Vostok Wins the First Lap

[332] The first unofficial rumors out of Moscow were confirmed by an Associated Press dispatch on April 12 that translated an official Soviet news agency Tass announcement:
The world's first space ship Vostok with a man on board, has been launched on April 12 in the Soviet Union on a round-the-earth orbit.

The first space navigator is Soviet citizen pilot Maj. Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin. Bilateral radio communication has been established and is maintained with Gagarin.

Aside from this assertion, the news out of Moscow and Turkestan on April 12 was neither crisp nor very detailed. For a few days a great deal of speculation over conflicting reports, fuzzy photographs, and the lack of eyewitnesses encouraged those disappointed Westerners who wished to believe that Gagarin's flight in Vostok I (meaning East) had not occurred. The danger that history might be made to order in a closed society was compounded by the rumors in the London Daily Worker and elsewhere since April 7. The propagandistic exploitation of this magnificent deed was evident from the fact that no confirmed announcement was made during the 108 minutes of flight - not until Yuri Gagarin landed intact near the Volga River, some 15 miles south of the city of Saratov. The present tense in the Tass dispatch above could easily have been doctored for control purposes, drama, or even for more serious reasons.83

Be that as it may, NASA officials from Webb and Dryden down to Gilruth and Powers, at least six months earlier, had planned their comments for this occasion, just in case. About 4 a.m., telephones began buzzing up and down the east coast of the United States as reporters demanded responses from NASA officials to the Tass dispatch. John A. "Shorty" Powers half-consciously replied to his first inquisitor, "We're all asleep down here." Some journalists ignored the fact that Gilruth had long since gone on record as saying he would not be surprised to be awakened some morning in this manner. Webb went on nationwide network television at 7:45 a.m. to extend congratulations to the Soviets, to express NASA's disappointment, and to reassure the nation that Project Mercury would not be stampeded or panicked into a premature speedup of the Mercury timetable. The next morning Webb and Dryden were roasted before the verbal fire of the House space committee as they were asked to explain what had happened. All the information available to the United States government, said Dryden, and past experience with Soviet technical statements, tended to confirm the report of Gagarin's flight. Representatives James G. Fulton of Pennsylvania, J. Edgar Chenoweth of Colorado, Victor L. Anfuso of New York, and David S. King of Utah were especially disappointed that the name Gagarin would "go down in the history books." Webb and Dryden held up well under this heat, taking the position that this particular race was lost "before the space agency was founded." But Representative Joseph E. Karth, a Democrat from [333] Minnesota, gave the most popular rationale of why a Russian had won the first lap in the manned space race:

The United States and the Soviet Union have proceeded along two different lines of attack. The Soviets have pretty much rifled their program, if I may use the word, as opposed to the United States shotgunning their effort. We have been interested in many programs and I think the Soviets have been interested primarily in putting a man in space.84

Orbital Mission Profile

Project Mercury normal orbital mission profile.

The flight of the first cosmonaut seemed remarkably similar in many respects to the plans for the first Mercury astronaut's orbital mission, but there were momentous differences as well - the single near-polar orbit, the lack of a worldwide tracking network, and the provisions for pilot ejection before impact.85 According to the corrected and reduced data obtained from their measurements and published in Pravda on April 25, 1961, the twin module spaceship-satellite, or Korabl Sputnik VI, was renamed generically as the first in the Vostok series. Specifically its call sign was Swallow. The payload compartment, manned by 27-year-old, 154-pound Gagarin, weighed altogether 10,417 pounds, and attained [334] an apogee of 203 miles and a perigee of 112 miles, with an orbital inclination of 65 degrees to the equator. Cosmonaut Gagarin was probably launched by a two-stage booster from the Baikonur cosmodrome, east of the Aral Sea, south of the industrial district of Magnitogorsk, near Tyura Tam, a boom town comparable to Cocoa Beach, Florida. Apparently the Gagarin flight had not been preceded by a parabolic manned suborbital flight into space. The anonymous engineers behind him, mysteriously called "the chief designer" and "the chief engineer," evidently had developed a mixed-gas air supply at sea-level pressures for his life support system. Vostok I also had a separate and separable instrument section and retrorocket package for telemetry, television, and radio telephone communications during orbit and for braking the spacecraft velocity 5,000 miles and 30 minutes before the desired impact point. Gagarin rode in a capsule almost three times the weight of the Mercury spacecraft and inside a spherical pressure vessel 7.5 feet in diameter, both of which were automatically controlled. Gagarin was the first person in history to attain an Earth-fixed speed of 17,400 miles per hour, and at this speed around his 25,000-mile course, as high as 203 miles from sea level, he was also the first man ever to endure 89 minutes of weightlessness.86

What the Soviets announced after the fact was indeed true:

History's first flight in outer space, accomplished by the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in the space ship Vostok, has made it possible to draw the immensely important scientific conclusion that manned flights in space are practicable. It demonstrated that man can normally bear up against the conditions of a space flight, the placing of a ship in orbit, and the return to earth. This flight showed that in a state of weightlessness man fully retains his capacity for work, his coordination of movements, and his clarity of thought.87
And while it was hardly an overstatement to claim, as the Soviets did after the celebrations in Red Square were over, that "in the progress of science, the flight of a Soviet man in outer space pushed all other developments into the background," it must certainly have been an oversimplification that prompted Gagarin to say in retrospect: "I felt very well before the flight. I was fully confident of its successful outcome. Our machines and equipment are very reliable and I and all my comrades, the scientists, engineers and technicians, never doubted the success of the undertaking."88

Gagarin's flight, while not having the depressive impact of Sputnik I in October 1957, nonetheless came as a crushing disappointment to many Americans. The announcement was received in this country with a variety of reactions: admiration for the flight's purely scientific merits; disbelief, since various Russian accounts carried conflicting statements, at least in transliteration and at most in their technical secretiveness; and the feeling that the United States had lost face once again. The Associated Press conducted a poll in Miami, Detroit, Akron, Charlotte, Denver, Dallas, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, and Washington, D.C., by having its reporters call all the Joe Smiths in the telephone directories. The Joe Smiths registered a wide range of emotions, but perhaps [335] the persons feeling the keenest disappointment were the American astronauts. They knew how close and yet how far they had come toward being first in space, if not in orbit. Of the four who made statements, Glenn was most articulate and magnanimous:

The Russian accomplishment was a great one. It was apparently very successful and I am looking forward to seeing more detailed information. I am, naturally, disappointed that we did not make the first flight to open this new era. The important goals of Project Mercury, however, remain the same - ours is peaceful exploration of space. These first flights, whether Russian or American, will go a long way in determining the direction of future endeavors. There is certainly work for all to solve the tremendous problems involved. I hope the Russians have the same objectives and that we can proceed with mutual dissemination of information so that these goals which all mankind shares can be gained rapidly, safely, and on a progressive scientific basis.89

83 For an overview of these issues, see chapter on "Gagarin" in Holmes, America on the Moon, 83-92; Thomas A. Reedy, "Britons Say Reds' Timing May Indicate 'Lie in Sky,'" New Port News Daily Press, April 13, 1961. Some question was also raised in Congress and the press whether Gagarin's flight was in fact a complete orbit, since it apparently fell short of its starting point by a few miles.

84 Memo, Powers to Gilruth, "Pre-planned Comment for Possible Russian Space Shot, " Sept. 27, 1960. All quotations are taken from House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 87 Cong., 1 sess. (1961), Discussion of Soviet Man-in-Space Shot, 7, 11, 16, 18, 27, 33.

85 It is widely believed that Yuri A. Gagarin rode all the way down to impact inside his capsule and that his flight was made fail-safe by the choice of a rather steep reentry trajectory. For pictorial comparisons of the Soviet spacecraft and booster systems, see the series of articles in Aviation Week, LXXXII (May 10, 1965), "Russia Displays Vostok with Spherical Cabin, " 28-29; (May 17, 1965), "Soviets Unveil 3-Stage ICBM," 26-31; (May 24, 1965), "Photos of Vostok Display Reveal New Details of Spacecraft," 76-78; (May 31, 1965), "Photos Show Details of Cabin, Suit," 58-60; (June 7, 1965), "Gazenko Discusses Soviet Space Medicine," 40-45. Cf. memo, M. Scott Carpenter to Gilruth et al., "Cosmonaut Training," Nov. 24, 1964.

86 These parameters are based on a 28-page typewritten translation by Joseph L. Zygielbaum from Pravda, April 25, 1961, entitled "The First Flight of Man into Cosmic Space," and circulated around STG as the best data then available. For comparative information, see Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, 87 Cong., 2 sess. (1962), Soviet Space Programs: Organization, Plans, Goals, and International Implications, Table I, 106-107, 108; and Charles S. Sheldon II, "The Challenge of International Competition," paper, the Third American Inst. of Aeronautics and Astronautics/NASA Manned Space Flight Meeting,Houston, Nov. 4-6, 1964, Table V, 26. See also Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, record claim.

87 Soviet Man in Space (Moscow, [1961]), 93. See also Joseph L. Zygielbaum, "The Soviet Space Program," in the World Book Science Annual, 1965 Science Year(Chicago, 1965), 64-75.

88 Statement by Yuri A. Gagarin at the Soviet Scientist's Club reported April 16, 1961, in The First Man in Space: The Record of Yuri Gagarin's Historic First Venture into Cosmic Space: A Collection of Translations from Soviet Press Reports (New York, 1961), 41; the first quotation is taken from Y. Maksaryov, ed., Technical Progress in the U.S.S.R., 1959-1965, trans. David Skvirsky (Moscow, [1963]), 10.

89 Newport News Times-Herald, April 13, 1961; statements of Glenn, Virgil I. Grissom, and Alan B. Shepard, Jr., April 12, 1961; statement of Gilruth, April 12, 1961; NASA News Release 61-80, April 20, 1961.

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