April 12, 1961
Yuri Gagarin rolled out of bed early on this morning in which he would make history. Two years earlier he had volunteered for the cosmonaut program, and just four days earlier he learned that he would be the first man to be launched into space. The American astronaut Alan Shepard might have been the first, but the American space agency, NASA, has elected to send one more chimp into space instead.
Around 7:30 am, Moscow time, Gagarin arrived at the launch pad, where he made an impromptu speech. "The whole of my life seems to be condensed into this one wonderful moment," he said. "Everything that I have been, everything that I have done, was for this." The cosmonaut became emotional and lowered his head. When he looked up, he was smiling. "Of course I'm happy," he said. "Who would not be? To take part in new discoveries, to be the first to enter the cosmos, to engage in a single-handed duel with nature. . . . Could anyone dream of more?"
Gagarin might have said more, but a glance at Sergei Korolev revealed that the chief designer was looking impatiently at his watch. So the cosmonaut stepped onto the elevator that would take him to the top of the support tower. There he was strapped in to the specially designed contour couch. When Gagarin nodded, to signal that he was ready to go, the hatch was closed and sealed.
A faulty valve would delay the launch, but soon the R-7A rocket was finally ready. At 9:30 am, the rockets fired and Yuri Gagarin was lifted in earth orbit. He would make one revolution, pole to pole, before the retro rockets would fire and bring him home. Throughout the launch and the orbit, the cosmonaut would suffer no ill effects, and thus demonstrate that man could handle space flight. Gagarin fell around the earth at 17,500 miles an hour, with a low point of 112.4 miles and a high point of 203 miles.
Gagarin described weightlessness as "relaxing." About the view out the porthole he said, "The sky looks very dark and the earth is bluish."
After just 89 minutes, it was over. The retros fired and Gagarin began his fall from earth orbit. The ablative covering of the Vostok capsule did its job and the cosmonaut never felt the heat. At 23,000 feet the hatch blew and Gagarin was ejected from the capsule. This would be a closely held secret for years as the rules of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale required the capsule's occupant to descend in the spacecraft itself for spaceflight record to count.
Even so, the Soviet press almost let the truth slip when it reported that Gagarin landed on his feet without tumbling, even as it reported that that cosmonaut rode the capsule down to a safe landing. Regardless of the technicalities of the landing, Gagarin was still the first man to ride a rocket into space and orbit the earth. The Soviets had beaten the Americans once again.
Gagarin landed in a field near the Volga river town Smelovaka. A woman and her child watched him land, and to them Gagarin reportedly said, "I'm Soviet, I've come from outer space."
The woman asked, "Did you really come from outer space?"
"Yes, yes, would you believe it," Gagarin answered. "I certainly have."
After being picked up by a helicopter, Gagarin had a well-publicized phone conversation with Nikita Krushchev that was almost certain scripted before hand.
"You have made yourself immortal because you are the first man to penetrate space," said Krushchev.
"Now let the other countries try to catch us," said Gagarin.
"That's right," replied the Soviet leader. "Let the capitalists try to catch up with our country, which has blazed the trail into space and launched the world's first cosmonaut."
For the Americans at NASA, there was a silver lining to the flight of Gagarin: no more chimps would be sent into space. The next Mercury flight would finally send Alan Shepard into his suborbital space flight.
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