60 years ago, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space

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Crushed in his seat, Yuri Gagarin sees flames outside his ship and prepares to die. His voice breaks the tense silence at ground control: “I burn. Goodbye, comrades“. It will finally arise a few minutes later. Before him, no Man had ventured into space. It was sixty years ago.

If he is chosen from among the elite of Soviet fighter pilots, it is for his skills and nerves of steel. On April 12, 1961, the mission was secret. At 27, Yuri Gagarin slips into the Vostok 1, capped atop a rocket designed to propel a nuclear charge. Therefore, no one can say if he will survive. The most optimistic do not give it a chance in two.

He himself had anticipated. Two days before takeoff, Gagarin had written a farewell letter to his wife, Valentina, sharing his pride at having been chosen for this historic mission, while taking care to console her. “I trust the equipment completely, it must not let me down. But if anything happens I ask you, Valyusha, not to be broken by grief“, He wrote, calling her by his nickname.

The authorities will keep this letter to finally deliver it seven years later after the death of her husband in a plane crash. She never remarried afterwards.

A risky mission

In the early 1960s, the Soviet space program intended to ensure its domination over the United States by putting a man in space. Also, the pioneer flight of Gagarin is scheduled just after the putting into orbit of the world’s first satellite: Sputnik (in October 1957). “People slept in their offices and factory outlets, like in wartime“, Remembers the cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin who will fly five times in space.

Like Gagarin, Soviet officials had prepared for the worst. No security system had in fact been installed to save the cosmonaut in the event of an explosion on takeoff, or even afterwards. The authorities had for their part written three bulletins for the official press agency TASS: one announcing a successful theft, a second in the event of a problem and a third testifying to the worst.

Along with potential engine failures and other equipment-related malfunctions, scientists also doubted an individual’s ability to withstand the conditions of spaceflight. Many, at the time, feared that a pilot would go crazy in orbit.

In this file photo from Sunday, November 1, 1959, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin undergoes physical tests in Star City, Russia. Credits: AP file

Manhandled, Gagarin holds on and returns to Earth

Problems, Gagarin has experienced some. From its entered in Vostok 1, the indicator light confirming the closing of the flap does not come on. Two engineers are then dispatched to the site, remove several dozen screws, locate and repair a defective contact and screw everything back on just in time for the planned launch.

For its part, the orbit had been planned so that the spacecraft would descend on its own after a week in the event of an engine failure. A problem that arose during takeoff ultimately led the spacecraft to a higher orbit. In the event of an engine failure, Gagarin would never have been able to return to Earth.

While the engine was running as intended, a loss of fuel eventually pulled the ship onto an unexpected reentry path, at a higher speed than expected. For ten long minutes, Gagarin then finds himself exposed to forces that are beyond him. “There was a moment of two or three seconds when the instruments started to fade before my eyes ”, he will remember.

Gagarin is about to return to Earth. Since a soft landing system has not yet been designed, the cosmonaut ejects from the module and deploys a parachute. On the way down, he has to play with a sticky valve on his suit to start breathing outside air. It will eventually land safely in a field near the Volga in the Saratov region.

Flown to Moscow, Gagarin is greeted as a hero before being greeted by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Over the next few years, he would visit dozens of countries to celebrate his historic mission. He was finally killed in a plane crash on March 27, 1968, at the age of 34. A few months later, the United States will send their first Men to the Moon.





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