secret from the West. The launch complex was located at Tyura-Tam, but to cloak its location it was given the name of a nearby town, Baikonur. US intelligence was able to identify the actual launch location from tracking data and U2 flights over the area. Nevertheless, the Soviets continued to insist the true location as the false place.

Another manifestation of this military influence was the overall secrecy surrounding the space program's assets, namely its central players. The cosmonauts weren't introduced to the country like the Mercury astronauts in the US. While everyone in the US knew the name Wernher von Braun, no one inside the Soviet Union or abroad knew the name Sergei Korolev. The man behind the space program was known simply as the Chief Designer.

The Soviet system differs in fundamental ways from the American's – the civilian agency is organized in such a way that many projects and possible 'space firsts' were delayed due to bureaucratic requirements. In spite of its less sophisticated technologies and totalitarian system, the fact remains that the Soviet Union put a man into orbit first. Even if Gagarin did land off target via a parachute after passively occupying the cabin of his Vostok capsule, he was the first in orbit. The Soviets continued both their veiled ways and fast-paced accomplishments into the 1960s, only overtaken by the Americans midway through 1965.

This post originally appeared at Vintage Space.