We left The King – Part 1 just as the Russian and American space programs were preparing to attempt the first manned space flights. In his 2021 book, BEYOND – The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space (Harper-Collins), author Stephen Walker goes deep into the inner workings of both programs and the men training to be the first man in space. While comparing notes with my touchstone for the American program, former NASA education specialist Ralph Winrich, we concurred the book is well written but it contains one clinker. Based on an interview with Alan Sheperd’s daughter, Walker states, “[he] took his ten-year-old daughter Laura to the end of their drive on Brandon Road in the Bay Colony suburb of Virginia Beach and pointed to a brilliant star arcing slowly arcing across the sky. . . but with this particular star it was different. For one thing it was not even night-time; it was afternoon and yet the star was brilliantly visible.” The ‘star’ in question was the first Earth orbiting satellite, Sputnik, launched by the Russians. While it was metallic and a little over two meters (7 feet) in diameter, it would not have been visible in daylight. Sputnik could be heard broadcasting a persistent ‘beep’ at frequencies intended to be heard by the people of Earth, but Ralph confirmed my suspicion that it would only have been visible at night. Other than this slip (we determined Laura had a ‘fuzzy memory’ moment when interviewed sixty years after the event in question), Walker gives an accurate and detailed accounting of this period.
Russian rocket csar Sergei Korolev was racking up one ‘space spectacular’ after another for his program. After the launch of the seven ton Venera 1 probe to Venus, the mission failed when the third stage exploded, leaving the craft in low Earth orbit. The western world didn’t know it was supposed to reach Venus as the USSR did not advertise its failures, Instead, they crowed they had launched a seven ton satellite. Venera 2 was announced as a Venus probe only after it was well on the way. Khruschev and his military advisors were beginning to cool on the ‘manned space’ part of Korolev’s rocket program. They wanted to see more progress on the ‘missile’ end of the business to the point where Korolev’s nemesis Glushko began to find favor with the Kremlin. This was particularly galling as it was Glushko’s ‘evidence’ that had sent Korolev to the Gulag during Stalin’s purge of anyone he viewed with suspicion. Korolev was certainly aware of the danger Glushko presented to him as they both pushed for their own version of a rocket program. Sergei needed to beat the American’s by putting the first man in space to retain his favored status. When a minor malfunction on the last Mercury-Redstone test flight sent a chimponaut named Ham higher and farther than intended, Korolev’s American counterpart, Werhner von Braun, insisted on one more unmanned test flight. When the American paused their first manned flight for one more test between Ham’s flight and Alan Shepard’s, Korolev had the opportunity he needed to best the U.S. again. The Russian program picked up the pace to make sure the first man in space would not be wearing an American flag on his shoulder.
The biggest difference in the Mercury and Vostok craft was in the degree of control the pilots could exercise. The Mercury astronauts spent two years training to take over the controls if their automated systems failed. In fact, the Mercury astronauts used the popularity they had gained thanks to Life magazine to leverage NASA to include controls and a window. They hinted a general strike by the Mercury 7 could take place if they were only going to be ‘spam in the can’ – passengers with no active part in controlling their craft. The Russians had no such plan – the cosmonauts were along for the ride but were not going to be in control of the capsule. The Vostok Six cosmonauts were originally trained to operate little more than what an average airline passenger can these days. At the last minute, Korolev was convinced to allow a ‘just in case’ option in the event the totally automated Vostok systems failed. Cosmonauts Titov, Gagarin, and Nelyubov were in line for the first flight partly because they were the only ones whose space suits were finished. They were given a week to learn the critical actions that would be needed to properly align their craft for re-entry and fire the braking motor. It was an indication that Korolev’s fondness for his ‘little eagles’ made him rethink the control issue at the last minute to give the cosmonaut chosen for the first flight every chance to return safely.
The Commission of the Soviet Central Committee had great concerns about their craft landing anywhere outside of their own borders. All previous rocket launches (including those carrying dogs) were equipped with explosives so they could be destroyed if they strayed too far from the motherland. “What if the cosmonaut takes control and ends up bringing the Vostok capsule down in a foriegn land?” was one of the Commission’s biggest concerns. Korolev adamantly nixed the idea of a ‘bomb’ on board a manned craft. Grudgingly, he had to settle on a way to keep the cosmonauts from taking control of the craft unless it was strictly a life or death situation. The solution was to lock the controls and only give the pilot the three digit code to unlock them if deemed necessary. Radio contact with the craft was not going to be a sure thing so the secret code was sealed in an envelope and stashed in the cabin. The commission reasoned that only a cosmonaut in sound mind would be able to remember to retrieve and open the envelope to take control, thus avoiding a ‘space addled’ one from mentally going off the rails and hijacking the craft. Today, the degree of paranoia this conveys speaks volumes about the political clout the Central Committee of the Great Soviet carried. The fact that at least three people in the program (including Korolev) shared the ‘secret’ code, 1-2-5, with Gagarin before the launch indicates they were concerned for his safety and ignored the Central Committee’s over-thought policies.
The cosmonauts were brought to the ‘secret’ launch facility known as the Tyuratam Cosmodrome in early April of 1961. The site was not as secret as they had hoped. It had previously been photographed by the high flying U-2 spy plane and the CIA had already built a scale model of it. The Russians were not aware of this when they built a fake wooden launch complex at a different site (and had to post guards to keep the locals from stealing the wood). When Yuri Gagarin was finally announced as the candidate chosen for the first flight, his back up Gherman Titov was disappointed. Titov was not aware why he was being held in reserve for the second flight. Korolev and Lieutenant General Nikolai Kamanin (who supervised the cosmonaut’s training) felt Titov was the stronger of the two and would be better suited for the second flight, slated to be a multiple orbit affair. Fortunately for Walker, Kamanin kept a secret (and forbidden) journal of the events no one outside of the USSR would hear about until decades later (referenced throughout BEYOND).
The official Russian account of the first manned flight tells a glorious tale of a perfectly planned and executed mission that put the western world to shame. In truth, it was hardly perfect and, as with any space venture, Gagarin’s was very close to coming apart at the seams. On the day the Vostok capsule was mated with the R-7 rocket, Korolev was horrified to find it surrounded by piles of cables and connectors that had been removed from the craft. It was too heavy so the supervisor of this procedure, Oleg Ivanovsky, took it upon himself to remove 14 kilos of excess weight (like the electronics for the deactivated on-board bomb, the food warmer, and the gas analyser) to get it within guidelines. In their haste, no one noticed two sensors (temperature and pressure) had not been reconnected, but both had back-up systems that covered for this mistake.
Other short cuts came to light much later, clarifying the speed at which the Russians were moving to get their man in space first. Had the rocket malfunctioned on the launch pad, the escape plan was to have the cosmonaut’s ejection seat blast him out of the capsule. Being too low to open his parachute, the cosmonaut would have to land in a net strung near the ground (picture a trapeze artist dismounting and landing in a safety net) and then get into a bathtub rigging that would be used to lower him to the ground. If the braking engine on the capsule failed to light (to return the cosmonaut to Earth after one orbit), he would end up staying in space for ten days while his orbit deteriorated enough for him to re-enter the atmosphere. The air handling system designed to remove excess moisture from the cabin did not work properly so any extension of this first flight would surely doom Gagarin before he could get back to Earth. Korolev was a nervous wreck as he pondered these scenarios, but it was the rocket’s third stage that kept him up at night – it had a nasty habit of not performing up to expectations or exploding in flight.
The cosmonauts were kept in the dark about most of the problems. A short set of training sessions on how to use the manual controls to align the Vostok for re-entry were conducted just days before the flight. NASA’s training for a similar event was carried out over a two year period. None-the-less, Gagarin and Titov’s pre-flight preparations were done in tandem even though Titov knew it was Gagarin’s flight unless something happened to him in the eleventh hour. The fact that the Vostok capsule had an ejection seat was also concealed from the western world. No one would know the system was designed to eject the cosmonaut in the final phase of the landing cycle. The Russians lied about this for decades, but in truth, when the capsule landed, the cosmonaut was no longer on board. At least Shepherd and his craft made the whole trip together.
On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin was strapped into his Vostok capsule at the Tyuratam Cosmodrome. The inside of the seven foot diameter sphere was spartan compared to the smaller Mercury capsules. An instrument panel to his left held a few controls: a rotary dial to control the cabin temperature and switches to turn on the cabin and TV camera lights. A TV camera was pointed at his face and there was a tape recorder he would activate to record his experiences. The numeric keypad he would use to enter the secret 1-2-5 code to unlock the controls located by his right hand was also on this panel. Three small portholes were located above his head, to his left and a special one, the Vzor, was above his feet. The Vzor would be important if he had to manually align the craft for re-entry. The portholes would be covered until the nose cone fell away from the capsule two and a half minutes after launch. The first problem appeared seventy-three minutes before the launch and timing here was critical. If the automated systems were going to bring Gagarin back down on Russian soil, the launch would have to go when the so-called ‘egg timer’ system hit ‘zero’. “No KP-3,” blared out of the speakers. One of the contact sensors indicating the hatch was properly sealed was not illuminated. Ivanovsky had supervised the hatch closure and now his blood ran cold. His team had no option other than removing all thirty bolts in the hatch and reseating it without disrupting the already ticking timer.
With only forty minutes to spare, the hatch was resealed and vacuum tested. The pad was cleared and Gagarin was essentially on his own. Twenty-two minutes before launch, he put on his gloves. At T minus ten minutes, he closed his faceplate and turned up the volume on his radio. When the control center reported his heart rate as normal, he joked, “So my heart is still beating?”
A turn of a key in the control center was all it took to begin the final launch sequence. Gagarin could hear and feel the R-7 come alive. At ignition, the engines roared to life but the whole assembly remained suspended on the gantry’s four arms. The rocket was too heavy to sit on the pad so it was suspended above the flame pit until sufficient thrust built up. Only then was the rocket released and sent skyward. The automated systems hit all the marks: the four strap-on boosters released on time, the nose cone panels separated and uncovered the portholes, and even the upper stage engine that worried Korolev so performed well. Eleven minutes after lift off, the Vostok capsule and its passenger were in orbit. The world wide communication network relied on for mission tracking today did not yet exist in 1961. Communications between the spacecraft and the control center ended when Gagarin sailed out over the Pacific Ocean toward the tip of Antarctica.
One of Russia’s most trusted broadcast voices, Yuri Levitan, began reading official reports about the time Gagarin was halfway across the Pacific. Gagarin’s family knew nothing of his historic mission until friends and neighbors began to fill them in from the radio reports they heard. A quick promotion from Lieutenant to Major confused his father who insisted the cosmonaut could not be his son because he was not a Major. Russians were soon glued to their radios to hear the next bulletin. In the United States, White House press secretary Pierre Salinger was awakened with news of the flight at 1:20 AM but President Kennedy would not find out about the first manned flight until he read the morning papers. As secretive as the Russians had tried to be, the American papers accurately identified the flight’s point of origin, the Tyuratam launch site.
Once the automatic system had the Vostok alined for re-entry, the braking motor fired to start the re-entry phase. A valve malfunctioned and the motor missed the 304 mile per hour decrease in speed needed by 9 mph. It wasn’t a big difference, but it was enough to mislead the computer controlling the system. The lower section of the craft was not jettisoned because the extra speed misled the computer. Logically, it thought the craft was still on orbit. Fortunately, another sensor correctly read the temperature change caused by re-entry and took over. When separation finally occurred, the craft was rotating rapidly. The electrical cable connecting the two sections threatened to bash them together until it burned through and released Yuri’s compartment from the service module. Gagarin’s ride was not over yet. His ejection seat and parachute performed as expected. As he watched the capsule land, Yuri realized he was coming down near the Volga River, far from his anticipated landing zone. His survival gear (including an inflatable raft) was dangling twenty feet below him but was lost when the strap broke. He was fortunate he did not land in the Volga River. Anna Takhtarova and her granddaughter Rumia were planting potatoes in a field. When Gagarin touched down, they were startled and terrified. After Yuri convinced them he as a fellow Russian returning ‘from the sky’, they helped him find a horse pulled cart to bring him to the nearest phone. As word leaked out, a large crowd gathered about the Vostok craft, removing small parts of the heat shield and other loose equipment as keepsakes (in spite of the armed guards who were now there to put a tarp over it to try and keep the craft ‘secret’).
Large crowds and celebrations met Gagarin once he was debriefed. Returning to Moscow, he was given a hero’s welcome by everyone except Sergei Korolev. The King could not get to Red Square due to the large crowd so he watched the welcoming ceremony on TV from his apartment. His daughter, Natalya, was a young doctor living in Moscow at that time and she summed up Sergei’s life in an interview sixty years later: “[The day Gagarin was honored] I walked with the crowd and one of my colleagues asked, ‘I wonder who’s the Chief Designer who launched Gagarin into space?’ I wanted so badly to say that this was my father. But I could not. He had absolutely forbidden me to tell anyone what he was doing . . . But of course my heart was bursting with pride.”
It would be many years until The King would be recognized for his role in putting the first man into space, even in his own country.
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