On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched a 184-pound satellite called Sputnik ("fellow traveler") from Bairkonur, Russia. Designed by Sergei Pavlovich Korolyov and measuring less than two feet in diameter, the spherical satellite contained a two-frequency transmitter and had four antenna. It was delivered into orbit by 32 rocket boosters. News of the feat startled the world and lead to a space race with the United States.
Sputnik was essentially a beeping sphere that was built to check the launch capabilities of Soviet military rockets. It was a 184-pound metal sphere with four swept-back car-radio-style antennae, a radio transmitter that beeped and a supply of batteries that lasted a couple of days. It carried no scientific instruments and took no measurements.
Sputnik maintained an elliptical orbit (apogee 588 miles above the earth's surface; perigee 142 miles). It stayed aloft for three months before burning up re-entering the atmosphere. The first United States effort to launch a satellite-carrying rocket, the Vanguard, resulted in an explosion and failure live on American television on December 6. 1957.
Sputnik raised fears that the Soviet Union could attack the United States from space. Describing what Washington was like upon hearing the news of Sputnik, Hugh Sidey wrote in Time: “Washington changed in those next few hours. The U.S., which had assumed scientific pre-eminence, had been beaten in the opening lap of the space race...Those at the center of the power game knew their lives had changed...The 184-lb intruder had not only humiliated the U.S. but racheted up the cold war. The Soviet Union rockets obviously were bigger and better than ours... Worry seeped through the nation always uncomfortable with second place.”
Soviet Space Dogs
On November 3, 1957, the Soviet Union placed a second satellite, Sputnik II in orbit. Several times larger than its predecessor it carried the first living creature to into space—a female Samoyed husky dog named Laika.
Laika was placed in a cylindrical chamber kept at room temperature and supplied with oxygen. She wore a special suit and was fed a nutritional paste, confined with metal straps and covers with electrodes that monitored her pulse, respiration and body movements. The purpose of her flight was to test life support systems, check out the effects of weightlessness on balance and drinking and eating. She apparently suffered no ill effects from the weightlessness, reached a record altitude of 1,050 miles for the earth (later surpassed by two American mice) and died after 10 days when her oxygen ran out. Her spacecrafts was not designed to return to earth.
Two female Samoyed huskies, Belka and Strelka. were the first animals to be recovered from space. They were sent aloft in August 1960, orbited the earth 17 times in 25 hours and survived the space flight—along with several mice that accompanied them—and the re-entry to Earth. Both dogs later gave birth to healthy litters. One of Strelka's puppies was given to John F. Kennedy as a gift. Three and half months after Belka and Strelka’s flight, two other female Samoyed huskies, Ptsyolka and Mushka, were sent into orbit but the entry angle of their capsule was too steep and they burned up during re-entry into the atmosphere.
Dogs were also sent up 50 miles into space with a human dummy filled with cockroaches, mice and other creatures s to test space suits for the first manned flights. The first spacecraft to reach the moon was a Soviet rocket, carrying souvenir dog tags, that smashed into the moon's surface. The Soviet used street dogs for space travel because pedigree dogs were regarded as too skittish.
Yuri Gagarin, the First Man in Space
Yuri Gagarin was the first human to enter space. Courageous, charming and quit witted, he was one of the greatest Russia heros of the 20th century. The voluptuous Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida once pushed her way through a crowd to kiss him. Gagarin was born in rural Russia. He was selected out of six cosmonauts (whittled down from 20 test pilots) because he was good-looking and had a working class background. His back-up German Titov told AP, "We were young. we were pilots, and we were hungry to test the new technology of 'space machines.' And we all wanted to be first."
Matt Blitz wrote in Popular Mechanics, “When he came back to Earth, Gagarin was looked upon as not just a hero, but the very embodiment of the Soviet Union's power. Streets were named after him. Monuments were erected. Khrushchev called him the Russian Christopher Columbus... [Source: Matt Blitz, Popular Mechanics, April 12, 2016 +++]
“Born in 1934 in the small farm village of Klushino, he was a young boy when World War II broke out. After the war, he was accepted into Air Force training school and graduated as a fighter pilot in 1957, the same year Sputnik was launched. He impressed everyone he met with his competence, likability, and persistent smile. Those traits certainly helped him in 1960, when the farm boy was chosen to make history.” +++
There are numerous statutes of Gagarin in the former Soviet Union. Cosmonauts Day, the day Gagarin became the first man in space, is a major holiday in Russia. In December 1993, his spacesuit was auction at Sotheby's in New York city for $112,500. Blitz wrote: Today there are more than 500,000 man-made things in space, ranging from satellites to junk to an International Space Station. On April 12, 1961, there was just one: Yuri Gagarin in his Vostok 1. While the truth about why he came crashing down to Earth may never be fully revealed, for many, Gagarin is still among the stars.” +++
Gagarin Historic Flight
On April 12, 1961, 27-year-old cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to enter space. Describing weightlessness during the 108-minute flight, he said, "One's legs, one's arms, they weigh nothing. Objects just float in the cabin, and I didn't just sit in my chair, I hung in space." Gagarin ejected from his spacecraft and parachuted back down to Earth (something the Russians didn't reveal until 1971).
The cosmonauts were only informed three days before the launch Gagarin was going to be first. Gagarin was picked over Titov even though he made the capsule three pounds overweight. Titov was within the weight limit. "There was nothing particularly remarkable about Gagarin," another cosmonaut said. "He was a good guy, smart enough, qualified. But most of all, for the flight that would show our space program to the world, he was the most striking, with a smiling handsome face. It was his place to be first."
Gagarin was carried into space in the Vostok 1 capsule. He orbited the earth once and parachuted to earth, landing in a farmer's field. Gagarin had to eject from his capsule and parachute to the earth. He was given a 50-50 chance of survival. Three letters were delivered to Kremlin before he landed safely on read: one said Gagarin’s flight was a success; another said he was dead; the third said he landed outside the Soviet Union and the Soviets needed help to find him. The first message was read; the others were destroyed. Gagarin’s family learned his fate like everyone else from the radio.
Time reported on April 21, 1961, "Triumphant music blared across the land. Russia 's radios saluted the morning with the slow, stirring beat of the patriotic song, How Spacious is My Country. Then came the simple announcement that shattered forever man's ancient isolation on earth: 'The world's first spaceship...with a man on board, has been launched on April 12 in the Soviet Union on a round-the world flight...Radio reports identified the 'cosmonaut' as Major Yuri Aleksevich Gagarin. Hats were heaved aloft. Russians cheered, hugged each other...The celebration spread from factories to collective farms, from crowded city streets to clusters of huts on the lonely steppes."
Yuri Gagarin After His Space Flight
After his triumph, Gagarin never again went into space. He was made into a hero and spent much of his time making appearances as if he were a super model or Hollywood actor. He didn't enjoy the role so much and reportedly drank a lot. Gagarin died in a plane crash in 1968 that was supposedly caused by another plane. The details are sketchy but is believed that pilot errors played a major part on the crash. The entire Soviet Union was overwhelmed in sorrow when it happened
Matt Blitz wrote in Popular Mechanics, “Gargain was ill-prepared for what was waiting for him on the ground. He was propped up by the Communist Party as a superstar, a propaganda tool and a man whom a nation should look to as inspiration. This wasn't easy for Gargain. "He received a huge number of letters from ordinary people, many of them asking for help of one kind or another," Piers Bizony, co-author of Spaceman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin, tells Popular Mechanics. These letters made Gagarin "realize that the Soviet Union was far from perfect." [Source: Matt Blitz, Popular Mechanics, April 12, 2016 +++]
“As a 1999 Air & Space article explains, the cosmonaut soon became more symbol than man, ferried around the world as proof of Soviet Union's superiority. He began to drink, womanize, and take wild risks, to the point that one friend wrote in his diary in 1968 that it was all "steadily erasing his charming smile from his face." And then, about a year before his own crash, Gagarin's good friend died in a fiery accident of his own, one Gagarin became convinced was totally avoidable. +++
“By 1968, though, Gagarin had stopped drinking, trying to prove to others—and himself—that he could be a pilot once again. "The superstar business had exhausted him," Bizony says, "and he was very keen to prove to cosmonaut colleagues that he was still in the game." +++
Mysterious Death of Yuri Gagarin
Matt Blitz wrote in Popular Mechanics, “Less than seven years after his history-making mission, Gagarin died in a plane crash at only 38 years old. The cosmonaut and his flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin were flying a routine training exercise when they were lost...There are things we know conclusively about Yuri Gagarin's final moments. He awoke early on March 27, 1968 to continue his "retraining" as a fighter pilot. (Prior to his days as a cosmonaut he had been a lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force, so this was a formality.) Gagarin was stationed at Chkalovsky Airport, about 20 miles northeast of Moscow. By all accounts, his retraining was going well. Gagarin was scheduled to fly three practice missions in a Russian-built MiG-15 training jet that day—two solo and one with Seryogin, which was the day's first flight. [Source: Matt Blitz, Popular Mechanics, April 12, 2016 +++]
“It was a rainy and windy morning when he boarded a bus on bound for the airfield and realized he was missing his identification. Always superstitious, Gagarin told the people around him this was a bad omen. A little after 10 a.m., Gagarin and Seryogin took off in the two-seater jet and headed to the flight zone in weather conditions that were probably deteriorating. A few minutes later, Gagarin came over the radio to say he'd completed the exercise, which included barrell rolls and vertical loops, and was heading back to base. Then, radio silence. +++
“After ten minutes of no sighting or communication with the aircraft, the base dispatched rescue teams to seek the jet. Around 3 p.m., crews found the burning, charred plane among the trees and snow of the Russian countryside. The accident looks unsurvivable. While Seryogin's body was identified, there was hope that Gagarin had ejected before impact. That hope dissipated the next day when Gagarin's remains were found not far from the plane's wreckage. His ashes were buried alongside other Soviet luminaries along the Kremlin Wall.” +++
Investigations, Conspiracy Theories and Yuri Gagarin’s Death
James Oberg wrote in his book “Uncovering Soviet Disasters”: “In March 1968 Yuriy Gagarin's death shocked the Soviet Union and the world... The official Soviet news media never explained the crash, and dozens of private theories sprang up to account for it. In some, Gagarin was drunk, or hot-rodding, or actually attempting to shoot a moose from the opened cockpit. In others, the Kremlin had done away with him to avoid embarrassment over his womanizing or because he was a "Khrushchev creature." Officially Gagarin has become a "patron saint of space travel"; the details of his death appeared irrelevant to official histories. Only in early 1987 were the accident investigation files opened to Soviet journalists; while debunking rumors about drunkenness, the records were not kind to Gagarin's sainthood when the published reports attributed the crash to "pilot error." [Source: “Uncovering Soviet Disasters” by James Oberg, Random House, New York, 1988, Page 156-176]
Matt Blitz wrote in Popular Mechanics, “With the world mourning, Soviet authorities hastily assembled a commission to determine the cause of the crash. In November of 1968, the USSR's State Commission filed a 29-volume investigative report that was basically inconclusive. Proposing several theories but never providing irrefutable evidence for any of them, the report said the pilots probably swerved to avoid hitting a weather balloon or a bird, which caused them to go into a tailspin from which they never recovered. In other words, it was pilot error, not a systematic or mechanical problem. Shortly thereafter, Communist party head Leonid Brezhnev closed the investigation and deemed it top secret. The people who investigated and wrote the report were told not to publish their own conclusions because it could "unsettle" the nation. [Source: Matt Blitz, Popular Mechanics, April 12, 2016 +++]
“The mysterious circumstances of the wreck have inspired a half-century of wild speculation. With little more than Soviet-sponsored reports, KGB investigations and long withheld testimony as explanations, conspiracy theories sprung up to explain why a plane piloted by two experienced Russian airmen suddenly just fell out of the sky. ...One said Gagarin was drunk. Another proposed that he and Seryogin were joy-riding and taking potshots at deer below. A persistent rumor was that Gagarin was sabotaged by Brezhnev, jealous of the cosmonaut's popularity. Maybe a UFO encounter caused the crash (no doubt fueled by Gargain supposed belief in them).
“The conspiracy theories got wilder from there. Perhaps Gagarin was poisoned by the CIA, or was a secret CIA agent himself. Or he actually survived the crash, only to be hidden out in a Soviet psychiatric ward until his real death in 1990. There are people who believe he's still alive today, his identity protected for all these decades by intensive plastic surgery. The rumors got so numerous that the KGB did its own secret investigation into the Gagarin crash, discounting each and every one.
What Really Happened on the Day of Yuri Gagarin’s Death
Matt Blitz wrote in Popular Mechanics, “With the Soviet Union in the rearview mirror, we're learning all kinds of new things about the space program behind the Iron Curtain, and that including what happened the day Yuri Gagarin died. In 2003, a secret KGB investigation was uncovered that pointed to the failure of the ground crew to properly communicate information to the pilots as the cause of Gagarin's crash. According to the report, those crew provided wrong weather reports and failed to tell Gagarin and Seryogin they had wing-mounted fuel tanks, which made the maneuvers they were doing especially dangerous. [Source: Matt Blitz, Popular Mechanics, April 12, 2016 +++]
“In 2010, Russian researchers told Air & Space they believed a faulty air vent led to a quick descent and a crash. According to their findings, the pilots discovered an open air vent in the cockpit midflight. In an attempt to rectify the situation, Gagarin followed the exact procedures set forth in the airplane's operations manual. It called for a rather extreme descent to 6,500 feet, but since rate-of-descent limits was not known yet (in 1975, it was clarified to be 164 feet per second), Gagarin dove too fast. This caused both men to black out and the plane to crash. "It was not their fault," a retired Soviet Air Force Colonel told the magazine, "They were following the instructions to the letter." +++
“But the most recent and perhaps the most convincing development happened in 2013, when prominent Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov came forward with his version of events. He was at the military airbase that fateful day, in charge of parachute training. Recruited to work on the investigation, he had access to all the findings, but was never able to explain publicly what he knew. The truth, according to Leonov, was that a Soviet Su-15—a much larger aircraft than Gagarin's MiG-15—violated the smaller plane's airspace, causing it to roll and the pilots to lose control. Simulations have verified that Leonov's conclusion is possible. Other recently released Soviet-sponsored reports do, too. Bizony tells us that Leonov's account is legitimate, "It was essentially a very ordinary accident," he says. "The authorities may well have been embarrassed by the failures in close-range air traffic control, but that's about as far as any 'conspiracy' notions can be stretched."
First Woman in Space, Second Man in Space and First Space Walk
Titov ended up being second Russian and the third man in space and the first to fly for more than 24 hours. He circled the earth 17 times in 24 hours. Titov was the youngest man ever to fly in space. He was only 25. Titov was sent into space four months after Gagarin and two months after American Alan Shepherd. Titov bailed out of Vostok-2 at 21,000 feet and parachuted to earth. He died in 2000 from carbon monoxide poisoning while taking a sauna in his apartment.
Valentine K. Tereshkova became the first woman in space, on June 16, 1963. She stayed in space for three days, orbiting the Earth 48 times in 71 hours, and said after her return to Earth that she felt sick much of the time she was in space and that the landing was quite rough, leaving her bruised, with a banged up nose. The first scheduled mission for an all female space crew, planed for 1985, was aborted. The commander of the crew, Yelena Dobrokvashina, said that equality in the space program was a sham and called her mission "a dog show."
Alexei Leonov was the first man to walk outside a spacecraft. The first space walk occurred on March 18, 1965 when Leonov emerged from Voskhod 2 to float in space for ten minutes. Ten weeks later American astronaut Edward White walked in space for 21 minutes. The first attempt to do a space walk utilized an untested space suit that ballooned Leonov into the Michelin Man when he began depressurizing to enter space. Unable to fit through the hatch he returned to the capsule and depressurized the suit at the risk of getting the bends. On the return journey the entry system failed and Leonov landed in the Urals and spent the night wedged between two fir trees before he was rescued.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016