The First Man in Space, 1961
Episode #9 of the course “Most Important Historical Events of the 20th Century”
Yuri Gagarin, a Russian cosmonaut, became the first man in space on April 12, 1961. A former Russian Air Force fighter pilot, Gagarin launched into orbit in the Vostok 3K-A, which was also called Vostok 1. The flight lasted a short 108 minutes, but it advanced space travel and exploration significantly.
In 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite. Prior to Yuri Gagarin’s flight, they staged a simulation flight—they sent up a prototype of the spacecraft with a life-sized dummy that they named Ivan Ivanovich and a dog named Zvezdochka. The prototype was successful, so their next step was sending up Gagarin.
The scientists and researchers were unsure of how the weightlessness would affect Gagarin, so there were very few onboard controls. Instead, the craft was controlled from the ground or programmed to perform vital functions automatically. However, Gagarin did have access to the override code in case he needed to manually control the craft (against protocol that required him to only be provided the code in an emergency). Of course, that also explains how a dog and dummy were able to successfully have their own space mission!
In the 108 minutes that Gagarin was in space, he orbited the Earth once. However, the craft included provisions for 10 days in case the engines failed and Gagarin was forced to orbit naturally around the Earth until his descent. There were no means to slow the craft down as it approached the earth, so Gagarin ejected about four miles above the ground and parachuted down the rest of the way.
The Soviet Union and the United States were in a competition to send the first person into space, and this flight meant that the Soviet Union was “in the lead.” This competition was likely partially based on the tension between the superpowers during the Cold War (1947-1991). These tensions definitely encouraged emphasis on space travel, advancing the field significantly.
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