54 years ago, humanity entered space: Happy Cosmonauts Day!

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to not only rise above the Kármán Line* but to complete a full orbit of the Earth.  His spacecraft landed without him; as a precaution, all Vostok crews ejected during the parachute descent so as to avoid being injured upon impact with the ground.  Only with Voskhod did the Soviets change this practice (since increasing crew size for Voskhod eliminated the payload margin for an ejection seat apparatus).  This fact was concealed for many years out of concern it would invalidate the record — traditionally, a pilot must land with his/her craft for a record to be counted.  The truth did not come out until long after the record was established, and repeatedly broken on both sides.  In any case, it was very much an historic event.  The R-7-derived missile that boosted Vostok was adapted from the Soviet ICBM program; it was more-or-less the Soviet counterpart to the Atlas missile (which shortly would be boosting American crewed spacecraft as well).  R-7 is still a workhorse today; its modern variant is the much larger and more reliable Soyuz rocket.  Vostok, meanwhile, was adapted in part from designs for Soviet spy satellites, which is part of the reason so few details were released initially — the reentry capsule had been designed to contain an expensive camera and its film apparatus, to return autonomously gathered photographs of enemy territory.  Obviously, it worked very well, as it enabled Gagarin to survive reentry unscathed.

Gagarin would never fly in space again; his bosses forbade it on the basis that he was much too valuable a national asset to risk in any way.  He ultimately managed to fight his way back onto the roster, and was designated backup pilot for Soyuz 1.  But the cosmonaut corps was well aware with problems in the system, and knew the engineers both wanted and needed more time, but were not getting it.  Gagarin tried to pull rank to get Vladimir Komarov bumped so that he’d be prime, reasoning that they would’t risk blowing *him* up.  It didn’t work — Komarov remained the prime, and did indeed perish on the maiden flight of Soyuz, following a staggering series of failures that culminated in the fatal failure of the parachutes to deploy properly.  Gagarin died a year later in a training accident aboard a MiG-15, along with his instructor.  The details of the crash remain mysterious; it was officially ruled an accident, but as with many other famous accidents, the cause of the accident remains unclear — bird strike, attempt to avoid another aircraft flying at the incorrect altitude, disruption by the wake of a Su-15 that had gotten lost in the area due to poor weather conditions, mechanical faults, oxygen starvation to a valve possibly having been left open . . . no one will ever really know, most likely.

Famed for his cheerful disposition, broad smile, and passionate dedication to his work (sort of a more outgoing version of Neil Armstrong), Gagarin is one of those people who will be remembered long into the future, for his are two of the shoulders that future space travelers must stand upon.

 

*100 km in altitude, approximately the altitude where wings become largely useless, because you’d need to fly forward faster than orbital velocity in order to gain lift, and if you’re in orbit, it doesn’t matter anyway.

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