In April 1961, a man watched the musical comedy film "Be careful, Grandma!" (by Nadezhda Kosheverova, with Faina Ranevskaya, Ariadna Markeliya and Lyudmila Shengelaya; Lenfilm, 1960), played chess and badminton, and boarded a rocket to travel through space. This was one of the most important events of the twentieth century, not only from a technology standpoint, but also from a political one. The rocket and capsule were originally designed for military purposes, but ended up being used as a propaganda weapon. The pilot elected, Yuri Gagarin, was to become "Hero of the Soviet Union", but today is remembered as a hero for all humankind.
At the end of World War II the United States had the monopoly of force globally. Thanks to the atomic bomb no country would dare to attack them. Until 1949, when, with the aid of stolen blueprints, the Soviet Union built theirs.
But the U.S. still retained the strategic advantage: its bombers were able to make rain these weapons in the heart of the USSR within hours. But the dictator Stalin had another "cool" plan: to use an invention of the Nazis, the ballistic missile. Developed with the help of prisoner German engineers, the R-7 missile (NATO code: SS-6 "Sapwood") would be able to catapult a 3,5 ton, 1 megaton bomb from side to side of the planet in just half an hour.
SHOW OF STRENGTH
To show the world this power, during the International Geophysical Year the USSR would seek to achieve enough speed to go around the entire planet, exchanging the payload of 3,5 tons for a lighter one. A science payload, a "goodwill" payload: an artificial satellite. They wanted to launch it by October 1957, on the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution (and before the Americans, who intended to launch theirs by December). But the sophisticated 1300 kg satellite was not ready in time. Therefore, they improvised a metal sphere the size of a beach ball and installed two transmitters in it. The second test flight of a R-7 missile placed it in orbit on 4 October 1957. They called it Sputnik 1. Space Age was born.
However, this was a shock to the people of the United States: it showed that if the Soviets wanted to bomb them, they could do it, and there was no defense. A month later, another shock: a half-ton cylinder (Sputnik 2) with a laboratory dog inside, Laika.
THE REAL SPACE PROGRAM
Apart from these advertising launches, the Soviet government hid another project, more important to them: the satellite Zenit ("above in the vertical"). A better name would be Nadir ("down in the vertical") because it would do just that: take to space a 1-m-long telescope to look at the "other people's backyard" of the enemy.
Its design was very interesting: the image transmission technology was precarious in the 50s, therefore it would be necessary to take photographs and bring the film back to Earth. To resist the high-speed crash into the atmosphere, it had to be build as a reentry vehicle. It would carry attached to it a "service" module, with batteries, propellant tanks to target the ship and an engine that would reduce its speed to fall back to Earth at the end of the mission. Inside the ship, the delicate telescope and the 1500-photos film cassette should operate at controlled temperature, so it would require an air conditioning system and pressurization. Due to the size of the telescope the reentry capsule should be at least 2 m in diameter. The ship would ride, as always, on the tip of the R-7 launch vehicle, with an additional rocket stage due to the greater load of 5 tons.
AN OLD DREAM SEEMS POSSIBLE
The Zenit project had already begun in 1956, but due to the successes of the Sputniks, Sergei Korolev, the chief designer of the Soviet space program, proposed that the spy satellite be transformed to carry a human being instead of the telescope. Nikita Khrushchev, the new Soviet premier was convinced of the propaganda potential of such a feat. Then, the civilian-version Zenit took priority and the espionage missions would have to wait, despite the protests of the military. Just two months before, NASA had publicly announced a look-alike project: Mercury.
The Soviet ship seemed in disadvantage: its simple sphere shape required a heavier heat shield. By being a modified spy satellite they could not risk to make it go down elsewhere than on Soviet soil. But it was very heavy and the parachute was insufficient to ensure the safety of its passenger. This, then, would eject before reaching the ground and be lowered with its own parachute.
A group of 20 pilots was selected and trained. But they were held in secret, well dissimilar than the Mercury seven, who were celebrities even before going into space.
Then a test program began. All missions were secret, but if they succeeded a name was given to the ship and its mass and feat was published. Dogs "Belka" and "Strelka" were the first earthlings to return alive from space. Later, Strelka had puppies, one of which Khrushchev gave as a present to President Kennedy's family. Finally, "Ivan Ivanovich" traveled, a mannequin with sensors to simulate a full mission.
THE FIRST MAN IN SPACE
The date to make History was set to 12 April 1961. The place: Tyuratam secret base (code: "Baikonur"). Cosmonaut: the best, that is, Yuri Gagarin or Gherman Titov. The two would go to the launch pad and if the former did not go up to the ship he would be replaced by the other.
The capsule had two small windows, one above the pilot, in the hatch, and another at his feet. It was fully automatic and had few instruments. A moving map showed what it was overflying at all times (friendly or enemy territory). Since no one knew what psychological effects weightlessness could have, commands were blocked. The key code would be available, though, within a sealed envelope.
The first human in space had to be strong physically and mentally. Gagarin was 27 and was a fighter pilot at a base in the terrible arctic. "I had complete assurance in the success of this flight," he said later in an international press conference published by "Izvestia" on 16 April 1961 (compiled and translated by Joseph Zygielbaum, "Astronautics Information: The first man in space. Soviet radio and newspapers reports on the flight of the spaceship, Vostok", Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, 1 May 1961). And the communist government liked other features of his persona: he spoke very well in public and at the same time was of humble origin, having been apprentice metalworker in his teens. After the farewell ceremony at the foot of the rocket by a "state commission", Gagarin boarded the ship, called Vostok ("East") 1.
Technicians fled for the bunkers and at 9:07 released a cascade of fire from the engines, roaring. The heavy structure rose and was gaining speed. In 10 minutes reached 28 000 km/h and shut down the last engine: Yuri Gagarin was in free fall around the planet. And confirmed: "I feel fine". Then, the authorities announced to the world that there was a human being in outer space.
He crossed the Pacific, passed over South America and at 10:25, near Africa, the retrorocket fired. Shortly after 10:55, the cosmonaut feet trod again the "motherland" near the Volga River.
Two days later he was taken by a squadron of eight aircraft to the capital, where a crowd was waiting. Came the press conferences, the parade in the Red Square and the tour around the world. He was hailed as a hero.
Today, in Moscow, there is a statue depicting Yuri Gagarin with stylized features, like a science fiction character. That's because, on 12 April 1961, the future finally arrived.
HUMAN SPACEFLIGHTS PROJECTS 1961-PRESENT
1961-1963: Vostok (USSR): 6 cosmonauts
1961-1963: Mercury (USA): 6 astronauts.
1964-1965: Voskhod (USSR): 5 cosmonauts.
1965-1966: Gemini (USA): 20 travelers *
1967-1970: lunar Soyuz (USSR): 15 travelers *
1968-1972: Apollo (USA): 33 travelers *
1973-1975: Skylab (USA): 9 travelers *
1975: Apollo-Soyuz (USA-USSR): 9 travelers *
1971-1986: Salyut 1-7 (USSR): 81 travelers *
1986-2001: Mir (USSR): 137 travelers *
1981-2011: Space Shuttle (USA): 829 travelers *
1998-present: International Space Station (15 countries): 279 travelers *
2003-present: Shenzhou (China): 13 taikonauts *
1959-1968: X-15 (USA): 1 astronaut
2004-present: SpaceShipOne (private): 2 astronauts
* Includes people who traveled multiple times.
TOTAL NUMBER OF HUMAN BEINGS WHO VENTURED IN OUTER SPACE:
550 ... and the adventure continues.
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Based on a talk given at the USP, on 7 April 2001. Originally published in ABC Color, on 16 April 2006. Photograph: Fantastic stainless steel, 40-meter-high monument as a tribute to Yuri Gagarin, inaugurated on 4 July 1980. It is in Gagarin Square, opposite the Lenin Avenue station of the Oktyabrskaya - Novye Cheremushki subway line (Line 6, Orange), Moscow, Russia. Credit: Dieter Karner, 11 May 2007 (original license, of the photograph only, obtained at: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en).