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The 108 minutes that changed the world


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kislyakov.)

 On April 12, 1961, all ears were turned to radios as Union Radio director Yuri Levitan, in his famous voice that became a symbol of Soviet victories, said: "the Soviet Union has orbited Earth's ever-first satellite vehicle, the Vostok, with a man onboard. The Vostok is piloted by Major Yury Alekseyevich Gagarin, a citizen of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics."

Thus TASS, the official Soviet news agency, announced forty-five years ago what even today, in an era when space flights are treated as something useful and necessary but no longer fascinating, still sends powerful echoes throughout Earth's space history.

This is what people all over the world know. What they hardly know is that the backside of the ever-first manned space operation was probably as dramatic as anything that stands on the cutting edge of progress. For thousands of people, those first 108 minutes in space, marked by Gagarin's triumphal if ostensibly business-as-usual "Off we go" when the launch vehicle lifted off, meant 24/7 work for years, unprecedented pressure, unexpected casualties, and enormous sacrifice.


Despite the fact the Soviet Chief Designers' Board upheld a proposal from Sergei Korolyov, the head of the Soviet space program at the time, to begin the design of what was termed then as a "manned satellite" in November 1958, top Soviet leaders were unable to look beyond the post-WWII political posture. While agreeing with their American rivals that one man in space was worth a hundred armor divisions or a dozen ballistic missiles on the ground, they still funded the latter heavily and seemed to treat the former as superfluous.

This suggested that a manned program could only be approved if submitted in one package with a military effort. A turning point where military, political, and scientific interests came together (God save America, space designers were joking) came rather fast as NASA, then existent for less than a year, successfully recovered space images from its Discovery satellite.

Seen - and for a good reason - as a fresh opportunity for unrivaled intelligence, the announcement spurred the Soviet leadership to pay more attention to space. In May 1959, the government gave Korolyov a top-secret order to begin the design of an automatic spy satellite. Feeling a moment of truth for his Big Dream, Korolyov went through circles of red tape, bravely putting at stake his reputation and prominent position in Soviet society, to make sure that the order included one additional paragraph: "...and a satellite designed for a manned flight." These seven small words would soon change the world.

This was a crucial move for times when nobody actually new anything about how space affects human beings. The medical community was as divided about this as they were confused: some looked at a space mission as at something similar to high-altitude aircraft piloting, others warned humans could go simply mad in a null-gravity environment.

The first experiment with dogs in less than a year, July 28, 1960, ended in a disaster. The 8K72 with Chaika and Lisichka onboard lifted off well but exploded after 23 seconds. The death of two mongrels (well-bred dogs, ironically, turned out not to be sturdy and intelligent enough for space flights) later led to the concept of a safe re-entry capsule, which on August 19 of the same year safely brought Belka and Strelka, the two dog pilots of the 1K No. 2 mission, back home from the orbit.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin was again agitated by alarming news from overseas. Russian intelligence found that the U.S. was able to accomplish a Mercury suborbital manned mission as early as in 1961, which encouraged Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to sign his "Document 10/11," an October 11, 1960 order, that gave manned space projects the highest priority. With the successful Belka/Strelka mission under the belt, a manned flight was planned as early as December 1960. Just another dog flight, and it will be the off-we-go time, Soviet engineers thought. If only they knew what a horrible tragedy was to delay the triumph for half a year. Compared to what happened at the Baikonur Space Center on October 24, the two unsuccessful automatic missions to Mars in late September, deplorable as they were, would seem child's play.

On that day, Baikonur was preparing a new intercontinental ballistic missile for a test launch. After fuelling, a specialist found a minor fault in one of the engines. An "all fuel out" command was requested but the commander-in-chief of the missile force Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, in fear of retribution for what could be labeled as the "disruption of a strategic mission" and in defiance of strictest instructions from the designer Mikhail Yangel, ordered to begin repairs while the highly aggressive fuel and oxidizer were still in tanks.

Dozens of engineers rushed to the missile, climbing by the mobile service towers at the necessary level. Nedelin was sitting on a stool 20 meters away from the launch platform, anxiously giving orders. When the 30-minute countdown began, the onboard command device - hardly anyone will ever be able to tell why - started the second-stage engine.

Dozens of people evaporated in the white-hot gas jet in a matter of seconds. The commander himself was identified by a Hero of the Soviet Union Medal found at the scene. The tragedy was one of those in which most affected people don't escape alive - 126 were killed and 50 injured or heavily burnt.

Five weeks later, the otherwise successful December 1 Pchyolka/Mushka re-entry was mispositioned in the high atmosphere due to a failure in the retropack. The capsule with, militarily speaking, "top-secret equipment" was going to land outside of the U.S.S.R. Some officer at a control center underground pushed the self-destruct button, hopefully not knowing what he was doing - smashing the capsule, killing both dogs, and driving the last nail into a plan to make a manned mission before 1961.

Off We Go

There are thousands of accounts on the opening of the space era, which came five months later, on April 12, 1961. Some are credible, to an extent. However, as it went with most of Soviet space activity, few people were aware of what was going on behind the scenes.

The liftoff and orbiting were successful enough - terrible jolts, deafening noise, and suffocating g-load did not count, as the cosmonaut had been trained to withstand them on Earth - but the first flight is always different. Engineers warned that an ink pen would not work without gravity but who could think that the lead pencil would fly somewhere so that Gagarin could not find it; the tape recorder stopped; the downlink turned out to have so much room for improvement that waving hands into the viewport seemed a better solution.

And then the chief danger surfaced.

The spacecraft turned out to be orbited much higher than planned. Under the emergency scenario (if automatic deceleration failed), the Vostok was to spiral down to the Earth slowly within a week because all re-entry calculations were based on the 247-km (154 miles) apogee altitude, typical for previous unmanned missions. Accordingly, all life support systems had a week's reserve. Gagarin's apogee was 50 miles higher (327 km), and, if anything went wrong, he would have to spend minimum 15 days in space, dying of thirst and lack of oxygen.

Small lies that led to big confusion

On the technical side, it all went smoothly. The return capsule re-entered as planned. Gagarin successfully ejected and parachuted safely from 1,500 m, opening the first great chapter in the space history of mankind.

It was because of ideology that he was to wake up as a national hero, the first man in space -- and be labeled as a space liar for the rest of his life.

Soviet ideologists could not dream of going into space. They hardly knew what a space rocket was. But what they claimed to know well enough was that a picture of a parachute touchdown was derogatory for what they termed as the Great Soviet Space Breakthrough. And they immediately closed down all information relating to Gagarin's landing, ordering him to lie that he had landed inside the capsule.

The truth came out in 1964, as the Soviet media reported that the three-man Voskhod crew was the first mission ever to return inside the capsule. The rest of the world caught on to this, turning the how-did-you-land-Mr.-Gagarin question into an Earth's first cosmonaut's worst nightmare.

This was where the Soviet besieged-fortress paranoia made real damage. All space issues declared a top state secret, rumors unsurprisingly became the main source of information. Across the world, this led to sometimes funny but often embarrassing speculations. Gagarin's space mission, unfortunately, followed into the well-oiled groove of spinning public gossip around great accomplishments. One huge rumor about the Soviet space story was that the military had allegedly covered up the names of dozens of pilots who died in failed launch attempts.

In fact, it began long before the Vostok flight. In December 1959, Continental, an Italian news agency, cited a well-known Czech communist accusing the Soviets of covering up a series of failed space launches in November 1957-June 1959, which allegedly claimed three lives. This one, though, followed many other "world sensations" -- like a report about the explosion of a Soviet ready-to-launch moon-headed spacecraft at a mystery Siberian space center of Sputnikgrad (I wish I knew where it was!) - into the dustbin of history.

Another example proving that, whatever other professional skills, Western media could at least be credited with vivid imagination, came in October 1959, after the Soviet magazine Ogonyok published photos of test pilots Belokonev, Kachur, Grachev, Zavadsky, and Mikhailov. Something - maybe it was the pilots' gear - misled the Associated Press into believing that the people in the photos were future cosmonauts. They turned out so addicted to the idea that, when none of the five names had surfaced in the media until the Gagarin flight, AP reported the five to be dead and even invented a bloodcurdling story for each "victim of the Soviet space machine."

Khrushchev who, frankly, rather liked to show off, poured more oil into the flames by warning the Americans of something they had never seen before. Hearing his boastful promises and backed by CIA reports and by evidence from an escaped Russian naval officer, the Americans were anticipating something in the space department on September 27, 1960. TASS remained tight-lipped through the day, though, which immediately raised rumors of another tragedy - and another dead pilot.

What really happened was that two Molniya launch vehicles with the first 1M automatic Mars exploration station onboard exploded in flight, a failure turned into a lesson that ultimately led to the Gagarin success.

Indeed, the Vostok mission was far from a black-and-white enterprise. It has many shadows, some of which we still know little about. But like spent fuel tanks falling off from the advancing rocket, the peelings of rumors and speculations are being left behind. Now, looking at fading 50-year-old images, we can hear Levitan's confident and accomplished voice reverberating in our minds:

"The satellite vehicle has begun free orbital revolution around the Earth..."

And this is what counts.

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