It was the Soviet Union’s own giant leap for mankind, one that would spur a humiliated America to race for the moon. It happened 50 years ago this Tuesday, when an air force pilot named Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.
The 27-year-old cosmonaut’s mission lasted just 108 minutes and was fraught with drama: a break in data transmission, glitches involving antennas, a retrorocket and the separation of modules. And there was an overarching question that science had yet to answer: What would weightlessness do to a human being?
“There were all kinds of wild fears that a man could lose his mind in zero gravity, lose his ability to make rational decisions,” recalls Oleg Ivanovsky, who oversaw the construction and launch of the Vostok spacecraft that carried Gagarin.
The flight was to be fully automatic, but what if weightlessness caused Gagarin to go mad and override the programmed controls? The engineers’ solution was to add a three-digit security code that the cosmonaut would have to enter to gain command of the spacecraft.
It proved unnecessary. The flight went off safely, and the handsome Russian with the big smile became a poster boy for the communist world, still a national idol 43 years after his death in a jet training accident, and remembered with enormous affection by the last surviving pioneers of the Soviet space program at Star City outside Moscow, where he trained.
The flight was limited to a single orbit because of the questions about weightlessness, and Gagarin was supposed to parachute out of the capsule on return because a soft-landing system was not ready yet.
Despite the risks, competition for the mission was strong among the 20 young pilots on the short list, and Gagarin was the favorite. Just three days before blastoff from what would later be known as the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Gagarin was told that he was chosen for the mission.
In a letter to his wife, Valentina, he asked her to raise their daughters “not as little princesses, but as real people,” and to feel free to remarry if his mission proved fatal. “My letter seems like a final will. But I don't think so and I hope you will never see this letter and I will feel shame later for that brief moment of weakness,” he wrote.
“Gagarin was aware of the fears concerning zero gravity, and he also knew about all failed launches preceding his flight,” but he never showed any fear or doubt, Ivanovsky said. On the eve of the flight, Gagarin and his backup, German Titov, went to bed early and were awakened at 5:30 am. Gagarin was joking, his pulse was an exemplary 64 beats a minute and it remained the same after he took his seat in the Vostok.
Before boarding, Gagarin saw Korolyov looking haggard after a sleepless night. “Don't you worry, Sergei Pavlovich, he told the chief designer, "everything will be just fine.”
“It was he who was comforting me!” Korolyov would marvel later. He thought of Gagarin as a son, and Gagarin carried Korolyov's picture in his wallet. The security code for use in emergency was supposed to stay in a sealed envelope for the cosmonaut to open only if necessary, but Ivanovsky was too nervous to stick with protocol. As he escorted Gagarin to the capsule, he whispered the code to him: 1-2-5. Gagarin smiled and said he already knew.