Yuri Gagarin's triumphant flight in April 1961 opened the era of human space flight and entered history books as one of the pivotal events of the 20th century. A single-orbit, 106-minute mission (not a 108-minute mission, as it was believed for 50 years) realized millennia-old hopes and dreams of countless generations to overcome the force of gravity, to see the planet Earth from afar and to travel to other planets. Gagarin's Vostok was blasted into space by a unique convergence of technical genius, personal sacrifice and by the political force unleashed by class struggle.
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Clearance to fly
The first manned mission of the Vostok was preceded by five years of development work and by seven unmanned test launches. By April 1961, the R-7 rocket, which served as the basis for Gagarin's launcher, had flown 46 times; the Block E third stage had been launched 16 times. A total six of these stages never had a chance to fire due to failures earlier in flight and two Block Es failed to work as needed.
Out of seven prototypes of the Vostok spacecraft flown during 1960 and 1961, two spacecraft did not reach orbit due to failures of their launch vehicles and two ships did not complete all their tasks while in orbit. (52) As transpired during the 2000s, two final (and officially successful) unmanned Vostok missions also had technical problems, even though not fatal. Many veterans of Gagarin's launch later agreed, that in no other time in history would a new spacecraft with such a dismal success rate be certified to carry a human. However it was a special time indeed. The pressure of the Cold War competition between the US and USSR, enabled the strong-willed head of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev, to skip many secondary tasks on the way to the monumental political goal. It was not the first and not the last time Korolev took a risky gamble and won.
On March 17, 1961, a group of six main candidates for the flight arrived to the NIIP-5 test range in Tyuratam (the future Baikonur) for familiarization with the actual flight hardware. Eight days later, Gagarin, along with other future cosmonauts, viewed the final launch of the unmanned prototype of the Vostok spacecraft from Tyuratam. (228) Like a previous Vostok mission on March 9, this shot was a dress rehearsal for the manned launch, emulating practically every aspect of the upcoming mission, including duration, orbital parameters and so on. Soon after the successful landing, Vostok was declared ready for a manned mission.
The six "finalists" for the first flight returned to Tyuratam on April 5, 1961. The cosmonauts along with numerous other officials flew to the launch site in three Ilyushin-14 aircraft. Gagarin and his primary backup, Gherman Titov, were on different planes during the trip.
On April 6, Konstantin Rudnev, chairman of the State Commission, overseeing the launch, arrived to NIIP-5. A crucial technical meeting, which started at 11:30, discussed the status of the life-support system, test results for the spacesuit and the ejection seat, as well as the flight assignment for the pilot. A number of engineers proposed to let fully suited cosmonauts sit inside the flight-ready spacecraft, which was still inside the processing building at Site 2. The procedure was accomplished on April 7. On the evening of the same day, the cosmonauts watched a film documenting the two latest flights of unmanned Vostoks.
Apparently, at around the same time the spacecraft was weighed, revealing that the vehicle was approaching its top limit in mass. Although unmanned prototypes varied in mass from 4,540 to 4,700 kilograms, the Vostok with Gagarin onboard would reach 4,725 kilograms. According to Golovanov, (229) some officials proposed to launch Titov, who was slightly lighter than Gagarin. However, Korolev still preferred his original favorite for the flight, promising to resolve the problem by removing some unessential test hardware from the spacecraft.
Naming the pilot
On April 8, the State Commission had another meeting, which considered a number of technical issues and it had to officially decide who would pilot the spacecraft. As expected, Kamanin, the head of the cosmonaut training, proposed the name of Gagarin as the pilot and Titov as the backup. It was approved.
On the morning of April 10, the six cosmonauts had a semi-informal meeting with members of the State Commission overseeing the launch. The meeting took place in the large river-side gazebo within the Air Force compound, known as Site Zero. Among those present were Rudnev, the chairman of the State Commission, Moskalenko, the head of the Soviet strategic missile forces, Korolev and Kamanin.
Korolev opened the meeting with an optimistic outline of the past and future of the program: "It has been less than four years since the launch of the first satellite and we are ready for the first flight of a human into space. Six cosmonauts are present here and each of them is ready to make the first flight. It was decided that Gagarin would fly first, others will follow; as early as this year 10 Vostok spacecraft will be ready. Next year, we will have two- or three-seat Sever spacecraft. I think cosmonauts who are present here wouldn't mind to accompany many of us into space orbits... We are confident, the (first) flight was prepared thoroughly and carefully and it will proceed successfully. All the success to you, Yuri Alekseevich."
On the evening of the same day, the official meeting of State Commission took place. It approved the "flight assignment" for Gagarin:
Planned mission timeline (Moscow Time) as of April 10 (51):
On the pad
Final preparations for the manned orbital flight started on April 11 with the rollout of the launch vehicle 8K72 No. E10316 to launch pad No. 1 in Tyuratam. The rocket's payload fairing contained the 3KA No. 3 spacecraft intended for the manned mission. Pushed by a locomotive, the rocket left the assembly building at Site 2 at 05:00 Moscow Time. Around 13:00 Moscow Time, Gagarin, accompanied by Korolev and Keldysh and other high-ranking officials, visited the launch pad to meet with the launch personnel.
On request from Korolev, engineers Konstantin Feoktistov and Boris Raushenbakh gave the final technical briefing to Gagarin and Titov. At the end of the day medical specialists attached sensors to the cosmonauts' bodies and wished them "good night" at 22:00.
Next chapter: Gagarin's launch
Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: April 12, 2011
Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: April 8, 2011
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Key individuals behind Gagarin's feat (left to right): Keldysh, Korolev, Kamanin.
On April 8, 1961, in Tyuratam, Yuri Gagarin (third from left) officially reports to the State Commission about his readiness for the flight (228) Another source dates the photo by April 10. (229) Kamanin is on the left of Gagarin, Titov (seating, with his head down (understandably)) is on the right.
Standing on the edge of the Air Force compound in Baikonur, the famous "Gagarin's gazebo" provided a backdrop for an informal meeting of Soviet top officials with Gagarin on April 10, 1961. Four decades later, it overlooked the shallow waters of the Syr Darya River. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
Yuri Gagarin's cardiogram recorded on the eve of his historic flight. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak