Behind the Secrecy of Vostok 1

Gagarin on his way to launch, April 12, 1961. Photo credit: Bettmann/Corbis

The Soviet Union claimed an early lead in space. After launching Sputnik on October 4, 1957, the nation stayed one step ahead of the United States, accomplishing one major first after another. On April 12, 1961, the USSR beat the US in getting a man into orbit; Yuri Gagarin returned from his 108-minute long single orbit mission to international fame. But the flight was shrouded in mystery, in part to protect Soviet secrets and in part to secure the nation’s advanced position. In the wake of the flight, details emerged that told of a very different mission than the one the Soviet Union presented to the world.

According to publicized reports, Gagarin met launch day with resolve. He suited up and traveled to the launch site at Baikonur with backup pilot Gherman Titov in tow. Upon his arrival, Gagarin addressed the gathered crowd with a stirring speech that was simultaneously broadcast on radios throughout the nation. Then he climbed into his spacecraft labeled “Vostok” and lifted off on a Korabl rocket at 9:22 Moscow time. The rocket performed flawlessly, delivering Gagarin into orbit where he performed every manoeuvre exactly as planned. At 10:55, the cosmonaut landed inside his Vostok spacecraft.

Post-flight reports and comments from Gagarin after the flight were vague, filled with poetic imagery in lieu of facts and always putting a strong emphasis on the cosmonaut’s perfect landing. In actuality, the flight was far from flawless. It was nearly fatal, and tensions were high on launch day as many hoped past problems with the rocket and spacecraft wouldn’t resurface now that there was a man’s life at stake.

The launch site was the first piece of public misinformation. Reports say the Korabl launched from Baikonur but the site is really closer Tyura-Tam. Officials deliberately named the site after the small town of Baikonur, which is some 200 miles away, to cloak the real location. When Gagarin arrived on launch day, he didn’t address the crowd. The speech the nation heard was prerecorded, pieced together from a speech the cosmonaut had been forced to read months before. It wasn’t even his own; the words were put in his mouth by a speech writer.

Vostok 1 launch. Photo credit: NASA

Climbing into Vostok, Gagarin was calm on launch day. Sergei Korolev on the other hand, the man behind the space program’s rapid early successes known at the time only as the Chief Designer, was anything but. He knew the Korabl rocket intimately, and knew its third stage had a bad track record and often failed to fire. If it failed this morning, Gagarin wouldn’t reach orbit but fall somewhere in South Africa where the weather was bad and the people were unfriendly. Just the thought of putting a cosmonaut in such a dangerous situation caused Korolev such severe anxiety that he was forced to take tranquilizers to calm his nerves.

Korolev’s worst fears were unrealized, though the rocket’s third stage didn’t perform perfectly. It burned too long, sending Gagarin into a higher orbit than anticipated. Unable to adjust Vostok’s orbit, Gagarin couldn’t adjust for the error. In fact, he couldn’t control his spacecraft at all.

Reports of Gagarin’s flawless performance in orbit washed over his complete lack of control over his spacecraft. Psychologists working with the cosmonauts had been worried that exposure to weightlessness would affect their ability to make safe decisions, so they were locked out of the spacecraft’s computer. Only in an emergency was a cosmonaut allowed to unlock the computer by entering a six-digit code — the first three number he knew the last three he could find in a sealed envelope on board. Gagarin never opened his envelope.

The principle worry for those monitoring the flight was how the high orbit would affect Gagarin’s reentry. If his retrorockets misfired or didn’t slow his capsule enough, the cosmonaut would have to wait a full day before returning home. Reentry opportunities for a landing in Soviet territory were fairly infrequent.

Vostok 1's descent module on display. Photo credit: Seiji Yoshimoto/Energia Museum

Vostok’s retrorockets fired well and sent Gagarin hurtling towards Earth, but the worst was yet to come. Soon after reentry, Vostok 1 began to roll. The spacecraft’s instrument unit failed to fully separate from the descent module and the whole configuration fell with the Vostok’s fragile hatch exposed to the fiery reentry. After ten minutes, the cables burned away, Vostok righted itself and regained stability. Twenty-three thousand feet above the ground, Gagarin fired his ejection. He landed ten minutes after and miles away from the Vostok spacecraft in the Saratova region, a farmland area near the border of Kazakhstan.

The post-mission secrecy surrounding Gagarin’s landing was the Soviet Union’s attempt to secure an official record from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI, known as the International Air Sports Federation in English). As the organization that awarded all records in the air, the FAI brought aviation rulings into spaceflight: a spaceflight could only secure an official record if the pilot landed with the spacecraft. For the Soviet Union to secure the official record of the first flight, Gagarin’s ejection had to remain a secret. The FAI’s guidelines were later amended to focus on the launch, and Gagarin’s record stuck.

The veil of secrecy over Gagarin’s mission was cleverly designed publicity to put the Soviet Union in the best possible light. But it doesn’t change the reality of the accomplishment. Gagarin’s flight was a stunning mission; the secrecy surrounding the flight adds a fascinating layer to the story.

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