Yuri Gagarin: The First Man In Space

History Behind The Card: Yuri Gagarin

Card #48 of 48, Lyons Maid, Famous People series 1966

  • Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, March 9, 1934 in Klushino, Russia, U.S.S.R – March 27, 1968 in Novosyolovo, Russia, U.S.S.R.;
  • Gherman Stepanovich Titov, September 11, 1935, Verkh-Zhilino, Russia, U.S.S.R. – September 20, 2000, Moscow, Russia, U.S.S.R.;
  • Valentin Vasiliyevich Bondarenko, February 16, 1937, Kharkiv, Ukraine – March 23, 1961, Moscow, Russia, U.S.S.R.;
  • Vladamir Mikhaylovich Komarov, March 16, 1927 in Moscow, Russia, U.S.S.R. – April 24, 1967 in Orenburg, Russia, U.S.S.R.

After learning about the recent death of astronaut John Glenn’s widow, and recalling that John was the first American man to fly in space, I thought it prudent to write up about the first man in space, a Russian/Soviet cosmonaut named Yuri Gagarin. I could just copy and past the report my son did on him in Grade 5 a few years ago, but… 

Like the travels of Gagarin, I’m going to use this platform to take you on a wild ride all over the space place… rushing, rushing, Russian.

Yuri Gagarin was a Soviet cosmonaut who became the first man in space on April 12, 1961 when his Vostok 1 spacecraft orbited the Earth.

The card, upon which this article is based, is card 48 of 48 of the Famous People series put out in 1966 by J.Lyons & Co. Ltd., who issued cards on multiple topics in their tea and ice cream products.

I admit that I do not have the card pictured above… and I saw one for sale on Amazon for US $1.99 (plus $9.99 shipping – which shows you that people are greedy and try to suck you in with a low cost for the card, but nail you with exaggerated shipping costs – seriously… an envelope and stamps, with the card enclosed in some thing corrugated).

The reverse of the 1966 Gagarin card, it describes his life… because it’s only two years later in 1968 that he dies.

In The Beginning

Anyhow… Gagarin was born in Klushino – a village near the town of Gzhatsk (wow… just one vowel) which would one day be renamed after him (Gagarin).

His mother was a milkmaid and father was a carpenter on a kolkhoz – a collective farm on Soviet state-owned land run by peasants/general people from households who belonged to the collective. They were paid as salaried employees on the basis of quality and quantity of labor they contributed.

Yuri attended a local school for six years in Klushino.

It was while Gagarin was still very young, that Nazi Germany attempted its near six-month invasion and occupation of Russia (in the U.S.S.R.). The family (and others) were forced from their home, and had to live in a very small mud hut nearby. Gagarin’s older brother, Valentin, and sister Zoya, were moved to “labor” camps in Poland. 

With the war over, in 1947 (we won!!!) the family moved to Gzhatsk (which is why, I suppose, the town was later renamed Gagarin after Yuri’s Earth orbit). A waste not – want not sort of guy, and a true carpenter, Gagarin’s father took apart the Klushino house (repatriated from the Nazis) and moved it to Gzhatsk and rebuilt it.

Apparently Gagarin was a typical boy growing up, fond of pranks and having fun, but he was also interested in his school work. According to a former teacher (Yelena Kozlova) who taught him botany, his favorite subjects were physics and math.

She also commented that he had a wonderful smile, and that the girls seemed to like him.

[Editor Note: My point in showing all this stuff, is that despite the whole Cold War thing that our respective governments fed us, the people… people… they were essentially the same regardless of their country’s political alliance. I think we all saw THAT, during the Apollo-Soyuz mission in the 1970s. That was when I realized the people are people, and politics is just that – politics. Beats me why I went out and got a degree in political science. Probably because I couldn’t get into the business program, and didn’t want to go into astronomy (my best subject) because I didn’t want to work nights. That, is a joke… except it’s not.]

He furthered his education at vocational and technical/trade schools, graduating in 1951 to become a foundryman/molder at a steel factory in Lyubertsy.

While working, he continued to attend an industrial/technical college at Saratov, and decided to also take a course on flying, which took many years, finally completing it and gaining passage into the Soviet Air Force Academy school at Orenburg in 1955, graduating with honors in 1957.

It was at the Orenburg pilot school, that he met Valentina Goryacheva, who graduated from the Orenburg medical school. The couple married after graduation in 1957.

Yuri Gagarin and wife

Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Goryacheva in Orenburg, prior to their wedding in 1957. A good-looking couple!

Soon after the couple married, Gagarin began a tour of duty as a fighter pilot.

Joining the full-on military Soviet Air Forces as a Lieutenant, he became a fighter pilot, posted at Luostari Air Base near the border with Norway. 

Space… The Final Frontier

In 1960, 20 men, including Gagarin were selected from various services into the U.S.S.R. space programme.

Below is an alphabetical list of the 20. The men listed in BLUE, would all eventually fly in space. All names are clickable to a Wikipedia biography page. And yes… the chart was also taken from Wikipedia – not my own compilation.

Air Force rank*CosmonautAge*
Senior LieutenantIvan Anikeyev27
MajorPavel Belyayev34
Senior LieutenantValentin Bondarenko23
Senior LieutenantValery Bykovsky25
Senior LieutenantValentin Filatyev30
Senior LieutenantYuri Gagarin25
Senior LieutenantViktor Gorbatko25
CaptainAnatoli Kartashov27
Senior LieutenantYevgeny Khrunov26
Captain EngineerVladimir Komarov32
LieutenantAlexei Leonov25
Senior LieutenantGrigori Nelyubov25
Senior LieutenantAndrian Nikolayev30
CaptainPavel Popovich29
Senior LieutenantMars Rafikov26
Senior LieutenantGeorgi Shonin24
Senior LieutenantGherman Titov24
Senior LieutenantValentin Varlamov25
Senior LieutenantBoris Volynov25
Senior LieutenantDmitri Zaikin27
* At time of selection

Wait… there was a guy named Mars… and he never got to go into space?! Mars Rafikov  was dismissed from the space program in 1962… supposedly for womanizing and “gallivanting” in restaurants.

Eventually, the 20 became just two – Gagarin and Gherman Titov – for the honor of being the first man in space. But, for whatever reason, Gagarin was the one chosen by the administration to become the first man in space. Titov was actually the second man to orbit the Earth aboard Vostok 2 – fourth, if we include the sub-orbital flights of American’s Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom.

Titov is also famous for being the very first person to suffer from space sickness, and also as the first person to sleep in space.


There’s no denying that Gherman Titov was also a good-looking dude, here in this photo taken in 1961. Photo Credit: Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs

Some say it was Gagarin’s easy-going personality, or maybe his good looks to help play the role of national hero (Titov was also pretty good-looking, though), or maybe he was simply just the best candidate.

But really, it was up to Nikolai Kamanin, the head of cosmonaut training.

Still undecided on April 5, 1961 (the orbital flight was on April 12, 1961!!!), Kamanin noted in his diary that he would have chosen Titov, but needed to have a stronger person for the one-day flight. 

On April 9 (again… the flight was on the 12th!!!), 1961, Gagarin and Titov learned of Kamanin’s decision. Obviously Gagarin was happy and Titov was not. 

And because a good party (communist) needs a crowd, the Vostok cosmonaut reveal was done in front of television cameras on April 10, 1961. Now, the cameras did not mean it was broadcast out to all of the peoples of the U.S.S.R. – rather it was done only to have an official record. The whole project was still hush-hush.

In fact, cosmonaut candidate Alexi Leonov said he didn’t even know who was chosen until the Vostok 1 had taken off! Leonov, by the way, is credited as being the first person (human) to do a spacewalk on March 18, 1965, beating Michael Jackson by almost 30 years. 

Now, for those too young to have lived through it, there was a space race going between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) – to see who could: launch the first object into space (Sputnik-1 by the U.S.S.R.); launch the first human into space (our man Gagarin by the U.S.S.R.); and who could land a man on our moon, Luna (still only ever the U.S.).

Of course, both sides owe quite a bit of their technology to 1) Nazi Germany and their not-quite-ready-for-prime-time rocket program; 2) Canada and Great Britain, and the demise of the Avro Canada CF105 Arrow interceptor jet (I wasn’t even born yet – but don’t get me started on this sad tale of Canadian malfeasance).

The rocket technology was supplied by Nazi Germany, with the idea that the Canadian brain drain from the Arrow’s demise supplied many top scientists – both British and Canadian – to the young NASA program. NASA also had a bunch of ex-Nazi rocket scientists in their employ.  The Soviets… they only had the Nazi tech, ideas and probably a lot of former Nazi scientists. Hey… forgive and forget, right? Forgive, anyway.

This space race was born out of the so-called Cold War between the two nations… geopolitical tensions without an actual shot being fired at each other. But after the Soviets launched Sputnik-1, an artificial satellite in 1957, the space race was born.

While the U.S. via NASA undertook its Project Mercury missions, the Soviets participated in their Vostok program – and, as mentioned, a hush-hush rocket program.

Via the Vostok program, the Soviets launched several unmanned missions between May 1960 and March of 1961 – basically to see how the Vostok rocketry handled, and to see how their Vostok space capsule handled the rigors of launch and space flight. 

Now… not all of the Vostok rocket flights could be deemed a success prior to our boy Gagarin taking off.

By April 1960, the OKB-1 (PAO S. P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia) had completed a draft plan for the first Vostok spacecraft they called Vostok 1K.

The Vostok 1K was just for testing, however. They also created Vostok 2K, a spy satellite (later known as Zenit 2), and the Vostok 3K, which would be used for all six manned Vostok missions.

Let’s start at the beginning:

1) The first Vostok spacecraft was a variant not designed to be recovered from orbit – it was called Vostok 1KP, though to keep the Vostok code name secret, it was allowed that the media should refer to it as the spacecraft Korabl-Sputnik, (literally “satellite-ship”). The “P” part of the name was the variant, and stands for “prosteishiy” (translates to: simplest).

Vostok 1KP (aka Korbal-Sputnik) flew into Earth’s orbit on May 15, 1960. But, on the spacecraft’s 64th orbit, a system malfunction had the thrusters ignite, sending it to a higher orbit. After years of continued orbiting (and decaying orbit), it re-entered the atmosphere several years later and burned up. So… successful, but not successful.

2) On July 28, 1960, two dogs – Chayka and Lisichka – were placed aboard spacecraft Vostok 1K-1 – but the rocket exploded shortly after launch (about 20 seconds) killing the dogs. Because of the failure, no mission name was given.

3) August 19, 1960 was another mission, Korabal-Sputnik-2,  with two more dogs – named Belka and Strelka, and a host of other critters, including mice and insects, and I swear, strips of human skin. By the way, female dogs were the animal sex of choice, mostly because the doggies wore their own version of space suits, and the evacuation tube (for pee et al, was easier to use on female dogs than male ones. If you are wondering what type of dogs were used by the Soviets, the answer is mutts… smallish street dogs that were taken in and trained.


Korabal-Sputnik-2. Image from: http://spacepioneers.weebly.com/1957-60.html

In this mission, Belka and Strelka became the first living beings to be recovered after being in orbit!

No word on whether the mice, insects or human skin survived, but let’s assume so!


Belka (left) and Strelka – possibly the cutest mammals to ever go into space – and survive!

Laika, if you will recall, was the very first dog to go into space – and orbit – all the way back in November 3, 1957 in Sputnik 2. Officially – until 2002 – the story was that she died six days later while in space (there was no plan to bring her or the capsule back), when her oxygen ran out. However, the Soviets said she was euthanized prior to the oxygen running out.

But that was all B.S. Laika apparently died within five or six hours of her launch from overheating – the cause of which may have been a failure of the central R-7 sustainer used to separate from the payload. OR… she died a four days later via the same reason… it depends on the source. 

Sputnik 2 continued to orbit the Earth until April 14, 1958, when, with all systems dead, and having completed 2,570 (or 2,370 according to other sources) orbits… and burned up when it re-entered the atmosphere. 


Laika, seen here pre-lift-off in Sputnik 2. Aviation pioneer. She probably didn’t know it was a one-way mission.

By the way… you’ll notice that I didn’t claim that Laika was the first animal in space. That distinction goes to some unnamed fruit flies that the U.S, launched in a suborbital space mission 10 years earlier in February 20, 1947. You’ll be happy to learn that the fruit flies survived.

They were shot up in a U.S.-captured Nazi Germany V-2 rocket, reached 108 kilometers (68 miles) in altitude, and landed safely after the parachute deployed. 

4) On December 1, 1960, the Soviets sent up 1K-3, Korabal-Sputnik 3, again with two dogs: Pchyolka and Mushka. The Vostok capsule was placed atop a Vostok-L carrier rocket and made it successfully into orbit. However… re-entry issues.

The flight was only for one day – I believe it was cut short – and the spacecraft began to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. But, the engine failed to shut-off at the end of the burn causing all of the fuel to be used. This meant the Soviets were unable to control the spacecraft’s angle of descent. What it really meant, was that the craft could come down in non-Soviet territory, allowing those foreign devils (specifically the Americans) a chance to exam the capsule.

Not willing to allow for that possibility, an explosive charge was remote detonated during re-entry, killing the two dogs instantly. This, by the way, was the last time dogs died during a Soviet space mission.

Explosives in the capsule to prevent foreign powers from having a looky-look? Kindda makes you wonder if they had something similar in other space missions… Yuri Gagarin, I’m looking at you…  

5) The U.S.S.R. launched its 1K-4 rocket on December 22, 1960 (this is five months before Gagarin’s flight) – again carrying two dogs: Kometa and Shutka. Guess what… no name for this mission… so we can assume it was a failure.

During the launch… specifically the third-stage of the launch (while it was shooting upwards), a malfunction occurred, causing the emergency escape system to be activated. Landing 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) from the launch site, it took several days in -40C (strangely, it’s also -40F) weather for the rescue team to get to the spacecraft… but both dogs were alive. 

6) Taking things slowly (for the era), it wasn’t until March 9, 1961 that Korabal-Sputnik 4 (3KA-1) lifted off. It’s got a mission name, so you know it either went well, or mostly well-enough. At least no more dogs were killed.

This flight only had one dog – named Chernushka… oh and Ivan Ivanovich.

Wait… what? The Soviets sent a man up in space before Yuri Gagarin… and this was a successful flight?

Relax… the Soviets were just having some scientific fun. Ivan Ivanovitch was a dummy… as in a mannequin. But he got a real SK-1 spacesuit.

Ivan was a life-sized mannequin, and was strapped into the main ejector seat.

Even though the Vostok programme had its fair share of failures, the Soviets decided to try and go ahead with an automated version of the Vostok 3KA, that the referenced as Vostok 3KA-1.

The plan was for the Soviets to have success with this flight and the one after it before they went ahead with an actual manned spaceflight (aka that Gagarin fellow).

Just like what they had planned for the first human flight, this one was only going to be for a single Earth orbit.

Along with Chernushka the dog, other critters such as Guinea pigs, mice, and more went along for the ride… except that aside from the dog, these critters were placed INSIDE Ivan the mannequin.

Well, the Vostok capsule entered orbit, did its one rotation, and then the module re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere… successfully.

Ivan the mannequin… he was ejected, as part of the plan.. while the capsule and dog were carried downward assisted by gravity and a parachute. We know that the dog survived (because I previously said no other Soviet dogs were killed) the 106-minute trip (up and down)… but no word on the mice, Guinea pigs, insects or Ivan. For the Soviet space program – this was a success.

SI 97-16252-3h

Ivan Ivanovitch in space suit. Photo credit: Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

7) And now the last Vostok flight before the big one… no… let’s not do that yet.

Let’s look at the plight of cosmonaut-in-training Valentin Bondarenko.


Valentin Bondarenko. Photo: Source (WP:NFCC#4)

Born February 16, 1937 in Kharkiv, Ukraine he was, on March 23, 1961 engaged in a 15-day endurance test involving a low pressure altitude chamber at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow.

On day 10, the chamber’s atmosphere was at least 50 per cent oxygen, when Bondarenko was finished work for the day. Still within the chamber (the purpose was to test the human body for long periods in a low pressure environment.) After removing the biosensors, Bondarenko used a cotton ball soaked with alcohol to clean himself.

When he finished, he discarded the alcohol-soaked cotton ball… right on top of an electric hot plate that just so happened to be on because he was brewing a cup of tea.

Let’s see… alcohol + heat = OMG!

When the alcohol-soaked cotton ball (it may not even have been wet… but the alcohol fumes were still upon it) ignited, Bondarenko tried to tap out the flames using his coveralls (and not his alcohol-swabbed hands)… but, his coveralls were made of cotton.

Let’s see… fire + cotton – OMG!!

Bondarenko’s coveralls caught fire.

Let’s see… clothing on fire + 50 per cent oxygen-rich atmosphere = OMG!!!

Because he was locked in a pressure chamber, despite their being a doctor present, they were unable to open the door for some 30 minutes.

The details are pretty gruesome, as you can imagine for just about anyone involved in burns. He suffered third-degree burns over most of his body (that’s the bad degree).

Yuri Gagarin… lucky bugger… he spent several hours at the hospital where Bondarenko was… but Valentin died of shock about 16 hours after the accident.

Valentin Bondarenko’s carelessness with the cotton swab made him the first astronaut or cosmonaut to die in training.

The Soviets… in typical fashion for the era… hid his death. The West… they never even heard of the poor fellow until 1986.

Now… this death of Soviet Valentin Bondarenko had nothing to do with an actual space mission failure, but it, and the possibility of a rocket exploding after lift-off were all things that Yuri Gagarin had on his mind (or at least in the back of his mind), as the Soviet space programme continued to push ahead.

Heck… at this time, none of the cosmonauts knew who was going to be manning the first human crewed flight into space.

7) Okay, this time for sure. On March 25, 1961, Korabal-Sputnik 5 (3KA-2) was launched… again carrying a mannequin named Ivan Ivanovitch, and Zvezdochka the dog.


Korabal-Sputnik 5. Photo from: https://abydot.wordpress.com/korabl-sputnik-5/

It went up, completed a single orbit of the planet Earth, and successfully landed. Ivan the mannequin, was ejected from the capsule during the landing, and also landed safely with a separate parachute.

Hey… at least they were trying to provide for an escape plan.

By the way… the re-entry module of Vostok 3KA-2  (that was also the name of the capsule), was auctioned on April 12, 2011 – the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight. The Sotheby’s auction saw US$2,882,500 for the capsule, purchased by Russian investment banker Evegeny Yurchenko. That’s so cool. I’d love to be able to lie inside ANY spacecraft. Preferably from our planet.

8) This is it. April 12, 1961.

But, first… there’s something called the FAI: the Fédération aéronautique internationale aka the World Aeronautical Federation. It is Earth’s governing body for all air sports, and stewards definitions regarding human spaceflight. That last phrase is important for this story.

Founded on October 14, 1905 and headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland, the FAI is the organization that maintains world records for aeronautical activities including: ballooning; aeromodeling, unmanned aerial vehicles (such as drones); and flights into space.

Back in 1961, when the Soviets filled out the official FAI paperwork to register the flight of Vostok 1 (Yuri Gagarin’s spacecraft), they stated that the launch site was: Baykonur at latitude 47°22′00″N longitude 65°29′00″E.

The actual launch site was at latitude 45°55′12.72″N longitude 63°20′32.32″E near Tyuratam – which is only about 250 kilometers (~155 miles) south west of the stated site.

Why? Obviously to keep the launch site, and telemetry a secret from possible spying eyes. To rectify this little white lie, in 1995, Russian and Kazakhstan renamed Tyuratam to Baikonur – just a slight change in spelling.

White that bit of subterfuge out of the way, and with cosmonauts Gherman Titov and Grigori Nelyubov named as official back-ups to Yuri Gagarin, the launch process got under way.

Vostok 1 Data


Model of the Vostok spacecraft with its upper stage, on display in Frankfurt Airport’s “Russia in Space” exhibition. Photo taken and edited by de:Benutzer:HPH on “Russia in Space” exhibition (Airport of Frankfurt, Germany, 2002)

The spacecraft consisted of a nearly spherical cabin covered with ablative material.

There were three small portholes and external radio antennas.

Other doo-dads, included: radios, a life support system, instrumentation, and an ejection seat all in the manned cabin.

This cabin was attached to a service module that carried chemical batteries, orientation rockets, the main retro system, and added support equipment for the total system. This service module would be separated from the manned cabin on reentry.


The Vostok 1 capsule on display at the RKK Energiya museum. The main capsule, seen in the center of this picture, is now on display at the Space Pavilion at the VDNKh. Photo by: SiefkinDR – Own work

I have always loved the Soviet’s spacecraft design. To me, as a kid, and now many decades later as an adult, it still looks like an insect.I first saw what it looked like by constructing an Apollo-Soyuz model as a kid. I did a horrible job painting it and it is long gone to a landfill.

The Pre-launch

Gagarin was obviously nervous before the launch, with one of the doctors examining him noting that he was more quiet than usual, and either nodded or said “da” (yes) to her questions. She said he sometimes began to hum.

After dressing him in his space suit et al, the team of doctors gave him a hug, telling him all would be fine. Gagarin merely nodded in response.

I can’t even imagine what he must have felt like. Sure the dummy, Ivan Ivanovitch, survived, but who knows about this time. I mean, most of us would jump at the chance to go up in space now… I even said as much minutes after I watch the space shuttle Challenger explode… there’s a trust that such accidents are flukes… but in Gagarin’s case… successes and failures in the Soviet space programme were exactly 50 per cent  – 12 of 24 were a success.

For Gagarin to go up into space with those odds… cojones of stainless steel.

The U.S.S.R. did not have – at that time – tracking ships to receive signals from the spacecraft, using a ground stations around the U.S.S.R. instead.

The Vostok 1 (Vostok 3KA) did not have a back-up retrorocket engine – because they were trying to keep the weight down to assure (?!) or better-enable the rocket to lift off successfully. 

Contained within the capsule, were 10day’s worth of provisions (it was only supposed to be a single Earth orbit, 105-minute total flight), The extra provisions were there in case something happened to the retrorockets and he was forced to stay up longer – until a solution could be found.

The standard plain white space helmet had a hand-painted CCCP (USSR) upon it, done ably by engineer Gherman Lebedev before it arrived at the launch site Baykonur near Tyuratam. His reasoning was that just in case Gagarin didn’t land where he was supposed… and landed in “enemy” territory… the country identification might help avoid him being shot as a spy.

It sounds right… but it also sounds like the perfect excuse to kill a commie.

Because no one on the ground really knew how the human body (Gagarin’s) would react to being weightless, ground control locked his pilot manual controls. But… just in case he would need it, and contact could not be made, an envelope was placed in the capsule with the code to unlock the controls. Just in case (again), a few members of ground control each secretly told Gagarin the code. It was 1-2-5. 

The day before the launch – April 11, 1961, the Vostok-K rocket with the attached Vostok 3KA space capsule were horizontally moved several kilometers within the Baikonur Cosmodrome to the launch pad. After a quick check of the booster engine to ensure all was well, it was added to the assembly.

At 10AM (Moscow time), both Gagarin and Titov reviewed the flight plan and told the launch would occur on April 12, 1961 at 9:07AM.

If that sounds like a strange time… why not 9AM? Well, when the capsule would fly over Africa, and was when the retrorockets would need to fire for reentry, the solar illumination after a 9:07AM lift-off would be best for the orientation system’s sensors.

Later that evening, after bodily readings were taken on both Gagarin and Titov, they were told to not talk about the mission (to alleviate the nerves) – so they just sat around playing pool, listening to music and talking about their respective childhoods.

At 9:50PM, both were offered a sedative to ensure a good night’s sleep, but both declined – which was okay, as they both apparently slept well. How the heck they did that without someone spiking their water, I have no idea.

Up at 5:30AM on April 12, 1961, they (Gagarin and Titov) had breakfast and were dressed into their spacesuits and then transported to the launch pad.

After entering the spacecraft and strapped in, he proceeded through various tests and checks, and after 40 minutes inside, the hatch was closed. Sort of.

Inside, a sensor flashed indicating to Gagarin that the hatch wasn’t sealed properly. OMG!!!! Technicians spent an hour removing the screws on the hatch, and then resealing it. To this day, however, there is some doubt as to whether the hatch was sealed improperly or not. It could have simply been a faulty sensor. But since no one replaced the sensor in the capsule… and it didn’t indicate a faulty seal again… well… maybe the hatch was improperly sealed.

Although not previously mentioned here, one Sergei Pavlovich Korolev was the U.S.S.R.’s Chief Rocket Engineer, and the designer of the Soviet space programme. Regarded as the father of practical aeronautics, he was involved in the development of the R-7 Rocket (the world’s first ICBM – intercontinental ballistic missile), Sputnik 1, as well as launching Laika the dog into space, and this… the Vostok 1 with Yuri Gagarin.

Korolev was sick with anxiety and chest pains (probably anxiety… been there, done that). He was worried because of the 50 per cent success rate of the Soviet space launches… he got a pill to calm down.

As for Gagarin… if he was not his usual self before the flight, he was downright calm, cool and collected strapped into the capsule. Just 30 minutes before launch, his pulse was only 64 beats per minute.

Launch Time


Yuri Gagrin strapped in and aboard Vostok 1. Photo by via the Soviet space program.

At 9:17AM – just 10 minutes after lift-off, the final rocket stage shut down as it reached Earth’s orbit… and 10 seconds after shut-down, the rocket separated from the capsule, leaving just the capsule and Gagarin alone in Earth’s orbit.

t 9:17AM – just 10 minutes after lift-off, the final rocket stage shut down as it reached Earth’s orbit… and 10 seconds after shut-down, the rocket separated from the capsule, leaving just the capsule and Gagarin alone in Earth’s orbit.

Launch of Vostok 1, continued after the delay to the resolve the hatch issue, and was now about two hours behind schedule.

At 9:07AM, with Korolev radioing: “Preliminary stage… intermediate… main… lift-off! We wish you a good flight. Everything is all right.” Gagarin said back, “Let’s roll!”… or the Russian equivalent “Poyekhali!“One hundred and 19 seconds later, the four booster engines used up the fuel and fell away from the spacecraft.At 156 seconds after lift off, the payload shroud covering Vostok 1 was released, uncovering a window at Gagarin’s feet, with an optical orientation device called a Vzor.At 300 seconds, the rocket core stage used up its propellant and fell away from the capsule, as the final rocket stage fired. Wikipedia details all of the above launch by time, and continues… but for some reason in the next section, they have Gagarin speaking in clipped English, as though someone did a direct translation but had him speaking in Russian-English. See below:

  • 06:13 UT Gagarin reported, “…the flight is continuing well. I can see the Earth. The visibility is good…. I almost see everything. There’s a certain amount of space under cumulus cloud cover. I continue the flight, everything is good.”

That’s pretty funny to me. Do your best Russian-English accent and say “I continue the flight. Everything is good.” I’m pretty sure that in Russian, Gagrin use of grammar would have been more spot-on.

The UTC time, is three hours behind Moscow time, so the above sequence takes place at 9:13AM.

At 9:17AM – just 10 minutes after lift-off, the final rocket stage shut down as it reached Earth’s orbit… and 10 seconds after shut-down, the rocket separated from the capsule, leaving just the capsule and Gagarin alone in Earth’s orbit.

Vostok 1 continued its crossing from east to west, over Siberia, then the Kamchatka peninsula, over the North Pacific Ocean, and then altered course diagonally as it passed over the tip of South America.

It was around this time – at 9:25AM – that Gagarin requested data about his orbital parameters, wanting to know how they thought everything was going down on the ground. But the ground station at Khabarovsk (near the China border) didn’t have the information, but noted that the flight was proceeding normally.

In fact, Ground Control did not know until 25 minutes after launch (at 9:32AM), that Vostok 1 and Gagarin had even achieved a stable orbit.

At 6:31AM, Gagarin again requested from Khabarovsk ground control information on how his flight was going. He said he was feeling good and all was well (by his reckoning)… and then the spacecraft passed out of VHF range of the Khabarovsk ground station.

With no one telling him anything of scientific importance, one can only imagine what was going through Gagarin’s mind at the time.

As Vostok 1 continued over the North Pacific, Gagarin crossed into the night just northwest of the Hawaiian Islands at 9:37AM… and definitely out of VHF range with the ground stations… but High Frequency (HF) radio did continue.

At 9:46AM (again – Moscow time), Khabarovsk used HF radio to send the telegraph message of “KK”… a pre-determined code that Gagarin knew was a request for a “report the monitoring of commands.” Gagarin knew it would be requested when the spacecraft automated descent system had received its instructions from ground control.

Crossing the equator and the South Pacific Ocean, Gagarin replied back two minutes later via HF radio: “I am transmitting the regular report message: 9 hours 48 minutes, the flight is proceeding successfully. Spusk-1 is operating normally. The mobile index of the descent mode monitor is moving. Pressure in the cockpit is 1; humidity 65; temperature 20; pressure in the compartment 1.2 … Manual 150; First automatic 155; second automatic 155; retro rocket system tanks 320 atmospheres. I feel fine…”

At 9:51AM, Gagarin reported to ground control that the sun-seeking attitude control system was switched on. This control system was used to orient the Vostok 1 for retrofire. The automatic/solar system was backed up by a manual/visual system; either one could operate the two redundant cold nitrogen gas thruster systems, each with 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of gas.

By 9:57AM, Vostok 1 was between Chile and New Zealand in the South Pacfic Ocean .

By 10AM, the spacecraft had just crossed the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America – and news of the successful Vostok 1 space mission mission was broadcast on Radio Moscow.

At 10:04AM, Gagarin sent out a status message saying all was well, listing everything again as he had at 9:48AM… but ground control did not receive it.

He did so again at 10:09AM… but ground control did not receive it.

One minute later at 10:10AM, Vostok 1 passed over the South Atlantic and into daylight again.

At 10:13AM, Gagarin sent out his fourth status message… this time ground control received only a partial message from him: “I read you well. The flight is going….”

At 10:18AM and 10:23AM, two more status messages were sent – but not received.

At 10:25AM, Vostok 1‘s automatic systems re-orientated the spacecraft to the proper attitude to commence the retrorocket firing. 

The retrorockets fired for ~42 seconds while it was over West Africa (near Angola), which placed it about 8,000 kilometers (4,300 nautical miles) up range of the landing point.

The orbit’s perigee and apogee (apogee is the farthest point from the Earth. Perigee is the closest point to the Earth) had been selected to cause reentry due to orbital decay within 10 days (the limit of the Vostok 1‘s life support system) in the event of retrorocket malfunction.

Luckily for Gagarin, the retrorocket did not malfunction… because the orbit decay planned and the orbit decay achieved would NOT have allowed Vostok 1 to break free until Day 20.

But that doesn’t mean things went smoothly.

Ten seconds after the retrorockets began to fire, commands were sent to separate the Vostok service module from the reentry module – but the separation didn’t happen, as the joining wires did not release.

So, at 10:35AM, both parts of the spacecraft (there should only have been one) began reentry, with very strong gyrations afflicting the spacecraft as it passed Egypt.

At this time, the strong gyrations of the spacecraft caused the wires to break and the modules to separate. However the gyrations continued, even as he communicated that everything was still okay.

During the descent, Gagarin experienced about 8 g’s (g-force… weight per unit mass)… which is a helluva lot… and yet he remained conscious.

At 10:55AM, while seven kilometers (4.3miles) from touchdown, the spacecraft’s hatch was released, and Gagarin was ejected. 

It was all part of the plan.

The Vostok 1 spacecraft was designed to eject the cosmonaut at this altitude, and allow him to return to earth by parachute. Gagarin’s parachute opened up almost immediately after ejection.

The parachute on the capsule was deployed at 2.5 kilometers (8,200 feet) altitude that hit the ground, bounced, and landed.

At 11:05AM, Gagarin landed… both he and the capsule near enough to each other. Gagarin then found a telephone and called home base looking for a ride home.


Ground trace of Gagarin’s complete orbit; the landing point is west of the takeoff point because of the Earth’s eastward rotation. So, beacuse the Earth was spinning, Gagarin did indeed make a complete Earth orbit. Credit: World Map from CIA World Fact Book. Reubenbarton added the orbital path info.

The entire flight… from the Earth to space and back again… took 108 minutes. Or, to put it simplistic terms, a shorter amount of time it takes me to get home from work in non-pandemic times.

The End Result

Well… what would you expect. Forget about Gagarin being awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union for a second… the U.S.S.R. just proved to the world (but really pointedly to the U.S.A.), that it was superior… and hopefully that being a Communist was the best.

The entire Soviet Union celebrated.

In the U.S., this Soviet success worried people. Sure, the U.S. government sent out its congratulations to their comrades, but people in the west feared that success in space was a harbinger of  bad tidings… that the West would soon fall to those “commie bastards.”

I’m glad I didn’t live through that era.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy sent congratulations to the Soviet Union for their “outstanding technical achievement.”

In the U.S.S.R., April 12 was declared to be Cosmonautics Day, and is still celebrated in Russia. As of 2011, the United Nations declared April 12 as the International Day of Human Space Flight.

But Was He Really The First Man In Space?

Yes… Gagarin was the first man in space.

But does it count?

WTF are you talking about, Andrew… why wouldn’t it count?!

Well… if you’ll note that earlier on in this blog, I mentioned the FAI… that governing body of all thing aviation-related.

Even back in 1961, FAI rules stipulated that a pilot must land with the spacecraft to be considered an official spaceflight for the FAI record books.

Gagarin was ejected from the capsule and parachuted to Earth separately from the capsule. So… according to FAI rules, this was NOT an official space flight for the FAI record books. 

Aware of this rule, the U.S.S.R. officially said that Gagarin did in fact land with the Vostok 1.

That’s a lie… and one it continued in press conferences  – and so unaware of anything untoward, the FAI certified the space flight.

The lies continued until 1971, when the U.S.S.R finally admitted that Gagarin was not inside the capsule when it landed.

Why it took so long for the Soviet Union to reveal the truth is due to the fact that after Gherman Titov went up in space a few months later on August 6, 1961 and orbited the Earth 17 times, he actually admitted aloud that he ejected from the capsule during reentry and parachuted to safety.

This caused the FAI to re-examine its aviation rules which were put in place back in 1906 and subsequently re-used when it became apparent that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were attempting manned spaceflight.

The old and current aeroplane/airplane rule about a pilot having to land with his plane was a good one. It just wasn’t a good enough one when it came to space flight.

While many of us can picture U.S. Apollo flights where the capsule splashed down with a parachute into the water, the Soviets had not quite figured out how to do a manned landing back in 1961.


NASA’s Mercury-Redstone 3 Friendship 7  – this is where a capsule should land – in the water, here shown being lifted up by a helicopter.

The Soviets knew that they had the wherewithal to launch a man into space and to bring him back (probably)… they just hadn’t figured out how to do a proper braking system yet.

I’m sure they could have waited until they had one in place, where the cosmonaut could land with the capsule, but by that time the Americans would have beaten them to the punch.

Because of Titov spilling the beans, the FAI looked at its rule, and reworked it to note that a successful spaceflight includes: launch, orbiting and safe return of the crew, and NOT how they land.

As such, Gagarin and Titov are in the FAI record book.

There’s even a FAI Gagarin Medal given out annually to the greatest aviation or space achievement of the year. 


Because of the national and international superstar status afforded Gagarin, the U.S.S.R. was determined to not lose him in a space mission accident, and essentially grounded him from all such future flights.

As such, he was “promoted” to deputy training director of the Cosmonaut Training Centre (Tsentr Podgotovki Kosmonavtov (TsPK)), which was home to approximately 250 personnel divided into various departments who were responsible for the development of all aspects of the space program including equipment. It also featured specialists in heat exchange and hygiene, survival clothing, surgery and training staff.

Call it what you want, for Gagarin, it was NOT what he wanted to do… but it was the Soviet Union in the 1960s, so he had no choice.

In 1962, he was also presented with the honor of being “elected” a deputy of the Soviet of the Union in 1962 and then to the Soviet of Nationalities, respectively the lower and upper chambers of the Supreme Soviet – the most authoritative legislative body of the country, and the only one with the power to approve constitutional amendments.

But… he did eventually get his wish to be part of the real space program again…

Soyuz 1

Although the Vostok 1 flight to space was Gagarin’s only spaceflight, he did serve as part of the back-up crew to Soyuz 1. But to be honest, there was no way he was going to be the first person to act as back-up. He was just too valuable a commodity to the communist regime.

The Soyuz 1 crew consisted of just one man, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, and he died on this mission.


An illustration of Soyuz 1 from: https://www.thespacereview.com/article/3226/1

The Soyuz 1 mission on April 23, 1967, was the first Soviet crewed flight following the death of chief designer Sergei Korolev, who died of cancer and a weak heart after surgery on a bleeding polyp in his large intestine on January 14, 1966. It had also been two years since the U.S.S.R. had done a manned space flight.

The Soyuz 1 was the first crewed flight of the first-generation Soyuz 7K-OK spacecraft and Soyuz rocket, designed as part of the Soviet lunar program.

The original mission plan was for Soyuz 1 to go into space orbit, and then await the soon-to-be-launched Soyuz 2 spacecraft one day later on April 24, 1967.

The plane was for the two spacecraft to rendezvous, exchange crews and then return to Earth. Mother Nature got in the way, however, and Soyuz 2 was unable to lift of due to thunderstorms.

Complexity aside, the forerunners to the Soyuz 1 mission had all been abject failures.

The unmanned tests of the 7K-OK spacecraft and the mission involving Kosmoss 133 and Kosmos 140 were a failure – both were expected to link-up with each other in space. This was in November-December of 1966.

But, Kosmos 133 had attitude control issues that resulted in rapid consumption of orientation fuel, which left it spinning at two revolutions per minute up in orbit.

Kosmos 140 fared even worse. A failure of the strap-on rockets to ignite after the booster ignited caused the Soviets to have to abort the launch.

As crews were draining the propellant  – having done so for the core stage and the strap-ons – the launch escape system (LES) fired, with its exhaust causing the Blok I third stage propellant tanks to overheat and explode, killing one person on the ground and damaging the Soyuz and core stage/strap-ons beyond repair.

So… with all that on the go… the U.S.S.R. decided to push forward with a manned flight – Soyuz 1 and cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov and withe Soyuz 2.

Both Gagarin and Komarov knew about the problems with this mission, and the earlier unmanned tests.

Apparently Gagarin pleaded with the big wigs in the space program to let him be the pilot rather than his friend Komarov. It wasn’t ego, rather he feared for the life of his friend, and felt it better to sacrifice himself.

But… Gagarin was the hero of the U.S.S.R. There was no way they were going to ever let Gagarin go up in space again – to protect him.

Prior to launch, Soyuz 1 engineers are said to have reported 203 design faults to party leaders, but it is believed that their concerns were overruled by political pressure to have a “space feat” to mark the of Lenin’s birthday (April 22, 1870).

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was a revolutionary, politician and political theorist. He served as head of government of Soviet Russia from 1917 to 1924 and of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1924. Under his administration, Russia and then the wider Soviet Union became a one-party communist state governed by the Russian Communist Party. Ideologically a communist, he developed a variant of Marxism known as Leninism. Leninism proposes the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, led by a revolutionary vanguard party, as the political prelude to the establishment of socialism.

[My political science university professors here in Toronto all had a bit of a Marxist bent to them. I thought university was where one could argue ideas and concepts – but no, apparently that sort of thought process gets one very low marx (sp)].

Komarov, on the other hand, was fully aware of the problems with the Soyuz mission, and was never going to relinquish his place in the spacecraft in order to protect Gagarin.

So, Komarov went up in Soyuz 1

Now, as mentioned, the Soyuz 2 mission was cancelled the next day owing to bad weather, which resulted in the Soviets deciding to cut-short Komarov’s Soyuz 1 flight after 18 orbits.

Even with most of the automatic controls not working, Komarov managed to manually re-orient the space capsule for what he hoped would be a safe descent… but then…

Upon re-entry, a drogue parachute was opened, and then the main parachute… except that the main parachute did not unfold when deployed. Who the hell packed this thing?!

Komarov then activated the manually-deployed reserve chute… but it became tangled with the drogue chute.

The drogue chute was supposed to disengage when the reserve chute was deployed. Oh come on!!!!

Komarov and the Soyuz 1 capsule fell to Earth, killing him. 

It has been reported that Komarov, as his capsule fell to Earth, screamed in rage at those who had “killed” him.

Below, is a pretty damn gruesome image of the charred remains of Komarov being viewed in an open coffin for some reason.


I have no words for this.

What a stupid, senseless death. In this case, the Soviets knew the Soyuz mission was NOT a safe one, and still, for the need to placate the upper echelon, they decided to give it a try anyway.

Not the U.S.S.R.’s finest moment.

The End Result

Beside the death of Komarov, the U.S.S.R. absolutely banned Gagarin from any more space flights – including acting as back-up to other cosmonauts.

However, on February 17, 1968, Gagarin completed training at the Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy, a higher military educational institution for training and retraining of engineers for the Soviet Air Force. Formed on November 23, 1920, it is the largest and oldest scientific school of aeronautics on the planet.

But despite the training, on March 27, 1968, the Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG-15 fighter jet he was piloting with instructor Vladamir Seryogin crashed near the town of Kirzhach, close to Moscow.


A MiG-15 fighter jet. Image credit: wallycacsabremig1

Officially, the Soviet report concluded that the aircraft had tried to avoid a collision with a bird or some other object, which resulted in the MiG going into a tailspin and crashing into the ground.

But that explanation didn’t sit right with a lot of people in the U.S.S.R.

“That conclusion is believable to a civilian — [but] not to a professional,” Alexi Arkhipovich Leonov said in a June 14, 2013 television interview. Full story HERE.

Leonov (born May 30, 1934, Listvyanka, U.S.S.R. – died October 11, 2019, Moscow, Russia) was, on March 18, 1965, the first person to conduct a spacewalk (as noted previously in this extremely long article), exiting the Voskhod 2 capsule mission for a total of 12 minutes and 9 seconds.

Regarding Gagarin’s death, Leonov said: “We knew that a Su-15 [fighter jet] was scheduled to be tested that day, but it was supposed to be flying at the altitude of 10,000 meters [33,000 feet] or higher, not 450-500 meters [1,480-1,640 feet]. It was a violation of the flight procedure.”

Leonov spoke of a then-newly classified report that confirmed than an unauthorized JSC Sukhoi Company Sukhoi Su-15 jet flew close to Gagarin’s Mig-15.

“While after-burning, the aircraft reduced its echelon at a distance of 10-15 meters [30-50 feet] in the clouds, passing close to Gagarin, turning his plane and thus sending it into a tailspin — a deep spiral, to be precise — at a speed of 750 kilometers per hour (470 miles per hour),” noted Leonov in the interview. 

On April 12, 2011 – the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s epic space flight, U.S. astronaut Colonel Catherine Coleman aboard the ISS (International Space Station) teamed up via video with lead singer and flutist Ian Anderson of the rock group Jethro Tull back on Earth for a flute duet in Gagarin’s honor. Jethro Tull was playing live at that time in Russia. I mention this only because Jethro Tull was the first group I ever saw live in concert. And because it’s kindda cool. Apparently the video of the event can be found at NASA’s website, but I couldn’t spot it. https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/videogallery/index.html

Anyhow, below is a video of Yuri Gagarin and Vladamir Seryogin funeral: 

Gagarin is interned at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, Moscow, incidentally where his friend and fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov is, as well.

As a side note, the Soviets/Russians still have not made a manned landing on the moon, Of course, NASA and the Americans haven’t put a man on the moon since 1972 after six of seven successful missions (the failed mission was Apollo 13). Both countries have made a combined 12 uncrewed landings since then. I believe, that China is the only other country to have made an uncrewed landing on the moon. Others have tried, but have crashed. 



About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. He has written and been an editor for various industrial magazines, has scripted comic books, ghost-written blogs for business sectors galore, and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. He works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers - even though it takes him so much time to do. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
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