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Picture if you will two titanic powers struggling to see who will be the first to conquer space. Between them, they have the best scientists in the world, many of whom they “borrowed” from Germany after the Second World War. They are sparing no expense, and that includes the cost in lives, in order to be the first to get a human being into space. Sound scary? Well, if you were an American astronaut or a Soviet cosmonaut in the 1960’s, it sure would be! But for men like Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space and the first to orbit the Earth, the rewards would last a lifetime.
Gagarin’s historic flight took place on April 12th, 1961, roughly one month before NASA was able to put their ship manned by their own astronaut into space. His spaceship, the Vostok 1, weighing in at approximately 4700 kg, was quite primitive by modern standards. Aside from the fact that it wasn’t even piloted by Gagarin himself, mainly because the Russians had not yet tested the effects of weightlessness on any humans (only dogs!). The actual flying was done by crews on the ground. It also had no maneuvering capabilities and consisted of a re-entry craft and service module. The cosmonaut was not even allowed to land in the re-entry craft because it was deemed too dangerous, and had to instead leave the craft and parachute to the ground.
Gagarin’s flight began with his takeoff at Baikonur Cosmodome and ended with him parachuting safely to the ground in Kazakhstan one hour and forty-eight minutes later. During the flight, he was said to have been humming “The Motherland Hears, the Motherland Knows”, a patriotic song composed by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. According to western sources at the time, Gagarin was also rumored to have said “I don’t see any God up here” during his flight. However, the transcripts contradict this story, which appears to have been a reference to a remark Khrushchev had made after the flight and was falsely attributed to Gagarin. What he is known to have said during the flight was: “The Earth is blue… How wonderful. It is amazing.”
Gagarin gained worldwide fame and recognition after the flight, touring Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan and returned home to Star City to continue his work with the Russian space program. He was no longer allowed into active service given his celebrity status, the government fearing that they might lose their poster boy in an accident! On March 27th, 1968, during a routine training flight, Gagarin’s plane crashed and he and his instructor were killed. In addition to commemorative coins, a hockey cup named in his honor and several commemorative stamps, he was given the title of “Hero of the Soviet Union”, a privilege reserved only for a select few.
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Space Capsules. Listen here, Episode 124: Space Capsules, Part 1: Vostok, Mercury and Gemini.