Remembering the First Human Spaceflight

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Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin captured the world’s attention on April 12, 1961, when he became the first person to orbit the Earth. It was unquestionably a stunning accomplishment, and his flight changed the course of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Like his American counterparts, Gagarin, the son of a collective farmer in the Smolensk region of the Soviet Union, had been a military pilot, and he had entered the cosmonaut program of chief designer Sergei Korolev in the late 1950s. Through hard work and perseverance, he received the assignment to be the first to fly.

Gagarin’s mission on Vostok 1, a 3-ton ball-shaped capsule with an attached 2-ton equipment module, signaled the Soviet Union’s leadership in an exceptionally complex high-technology endeavor. After his single orbit, moreover, Gagarin’s handsome appearance, thoughtful intellectuality and boyish charm made him an attractive figure on the world stage. The importance of these attributes was not lost on Nikita Khrushchev, who used him effectively for publicity purposes thereafter. Following this first flight, the Soviet Union held a gigantic ceremony April 14 in Moscow’s Red Square honoring its first cosmonaut. At the same time, Gagarin’s flight energized the Soviet leadership to invest more money in space exploration during the years that followed, in part because of the international prestige that the nation gained from spectacular missions.

Despite its outward success, Gagarin’s Vostok 1 flight had serious problems. Since the end of the Cold War, increasing amounts of information have confirmed what some analysts believed all along — that Gagarin’s flight had nearly been a disaster when the capsule spun dangerously out of control while re-entering the atmosphere. Gagarin told officials during a postflight debriefing, “As soon as the braking rocket shut off, ¬there was a sharp jolt, and the craft began to rotate around its axis at a very high velocity.” It spun uncontrollably as the two modules failed to separate. As per the flight plan, and perhaps in anticipation of this potentiality, Gagarin ejected from the capsule and parachuted to Earth while the capsule came down elsewhere on its own chutes.

After the announcement of the successful Soviet flight, U.S. President John F. Kennedy congratulated the Soviet Union for its success but stated that “no one is more tired than I am” of seeing the United States take second place behind the Soviets in the space field. “They secured large boosters, which have led to their being first in Sputnik, and led to their first putting their men in space. We are, I hope, going to be able to carry out our efforts, with due regard to the problem of the life of the men involved, this year. But we are behind. … The news will be worse before it is better, and it will be some time before we catch up,” said Kennedy in a press conference in 1961.

Comparisons between the Soviet and American human space programs were inevitable afterward. Gagarin had flown around the Earth; the first Mercury flights were suborbital. Gagarin’s Vostok spacecraft had weighed about 4,700 kilograms; the Mercury capsule was only 950 kilograms. Gagarin had been weightless for 89 minutes during his flight, but the Mercury astronauts would be in space for only 15 minutes on their first suborbital missions.

“Even though the United States is still the strongest military power and leads in many aspects of the space race,” wrote journalist Hanson Baldwin in The New York Times not long after Gagarin’s flight, “the world — impressed by the spectacular Soviet firsts — believes we lag militarily and technologically.”

By any measure the U.S. had not demonstrated technical equality with the Soviet Union, and that fact worried American leaders because of what it would mean for the Cold War competition under way. These apparent disparities in technical competence had to be addressed, and Kennedy worked to find a way to re-establish the nation’s technological status.

Accordingly, Kennedy asked his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, to explore possibilities whereby the United States might recover its status as a first-rate spacefaring nation. On April 20, 1961, he wrote a memo to Johnson asking the vice president to learn if “we have a chance of beating the Soviets by … a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to land on the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man. Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?” These questions led to Kennedy’s striking announcement on May 25, 1961, “that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

In response to Yuri Gagarin’s April 12 flight, Project Apollo gained priority for the United States. While a lunar landing had been envisioned much earlier, only in response to Gagarin’s success did it achieve the presidential mandate that led to six landings on the Moon between 1969 and 1972.

It’s a sad fact that Gagarin did not live to witness those lunar landings, having died in a fighter crash on March 27, 1968. Like other cosmonauts watching the American effort from the Soviet Union, however, Gagarin would have cheered and perhaps been a little envious of his fellow space explorers as they reached the place that Buzz Aldrin once called “magnificent desolation.”

For all of the geopolitical disagreements and rivalries of the Cold War, one constant remained for all of those like Yuri Gagarin who rode rockets into space: They always felt a special camaraderie as a band who might not speak the same language but shared both the joy and burden of risking everything for the sake of leaving this planet and reaching into space. Yuri Gagarin was the first to do so, and it is appropriate to recall at the 50th anniversary of his flight this astounding accomplishment. No doubt, Gagarin changed the course of the space age.

Roger D. Launius is a senior curator in the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington.