Youri Gagarine, 12 avril 1961: « Je viens du Cosmos ! »

A very risky flight

Yuri Gagarin spent the night of 11-12 April in a rustic little cottage. It's a relic which has been preserved in tact, with its furniture, on site number 1 in the heart of the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Today, all crews visit it a few days before going into space. Gagarin had sensors placed on his body to check that he was getting a good night's sleep. The mission controllers carried out multiple checks to ensure that everything ran as smoothly as possible. They were, nevertheless, worried. The improved model ofthe Semyorka rocket which had to send Vostok-1 around the earth met with failure in 8 of its 15 launches. Of the eight tests of the manned craft, only three succeeded! The chances of success of the mission were estimated at 50%.

On 12 April, Gagarin awoke at 5 a.m. (Moscow time), at the same time as his substitute, 25-year old Guerman Titov (1935-2000). A final medical exam showed that they were very calm. Both of them went to the dressing room to put on the orange spacesuit and helmet. At 6.30 a.m. they got in a bus which took them to the launch platform. On the way, on the advice of Serguey Korolev, Yuri Gagarin relieved himself against the bus wheel. Had he drunk vodka before his meeting with history? It is just a rumour. One thing is certain:  he kicked off a tradition which endures:  in the same place, before taking off from Baikonur, all cosmonauts - women are exempt - urinate on the rear right-hand tyre of the coach that takes them to the launch pad. The Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne respected this tradition, which brings luck, for his two flights to the international space station.

In his spacesuit, Gagarin found himself opposite the Semyorka, the Vostok's vessel's booster rocket, which was enclosed by mobile service towers. He was welcomed by the lead engineer and by the Central Committee. Having received the best wishes of Korolev and embraced the cosmonaut colleagues that accompanied him, he got into the lift. The engineer Oleg Ivanovski who was involved in developing the Vostok went before him. He helped Gagarin to get settled in the Vostok-1 and was the last person to say goodbye before his flight. The launch was planned for 9 a.m. When the communications were being tested, Korolev was worried about a sensor which showed that a hatch was not closed properly. Ivanovski was asked to redo the tedious operation which required the 32 bolts to be removed and replaced. Seven minutes were needed.

He did this reluctantly as he was worried about disturbing Gagarin who was in his seat.


At 9.07 a.m. (Moscow time) or 7.07 (Belgian time), the launch order was given : "Let's go! »  The key was turned. The 32 propellers of the Semyorka rocket base were turned on and ramped up. Their force was enough to free it from the arms that kept it suspended above the launch bay. It thrust towards the sky. After 11 minutes of propelled flight,the Vostok-1 spacecraft separated from the last stage which had sent it into orbit. Yuri Gagarin became the first earthling to fly through space over his planet. His continuous dialogue with the controllers showed that he was well and the flight was unfolding normally. Fifty minutes after the successful launch it was time for Radio Moscow to announce to the whole world that a Soviet was in outer space!

VostokDrawingThe official media did not wait for Gagarin to have returned withoutmishap. And yet… there was a serious alert at the time of the return, after the retro rocket of the service module had slowed the Vostok downabove Africa for it to begin its re-entry at 27 000 km/h. The module did not detach itself fully from the capsule . The destabilised vessels werved a few times which endangered the life of the cosmonaut. Atmospheric friction led to the heating of the capsule and, finally, the detachment of the retro rocket.

On his return to firmground, Yuri Gagarin became the hero of the Communist regime. Cosmonaut number 1 was welcomed the world over. The Kremlin appointed him commander of the cosmonauts detachment and insisted on his not planning another space mission. He could not help himself:  in 1966 he began training again to fly aboard the Soyuz spacecraft which was one day to fly to the moon.  On 27 March 1968, along with his instructor, hec rashed in a fighter plane. Yuri Gagarin became a martyr:  from then onhe was venerated as a "saint" by the Soviet system. Indeed the portrait of a Gagarin in uniform and all smiles, can be found aboard the Russian part of the International Space Station which is permanently manned some 355 km above our heads.

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