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Q. When was the first manned mission up into space? — Inday D.
A. The first manned space mission was April 12, 1961.
USSR cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin was the first man ever to travel in space. He was born in 1934, rode in a capsule called Vostok 1 to orbit and back on April 12, 1961. Seven years later, Gagarin was killed in a plane crash on March 27, 1968, when other military aircraft approached too closely in bad weather.

USSR cosmonaut. Russia once was the main country in a larger collective nation known as the USSR -- the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The USSR called its space travelers cosmonauts. America referred to its persons who flew in space as astronauts.

First spaceship. Vostok, which means East in Russian, was launched atop a Russian A-1 rocket from Tyuratam in the USSR's central-Asian Kazakh Republic, home of the modern Baikonur Cosmodrome. The Vostok capsule orbited at an altitude of 112 to 203 miles above Earth.

Vostok had two sections, an instrument module and a 98-in.-diameter re-entry vehicle. Inside the reentry capsule was an ejection seat for the cosmonaut, three viewing portholes, film and television cameras, space-to-ground radio, control panel, life-support equipment, food and water. Two radio antennas protruded from the top of the capsule. Flight was controlled from the ground.

Man's world changed forever when Gagarin lifted off from Tyuratam at 9:07 a.m. Moscow time on that April 12 in Vostok 1. That flight made him the first man to orbit Earth. Two minutes into Gagarin's flight, four boosters strapped to the A-1 separated and fell away. Half a minute later a protective shroud covering Vostok was jettisoned. At five minutes, the core booster burned out and the final stage rocket ignited. That stage shut down as Vostok reached orbit 11 minutes 16 seconds into the flight.
USSR cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin was the first man ever to travel in space
USSR cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin was the first human being ever to travel in space and first to orbit Earth
Gagarin's Doll. Gagarin was carrying a small doll as a gravity indicator. It began floating free as Vostok 1 reached zero gravity. For sentimental reasons thirty years later, on April 12, 1991, the man with the most space experience then at 541 days, Musa Manarov, carried Gagarin's little doll again in Earth orbit. That time it was in the USSR's orbiting space station Mir on the 30th anniversary of Gagarin's 1961 flight.

Gagarin made one orbit of Earth during his 1961 flight. At 44 minutes into the flight, Vostok was turned into position so a braking rocket could fire to slow its speed, causing it to fall back into the atmosphere. At 78 minutes, the retrorocket was fired. The instrument module separated from the capsule. Reentry began ten minutes later.

As planned, at 108 minutes, Gagarin ejected himself from the capsule at an altitude of 23,000 ft. He separated from his ejection seat at 13,000 ft., descending via parachute to land in the Saratov area southeast of Moscow near the Volga River. That's 1,000 miles west of Tyuratam. The empty capsule came down on parachute. The historic mission lasted 118 minutes from launch to landing.

Dinghy from the sky. Peasant women fled as Gagarin parachuted to Earth near the settlement of Uzmoriye on the Volga River. It was only a year after Gary Powers' U-2 spy plane had been shot from the sky by Soviet anti-aircraft gunners.

"Mother, where are you running? I am not a foreigner," Gagarin shouted to forester's wife Anna Tahktorovna and her six-year-old grandaughter, Rita, according to the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda in 1991. Gagarin's use of the Russian language calmed Tahktorovna.

Rolling up on motorcycles, Uzmoriye villagers buried the cosmonaut's radio and inflatable rubber dinghy. "The dinghy was a genuine gift for the village fishermen...it literally fell down from the sky," Komsomolskaya Pravda explained.

Then the national secret police, known as the KGB, drove up, threatening to arrest the entire village if the equipment was not given back. The villagers said the dinghy was torn, but the KGB captain put it in his car anyway and drove off.

Predecessor rumors. Before launching the first man to orbit in 1961, the USSR had sent dummy human figures, wearing tags printed with the name Ivan Ivanovich, to space. The dummies flew in Vostok capsule test flights from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Central Asia.

Georgi Grechko, a veteran of three Soviet space flights, said in 1991 he witnessed the dummy flights and all early manned flights as assistant to the Soviet Union's chief space rocket designer Sergei Korolev.

The dummies were dressed in real space suits and their capsules carried tape-recorded messages to simulate two-way radio. The messages were combinations of letters and numbers. The taped transmissions, overheard around the globe, led to rumors that a cosmonaut had called for help from an out-of-control spacecraft.

Grechko said some rockets blew up before the Gagarin flight. Controllers lost one pre-Vostok test capsule in space, he said. It may still be spinning off somewhere in the cosmos. But most of the dummy test capsules landed as commanded, bouncing down at various sites in Central Asia where they were found by local residents. Seeing lifeless dummies in space suits, those residents spread rumors that cosmonauts had died.

Dogs in space. Dogs travelled in place of dummies on some test flights.
  • MORE ABOUT DOGS AND ANIMALS IN SPACE »»
    Grechko, 60 years old at the time of his report in the February 1991 issue of the Russian newspaper Completely Secret, confirmed Gagarin was the first man in space. Korolev died in 1966.

    Hero's end. Seven years after his historic 1961 flight, Yuri Gagarin and co-pilot Vladimir Seryogin were training for the spaceflight called Soyuz 3. They had just taken off from a ground field in a MiG-15 training airplane on March 27, 1968, when they were killed in a crash.

    Gagarin, 34 years old when he died, was training for a second space flight to include the first docking of two orbiting capsules. Seryogin was a senior test pilot and decorated military hero who had flown more than 200 aircraft combat missions during World War II.

    Vladimir Shatalov, now head of cosmonaut training, replaced Gagarin on the future docking flight, eventually piloting Soyuz 4 in 1969.

    Gagarin and Seryogin may have received a bad weather forecast for their March 27 flight. The wind was extra gusty as they flew their MiG-15 at high speed between two cloud layers at relatively low altitude. The MiG-15 was fitted with two extra fuel tanks which may have made it less stable. There may have been nearly a head-on collision. Marks on a pressure gauge showed the cockpit had depressurized before the MiG-15 hit the ground.

    Dangerous Proximity. Apparently, a minute after Gagarin and Seryogin took off in their MiG-15, a pair of faster MiG-21 jets took to the air, overtaking the smaller plane. They were followed a minute later by a second MiG-15 whose pilot didn't see the MiG-15 carrying Gagarin and Seryogin. The two planes were brought "in dangerous proximity to each other" less than 1,640 feet apart, according to a team of investigators in 1987.

    Callsign 625. The radio callsign of Gagarin's plane was 625. "One can conclude that 625 got on the tail of 614 and was following it," the Soviet newspaper Pravda said. "Finding itself in the trailing vortex of the aircraft in front, the plane piloted by Gagarin and Seryogin got into a spin." The crew tried to stabilize the plane but didn't have enough time to avoid the crash.

    The clouds probably prevented the pilot from seeing the horizon. His maneuver to prevent dive and spin while leveling off -- the downward deflection of the aileron on a dropping wing to prevent the aircraft from going into a spin -- led to wing stall and spin. The entire accident happened in a brief moment. Gagarin and Seryogin did what they could to level off in bad weather but low altitude and lack of time didn't allow them to prevent the crash, Moscow's Novosti Press Agency commented in 1989.

    A computer simulation of the crash by an official review commission re-enacted the last stage of flight. The commission concluded, "The plane went into a spin characterized by maximal energy loss. Subsequently it recovered from the spin after which the aircraft ploughed into the ground." Either Gagarin's MiG-15 fell into the vortex wake of another aircraft or else it banked sharply to avoid hitting another plane or an instrument probe, the computer simulation showed.

    Intoxication rumors. Official silence clouded the circumstances of Gagarin's death for two decades. Rumors had included one in which the pilots were said to be intoxicated at the time of the crash.

    A 1987 investigation uncovered air safety violations in the 1968 exercise, but, in 1989, Novosti said, "The commission's findings unequivocally showed that careless flying or lack of discipline on the part of the crew, as well as a ground-control negligent attitude or someone's malicious intent, were ruled out as possible causes for the disaster."

    "The crew's actions aimed at regaining level flight were correct in the highest degree," the investigation report noted. "The pilots retained their capacity for work to the end of the flight, skillfully and efficiently piloting the aircraft."

    On the far side of the Moon, a crater was named in Yuri Gagarin's honor.



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