The start of the space race - Yuri Gagarin's 108 minutes in space

At 09h07 Moscow time on 12 April 1961 a Russian Vostok-K 8K72K rocket blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with a very special payload - the first man in space, Senior Lieutenant Yuri Gagarin.

Lt. Gagarin was enclosed in a tiny spacecraft, the Vostok 1, over which he actually had no control, and his flight lasted 108 minutes, the time it took the craft to circle the earth and return to earth near the Volga port city of Engels, in Saratov Oblast. Gagarin floated to earth in a parachute, landing not far away.

The story goes that after he landed he nearly scared two Russian women to death - they thought he was an alien and were only persuaded after some time that he was in fact a fellow-Russian.

Lieutenant Yuri Gagarin. Image from Wikipedia
Lieutenant Yuri Gagarin. Image from Wikipedia
The Vostok 1 patch. Image from Wikipedia
The Vostok 1 patch. Image from Wikipedia
Vostok I capsule used by Yuri Gagarin in first space flight. Now on display at the RKK Energiya Museum outside of Moscow. |Source Siefkin, D.R. Date July 20, 2010 Image from Wikipedia
Vostok I capsule used by Yuri Gagarin in first space flight. Now on display at the RKK Energiya Museum outside of Moscow. |Source Siefkin, D.R. Date July 20, 2010 Image from Wikipedia

Gagarin's life and early, tragic, death

Yuri Alekseevich Gagarin was born on 6 March 1934 in the village of Klushino near Gzhatsk to Alexey Ivanovich Gagarin and Anna Timofeyevna Gagarina, workers on a collective farm. He was the third of four children.

During the Nazi occupation of the area during World War II a German officer commandeered the family's house and they were forced to live in a mud hut nearby. Gagarin's two older siblings were deported to Germany to be used as slave labour. They only returned to their village after the end of the war.

The town of Gzhatsk was renamed "Gagarin" in 1968.

In 1955 Gagarin joined the Soviet Air Force and in 1957 married Valentina Goryacheva. In 1959 he was promoted to the rank of Senior Lieutenant.

In 1960 Gagarin was one of 20 candidates chosen for the rapidly developing Russian space programme. When the group was asked to nominate candidates for the first manned flight all but three of the 20 chose Gagarin.

Gagarin was an appropriate choice as the crew space on Vostok 1 wwas extremely limited and Gagarin at 1.57 metres (5ft 2 in) would fit into more comfortaly than a taller person.

After his historic orbital flight Gagarin was engaged at the Cosmodrome in designing re-usale spacecraft.

In 1963 Gagarin was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel (Podpolkovnik) of the Air Force. He was the backup pilot for the ill-fated Soyuz 1 flight in which pilot Vladimir Komarov was killed.

In March 1968 Gagarin was killed in a MiG-15UTI which crashed, in somewhat questionable circumstances, while on a routine flight. He was not piloting the plane.

Gagarin's ashes were buried in the Kremlin's wall in Moscow.

The flight of Vostok 1. Image from Wikipedia
The flight of Vostok 1. Image from Wikipedia

The flight of Vostok 1

The Vostok 1 space capsule roared into an orbit more than 100 kilometres above the earth where it reached a velocity of 18000 kilometres per hour.

While in orbit and during re-entry Gagarin had no control over the space capsule. He was given an envelope with containing an override code for use should the automatic systems fail.

His post-flight report included this description of weightlessness in space:

"The feeling of weightlessness was somewhat unfamiliar compared with Earth conditions. Here, you feel as if you were hanging in a horizontal position in straps. You feel as if you are suspended."

A legend has grown that during the flight he said: "I don't see any God up here." Verbatim records of the flight radio transmissions have no such words.

After the flight Gagarin told Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev that during re-entry he had whistled a song composed by Dmitri Shostakovich in 1951: "The Motherland Hears, The Motherland Knows" of which the first two lines are: "The Motherland hears, the Motherland knows/Where her son flies in the sky ".

Sputnik 1. Source=http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil; [http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/shared/media/photodb/
Sputnik 1. Source=http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil; [http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/shared/media/photodb/
Neil Armstrong descending the ladder on the lunar module. Polaroid image of slow scan television monitor at Goldstone Station. Nasa image S69-42583.mage via Wikipedia
Neil Armstrong descending the ladder on the lunar module. Polaroid image of slow scan television monitor at Goldstone Station. Nasa image S69-42583.mage via Wikipedia

The race for space

I remember as a 12-year-old being woken by my parents to come outside in the early morning cold and dark to watch for a strange new appearance in the sky - the first human-made object to orbit the earth, Sputnik 1, the Russian satellite. We also turned on the radio to hear the beep-beep the satellite was emitting as it passed overhead.

I remember watching in fascination as this bright object moved steadily through the darkness, fascination, but as yet no realisation of the import of the object, of the intense reactions of people all over the world to this new phenomenon.

Sputnik 1 heralded the real beginning of the race for space, a race which was symbolically, at least, won by the United States when Neil Armstrong uttered those now famous words: "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed".

Between the beeps of Sputnik 1 and Armstrong's confirmation of the success of Apollo 11 lay not just 12 years, but billions of dollars and roubles in expenditure, not a few deaths, and huge amounts of anxiety and propaganda.

The race for space was not just a scientific endeavour. It was a propaganda show, a battlefield of the Cold War.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2011

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Comments 38 comments

Mentalist acer profile image

Mentalist acer 5 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

The tragedy in Yuri's memory is that the space-race is considered over.;)


attemptedhumour profile image

attemptedhumour 5 years ago from Australia

Hi Tony, i was eight at the time when the Ruskies shot out of the corner and punched the Yanks on the nose, they lost the fight in the end and put to bed the theory of the importance of getting the first punch in. It's interesting stuff when it's pouring down with rain outside so bad that my wife informed me that it had lifted the top layer off the road. Oh well the space race, like the iron curtain is history. Cheers


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

I'm sorry I wasn't old enough at the time to appreciate the historic significance and the excitment of the space race.

I was sad to hear that the government is turning all future space travel over to private enterprise. But who knows; maybe they'll actually do something good. Space travel has been stagnant in the last decade or so.

Rob


jpcmc profile image

jpcmc 5 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

It's fascinating how much effort was exhausted for the race to space. It's hard not to consider the political, economic and social impacts of this race.


jandee profile image

jandee 5 years ago from Liverpool.U.K

Thanks Tony,nice reading,jandee


Vinodkpillai profile image

Vinodkpillai 5 years ago from Hyderabad, India

Nice reading. Thanks Tony, for taking me back to relive the excitement of those days. We've almost forgotten space travel.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Good hub. I am glad you did mention Sputnik 1. That scared the hell out of the Yanks and was the real start of the space race. Gagarin's venture into space meant the USA had a lot of catching up to do.

Maybe the fear of war via long distance rockets really began with the German VIII. The VI was small but could fit on the back of a truck. Its range was limited. The VII could range further but was hampered by the need for a more stable launch area. Oh, but the VIII could presumably be launched in Germany and hit New York. The VIII was never launched, the prototype never build and remains to this day so many blue prints. Even so...the possibilities. Add a nuclear payload and you have something pretty damn scary.

The possibility of launching a war from space or from the moon was one of the things that got the space race going full on. The space shuttles were designed among other things to carry a payload.

In any event I couldn't have seen Sputnik 1 but I was able to see the landing on the moon in 1969 from my own home on television. That was really something.


Fay Paxton 5 years ago

Tony, this is where I come when I want an education. You always teach me something new.


mysterylady 89 profile image

mysterylady 89 5 years ago from Florida

Since I live in Florida, I have always been interested in the "space race." It is sad to see it end, but bureaucracy has had a dire effect on it.

As always, you have written an interesting hub!


always exploring profile image

always exploring 5 years ago from Southern Illinois

I was amazed at Gagarin's courage while watching the video. He was so brave. I guess we've come a long way exploring space. I still wonder if another race is somewhere out there. Thank you. This was very interesting and well put together.

Love and Peace


Sophia Angelique 5 years ago

Gosh, Tony. You know an awful lot!!! Of course, we lived through this, but I didn't know this much at the time, and reading through it, makes me see it all in a completely different light. :)


Sembj profile image

Sembj 5 years ago

Awesome - I share those boyhood memories of the exciting start to and then commencement of the space race. If I knew then what I know now, I would have called it something ruder - a pissing contest.

Great read!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Bryan - thanks for stopping by. I agree.

Love and peace

Tony


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 5 years ago

We don't have the "good foot" here yet. Great post brother man Tony.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Keith - hope the road surface is ack on the surface! Interesting days those were, were they not? I was just a few years older and the memories are still pretty vivid for me.

Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Rob - maybe Richard Branson will do something exciting in this regard soon!

Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Jpcmc - thanks for stopping by, and I have to agree that the resources both human and physical spent on this is scary. At the same time I guess we humans will always have the urge to explore, to go beyond the known, and that can't all be bad!

Thanks again.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Maxine - thanks for the visit and the comment. Appreciated as always.

Love and peace

Tony


De Greek profile image

De Greek 5 years ago from UK

Do not fall into the trap of repeating the CIA ficiton of "mysterious circumstances" Tony. He had an accident and he died. It happens :-)

But what an inspiration to one and all he was!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Vinod - indeed it sometimes seems to have vanished from our consciousness. But the memories remian for me - shivering on that cold morning and looking up at that strange bright object moving so smoothly and quickly across the night sky! I will never forget.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Rod - thanks for stopping by and for the interesting comment. At the time of the moon landing we still didn't have TV in South Africa (the apartheid regime thought it too dangerous - might give the blacks ideas, you know!) so I couldn't watch the moon landing, although I was extremely interested in it. Saw it only on cinma newsreels after the event.

Thankis again for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Fay - thanks so much for those kind words!

Love and peace

Tony


Nancy's Niche profile image

Nancy's Niche 5 years ago from USA

Thanks for refreshing my memory on this flight. I completely forgot about Yuri’s space flight. Pretty heroic for that era even though it was only 78 minutes in duration --- look how far we’ve come.

Blessings to you & yours...


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Mysterylady - must have een exciting living there. Did you get to see any launches?

Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Ruby - it must have taken him a lot of courage to do what he did. Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Sophia - great comment, thank you. Glad you found it interesting.

Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


mysterylady 89 profile image

mysterylady 89 5 years ago from Florida

I have seen many from a distance, but one time I was treated like a VIP, got to tour the vertical asssembly building, sit on the bleachers, and watch from up close. Very thrilling!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Sem - "a pissing contest"! Love it, friend. Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Micky - thanks so much for the comment, my friend.

Love and peace

Tony


ReuVera profile image

ReuVera 5 years ago from USA

Tony, thank you for honoring this event by your hub. I lived in Kazakhstan not far from Baikonur and when satellites or space ships were taking off from there, sometimes we could see special atmospheric effects of this. It was an amazing view.

Of course, I was too small to remember the April 12, 1961 event. But I know, that in my town 99% of boys born on that day were named Yuri after Gagarin.

Gagarin was so popular with people (no wonder with that special smile of his) that his popularity shaded all the rest. There is a version that the Government just got rid of him.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Brother Dimitris - my words were "questionable circumstances" referring to the fact that no-one seems to quite know what caused the plane to crash. Seems turbulance caused by another plane passing too close, or faulty weather reports, or a combination, seems to have caused the crash.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by. I appreciate it.

Love and peace

Tony


deblipp profile image

deblipp 5 years ago

I had no idea he died so young. Thanks for this historical portrait.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Nancy - thanks so much for stopping by. It was a short flight by today's standards and yes, it must have taken him a great deal of courage to get into that capsule!

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

MysteryLady - I'm a tiny bit jealous! I would love to see a launch, even at a distance. I have just heard that a Russian cosmonaut is in town here and have contacted a friend at the Russian Embassy to see if he can arrange for me to meet the guy. If I do that will be the closest I have ever come to the race for space! And it will be the subject of another Hub - you bet!

Thanks for stopping by again.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

ReuVera - thank you so much for the interesting comment. Fascinating, but not unexpected, that so many boys were called after Gagarin. He was, besides the great smile, a very brave man to go where no man have ever gone before.

Thanks again for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

deblipp - thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed.

Love and peace

Tony


lionel1 profile image

lionel1 5 years ago

Thank you Tony, a very interesting read.


pocono foothills profile image

pocono foothills 2 years ago from Easton, Pennsylvania

@TonyMac04-I remember the day Alan Shepard became the first American in space. I was in first grade, and our teacher took us outside, as we could see the rocket flying into the sky after it's launch from Florida. I was too young then to understand the political implications of the "Space Race,' and/or if there would be any winners or losers in the end. America has a flag planted on the moon, but that doesn't make us the conquerers of all outer space. There is a lot of uncharted territory out there. In Russia, there are monuments to Yuri Gagarin all over the place. I stayed in a place called Gagarin Prospect last time I was there, and there was a scupture of Yuri right outside my window. Interesting Hub. Voted up!!!

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