With all the talk about Elon Musk’s desire to make humanity a ‘multi-planet species’, it makes me kind of wonder who, exactly, will be the first human to (as Musk’s t-shirt proclaims), ‘Occupy Mars’. True, the first attempt to launch his massive Starship was a mixed success; the Super Heavy booster B7 did fly but Spaceship S24 did not make it to orbit. The blast from the B7’s 33 powerful engines also destroyed the base of its launch pad resulting in an extensive re-engineering of the facility. Re-engineering the launch pad and FAA scrutiny of this failed attempt to orbit Starship has delayed the next planned attempt to reach orbit. While we await the next big Space-X event from the Boca Chica, Texas Starbase, I thought we could go back and remember Yuri Gagarin, the Russian cosmonaut who made the first orbital flight of a spacecraft with a human on board on April 12, 1961.
When Stephen Walker’s book Beyond came out in 2021 (HarperCollins Books), it made an excellent resource. I used Beyond for a two part article about the prime mover and shaker in the Soviet manned space program, Sergei Korolev. The King (as he was referred to by those who worked for him) became the prime subject of this two part article of the same name (The King, 7-14-21 & 7-21-21). When my wife recently spied the book on the Interlibrary Loan site, she ordered it for me again not realizing I had read it when it first came out. I took this as an omen that I should revisit the topic and give Gagarin his due. The King was a well kept secret in the USSR but Gagarin became the heroic public face of the Soviet’s space program.
The Mercury (USA) and Vostok (USSR) spacecraft differed 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 (the publication was given an exclusive contract to cover their story). The Mercury 7 used the Life features to leverage NASA to include manual controls and a window on their craft. 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 plans – 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 if the automated systems faltered. It was an indication that Korolev’s fondness for his ‘little eagles’ made him rethink the control issue at the last minute. The King wanted 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 foreign 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 it was deemed necessary. With no world-wide radio network in place, contact with the craft was not going to be a sure thing. 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.
Yuri Gagarin was born in 1934 in the little village of Klushino which was little more than a cluster of small houses along the single road in the flat farmland region near Smolensk. His father Aleksey was a carpenter and handyman who built their family home with his own hands. The skill would come in handy when the German army burned most of the buildings and took over the Gagarin family home. Aleksey made the family a small dugout to house Yuri’s mother, Anna, his older brother and sister Valentin and Zoya, and a younger brother Boris. During the German occupation, Gagarin’s highly educated mother did her best to school the youngest boys. Valentin remembers that Yuri was a happy child whose demeanor changed; he became more sullen and withdrawn during the war. His older siblings were forced into slave labor and the family did not know they had survived until the arrived home sickly and emaciated when the war was finally over.
Besides the mere act of survival, the one positive thing Yuri took from the war was an interest in flying. Having seen a Soviet airplane crash near the village, he watched in amazement when a second plane landed to pick up his downed comrade. The pilot let Gagarin sit in the cockpit and showed him the various controls. Yuri learned to fly as a member of the Young Pioneers and his instructors noted he was, “Crazy about flying, a hard worker, and fun-loving, too.” When offered the choice between further training as a smelting specialist after university, he chose to train as a fast jet pilot instead. He was flying MIG-15s in the Arctic Circle when the cosmonaut candidates were picked in the fall of 1959.
Gagarin was a natural choice for the program – he was adept at both making a good first impression and new friends. His skills and leadership ability opened many doors for him after the war. His main rival for the first manned flight, Gherman Titov, was just as skilled and was actually the front runner to make that historic flight. Titov was told behind the scenes that the decision to fly Gagarin first was a practical one – they feared he might not have the stamina for a longer flight. If the first flight failed, the Soviet’s were keeping perhaps their best pilot as an ace in the hole for the second attempt. The first flight would be nothing close to flawless and Gagarin needed a combination of skill and luck just to survive. Collecting the accolades due to the first man in space would depend on him completing a successful flight.
The cosmonauts were kept in the dark about most of the problems encountered during the development of their spacecraft and booster rocket. 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.
Top Piece Video: The original musical man in space – Major Tom – as introduced in David Bowie’s Space Oddity as performed by the Spiders from Mars