by Neil Treby
On the morning of April 12th 1961 at a place called Baikonur in what is now Kazakhstan, a young man who no-one had ever heard of was strapped tightly into a machine over which he had no real control; in which no-one had ever travelled before, and which was so dangerous, so literally explosive that were anything to go wrong it would have destroyed not only the machine and its occupant but also the entire launch facility. Happily all went well and within the space of 108 minutes the man, whose name was Yuri Gagarin, had become one of the most famous people in the world.
And so began the history of human spaceflight. On that day Gagarin became the first human ever to travel into space. In his spaceship, Vostok 1, he travelled around the world just once at a speed of over 17,000 miles an hour. The spaceship, still going too fast and lacking retro-rockets landed with something of a bump and a bounce. Gagarin meanwhile came back to earth safely and serenely by parachute, having ejected at about 20,000 feet.
He was the first person, although not the first living thing to travel aloft. Both the Soviet Union and the United States had already experimented by sending dogs, monkeys and the odd rabbit up into the void. Many came back, but not all. The rockets had a nasty habit of blowing up on the launch pad or on their way into orbit and there were all manner of catastrophic failures that could happen with the machinery itself or the life-support system, or just something that hadn’t been thought of. No-one knew whether the conditions in orbit might disorient someone so much that they wouldn’t be able to function, or even survive. Maybe there was ‘something’ (never clearly defined) ‘up there’ that might infect a person, frazzle them with radioactivity perhaps, or just send them crazy. The early Cosmonauts and Astronauts have a well-earned reputation for bravery. They were being asked to sit on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile pressurised to bursting point with novel and dangerous types of fuel and just, well….hope for the best. And all on basic Army or Air Force pay.
Early Cosmonauts (if they were Russian) and Astronauts (American) had been selected from their respective Air Forces. They had been either civilian or military pilots, well-versed in decision making under stress and, crucially, unquestioningly responsive to orders. The one thing that they wouldn’t be expected to do though was actually fly their machines. All being well that would happen automatically, under control from the ground. The so-called pilots in these early missions were, rather, massively over-qualified passengers and while the early American astronauts fought the designers (with only gradual success) for some element of pilot control to be factored in – the more obedient Soviets had little or none.
Space mania didn’t begin with the Gagarin flight, sensational though that was. It had begun four years earlier, on October 4th 1957 with the launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik. That was Russian too. Even though it was just a small metal sphere with an aerial and all it did was circle the world once every 90 minutes and beep, it was considered an awesome piece of technology. The Soviet Union, a political institution that the West considered to be financially poor and technologically backward had beaten the sophisticated and rich Americans into space. And the principal point focussing everyone’s minds in the West was that if the Russians had the technology to put a rocket into orbit then they had the technology to bring it down pretty much anywhere on the globe that they wished – and it wouldn’t be just a beeping ball, or a dog or a cat or a rabbit descending from the heavens, but in all likelihood a nuclear weapon. As the space race began the American sense of invulnerability from mainland attack, which they’d taken for granted for the previous 150 years, vanished overnight.
And now the Gagarin flight seemed to underline the apparent Soviet technological mastery. The Americans had been about to put their own man in space but had decided on one last test flight just to be sure and in that time the sneaky Russians had stolen their thunder. The same thing would happen again and again over the coming years. Just as the Americans were about to do something novel and impressive in space the Russians would suddenly seem to jump two steps ahead and amaze the world.
It was that sense of constantly being beaten in those early years that led the Americans to decide to go to the moon. Shortly after the first American spaceflight, which happened just a month after Gagarin’s, when Alan Shephard became the first American in space with a brief 15 minute up-and-down suborbital hop (of which only 5 minutes were actually spent in space) the Americans sat down to work out how they could beat the Russians at anything at all to do with space. The only thing that they could realistically hope to achieve first was to send people to the Moon. A mission that momentous would take years to plan and would involve developing novel technology and would cost so much (over 20 billion Dollars by 1960’s prices) that at last the Americans would have the advantage, because the one thing that The United States had that the Soviet Union didn’t was money.
In truth the apparent Russian lead in space technology didn’t really exist. It appeared to, largely because their development happened in utmost secrecy whereas the American successes, and more often it seemed their failures, happened with the world looking on, often live on television. And so when the Russians launched a two and even an three-person capsule, or launched two rockets at the same time to orbit in formation, or put the first woman into space, or conducted the first spacewalk, it seemed that they knew more and could do more and were simply smarter and better. What we now think of as the space race was largely a political exercise in projecting supremacy to the watching world through advances in technology. In terms of propaganda the Russians certainly were smarter, hiding their disasters and announcing their successes dramatically mid-mission. However, while the Americans developed slowly and safely, the Russians seemed to be ahead because they simply took more risks. When the Americans wanted to put two people into space they developed an entirely new spacecraft; when the Russians did it they simply gutted their one-person spacecraft, squeezed another passenger in and hoped for the best.
By the mid 1960’s it was becoming apparent that the Americans were moving relentlessly ahead. As far as the race to the Moon was concerned the Russians had quickly realised that they couldn’t compete. They had intended to send a manned spacecraft on a slingshot around the Moon without landing, purely to upstage the American effort, but constant rocket booster problems and the sheer expense made it impossible. When they had been entertaining the notion of a moon mission, one of the Cosmonauts they had thought to send was none other than Yuri Gagarin. Unhappily Gagarin didn’t live long enough to see anyone heading for the Moon. He was killed when the MIG 15 plane he was flying in crashed in 1968, only months before Apollo 8 first orbited the Moon and just over a year before the Americans finally won their (self-defined) space race by landing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in 1969.
But the Russians too had, to all intents and purposes, won their own space race back in the late 1950s and early 1960’s when they startled the world again and again with their trailblazing heroics. And Yuri Gagarin was the person at the centre of their greatest triumph.
Should you wish to learn more on this or related subjects the Reader Services section, based on Floor 2 of the Library of Birmingham, keep a wide range of books, both historical and contemporary, on the history of rocketry, space exploration and the politics of the Cold War.
Neil Treby, Senior Library Assistant, Reader Services