Vostok 1 was the first in a series of space missions undertaken by the Soviet Union. It consisted of a Vostok 3KA spacecraft, an R-7 Vostok-K launch vehicle (a converted intercontinental ballistic missile) and one man in a SK-1 Sokol (ie Falcon) spacesuit. That man was Yuri Gagarin and, upon the successful completion of the mission, he became the first ever person to venture into space.
The aim of the mission was simple. Fire the craft into space, orbit once around Earth and then land back in Russia. The problem was that, up until then, only a single satellite – Sputnik 1 – had been inserted into orbit by the Soviet Union, with a high number of unmanned test missions between 1957 and 1961 ending in failure.
If the mission were to be a success then the launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome (now in Kazakhstan) would have to be flawless. In addition, a series of unknowns would have to be braved, with astrophysicists unsure of how a human would react to spaceflight. Gagarin was chosen for the mission from 200 candidates due to his solid grasp of astrophysics as well as his great physical conditioning – both of which would be crucial in piloting the 3KA.
The Vostok 1 mission launched at 6.07am (Universal Time ) with the booster stage firing. Two minutes later the four strapped-on boosters were jettisoned, soon followed by the protective rocket shroud covering the 3KA. Next the main rocket core stage began burning out its propellant and falling away, instigating the final rocket stage that took Gagarin into space. Just ten minutes after takeoff, the final rocket stage was released, leaving the vehicle in orbit. Gagarin reported that everything was operating normally.
The 3KA then passed over the north Pacific, before progressing past Hawaii and over the equator into the south Pacific at 6.48am. By 7.25am Gagarin and the 3KA reached the west coast of Africa, triggering the craft’s automatic re-entry system, which adjusted its orientation prior to the retro engine activating.
The 3KA’s re-entry engine fired over Angola, roughly 8,000 kilometres (5,000 miles) from the intended landing spot. During re-entry the 3KA jettisoned its instrument module and descended through Earth’s atmosphere towards Russia. Gagarin experienced extreme forces of over 8 g and, at 7.55am, the descent module was over Russia and only seven kilometres (four miles) from the surface. The passing of this altitude caused the capsule’s entry hatch to be released and its ejection seat to be fired, throwing out its occupant at high speed. Thankfully the capsule’s and Gagarin’s parachutes deployed and, ten minutes later, they’d both landed near Engels, Saratov Oblast.
Yuri Gagarin had taken off, flown around the world and touched down all in just 108 minutes.
2. 20 to 1 – In August 1960 Gagarin was one of 20 possible candidates for the Vostok 1 mission. He was chosen due to his all-round capabilities.
3. Been there, done that – Interestingly, after accomplishing his record-breaking feat, Gagarin never went into space again, instead retraining as a fighter pilot.
4. Sporty spaceman – Gagarin was a keen sportsman, playing hockey and basketball regularly.
5. Final flight – Gagarin died at just 34 in an unsolved accident while flying a MiG-15 training jet.