Mr. Gagarin's Wild Ride

Yuri Gagarin was a stone cold cosmonaut; landing his Vostok-1 capsule even after it failed to separate upon reentry, started into a high-G spin, and then blew its exit hatch 7,000m up. Starman has all the harrowing details here.

Most published accounts state that Gagarin's descent to earth went smoothly, without serious incident. Gagarin himself was always careful to support this version of events. His official account of the flight, The Road to the Stars, contains only a hint of trouble, so fleeting that it was entirely overlooked by Western experts:

The braking rockets turned on automatically…I ceased being weightless, and the growing g-loads pressed me into my seat. These grew and grew, and were heavier than at take-off. The craft began to revolve and I told ground control about it. The turning I had worried about soon stopped and the descent went on normally."

The turning I had worried about . . . The only opportunity Gagarin had to tell the truth, formally at least, was when he testified to a special State Committee, headed as always by Korolev, Kamanin and Keldysh. This meeting was a private opportunity for the cosmonaut to report candidly on Vostok's overall engineering performance during the flight. It was not considered appropriate to release any sensitive technical details to outsiders. Certainly there was no need for Gagarin to tell the world that he could have been killed.

Just before re-entry the ball's main linkages with the rear equipment module separated correctly, but the umbilical cable, with its dense bundle of electrical wires that transferred power and data to the ball, did not come away cleanly. For several minutes the ball and the rear module remained tied together, like a pair of boots with their laces inadvertently knotted. The whole ensemble tumbled end over end in its headlong rush to earth.

The ball was weighted with a special bias, so that the thicker layer of heat shielding at Gagarin's back would swing round naturally of its own accord to face the super-hot onrush of the earth's atmosphere. With the equipment module corrupting the air flow and distorting the proper mass distribution, this alignment was no longer possible. ‘The craft began to rotate rapidly. I was like an entire corps de ballet,' Gagarin reported to the secret State Committee. ‘I waited for the separation but there wasn't any. When the braking rocket shut down, all the indicator lights on the console went out. Then they lit up again. There was no separation whatever. I decided that something was wrong. The craft's rotation was beginning to slow, but it was about all three axes, ninety degrees to the right, to the left . . . I felt the oscillations of the craft and the burning of the coating. I don't know where the sound of crackling was coming from. Either the structure was cracking, or the thermal cladding was expanding as it heated, but it was audibly crackling. I felt the temperature was getting high.'

The heat of re-entry created an ionization layer around the ball, and no voice radio messages could get through. Korolev and his ground controllers probably did not become fully aware of Gagarin's problem until after he had landed. Atmospheric heating eventually burned through the cable and separated the rogue equipment module, but the effect was to sling the ball away at a tangent with an additional sickening spin. At one point the rotation was so severe that Gagarin began to lose consciousness. ‘The indicators on the instrument panels became fuzzy, and everything seemed to go grey.'

Perhaps the State Committee's discussions of this problem did not come soon enough for the engineers to make suitable adaptations, ahead of Gherman Titov's mission? At any event, he survived a similar difficulty when he flew on August 6, 1961. Gagarin's post-flight description of the separation failure was perfectly calm, quite relaxed, but Titov says that if his own experience was anything to go by, he must have wondered: ‘Which is stronger, the capsule or the other module? Which will break first? You switch on all the recorders and transmitters, to try and report in case you don't make it. You see the little earth globe rotating, and the clocks still running, which means information is still coming from the equipment module through the cables. The capsule rotates very fast. Then there's a huge shaking. Both compartments are hitting each other. Is it scary? That's an interesting question. I could have been scorched, but so what? Similar things have happened.'

At last Gagarin heard denser air whistling past the ball and his whirlwind rotation became less severe. Outside the charred porthole he saw pale blue sky. He was shaken, but any minute now he knew that further stresses awaited him. At seven kilometers' altitude the hatch above his head blew away. The noise was terrible. The cabin seemed suddenly so very open, so exposed. According to Gagarin's published account, he wondered for a crazy moment: ‘Was that me? Did I eject just then?'

His account does not quite square with the recollection of Vladimir Yazdovsky, Korolev's Director of Medical Preparations, and a member of the ground-control team at the time. He remembers Gagarin triggering the ejection himself.

The entire procedure was supposed to be automatic. When the pressure sensors registered an atmospheric pressure consistent with an altitude of seven kilometers, Gagarin would come shooting out of the ball, and at four kilometers, the ejection seat's propulsion pack and large parachute canopy would fall away, releasing him so that he could descend more gently under his smaller personal parachute. If his seat did not fire at the right time of its own accord, then he had the option of triggering the ejection himself, but he was not supposed to do this without good reason.

Mr. Gagarin's Wild Ride

As the ball began to slow down in the denser atmosphere and the heat of the initial re-entry faded away, Gagarin's radio link with ground control was restored. According to Yazdovsky, ‘He reported that the g-loads were still very heavy, and they were pulling him in different directions. We said, "Hang on in there." We suggested to him not to eject too soon, but he ejected early, from an undefined height.' It seems that the ground controllers were unaware of the separation problem that Gagarin had encountered earlier and did not realize why he was complaining about excess spin and g-loading. Perhaps Gagarin did not have time to explain in greater detail; or perhaps he knew that he should not discuss the separation problem over the voice link, in case any Western listening posts were eavesdropping. The dialogue in this very last phase of the mission has never been published, but the historian Philip Clarke believes that the ball might still have been rotating at an uncomfortable rate, long after the equipment module had finally separated. Gagarin's decision to eject early was not necessarily a panic reaction. He may have believed that the spinning of his capsule would interfere with his ejection, and the sooner he attempted it, the better.

In the event, Gagarin's ejection and touchdown went smoothly. As soon as the ejection seat's rocket charges were spent, a large parachute canopy unfurled to slow down his fall. Then the seat fell away, as planned, leaving him to drift more gently to the ground under his own parachute.

***

Baikonur's morning was Washington's night. At 1.07 Eastern Standard Time, American radar stations recorded the launch of an R-7 rocket, and fifteen minutes later a radio monitoring post in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska detected unmistakable signs of live dialogue with a cosmonaut. White House science advisor Jerome Wiesner called President Kennedy's press secretary Pierre Salinger with the news. Salinger had already prepared a statement for Kennedy to read out. The President had gone to bed a few hours earlier with a sense of foreboding. Wiesner asked him whether he wanted to be woken as soon as the rocket was launched? ‘No,' the President answered wearily. ‘Give me the news in the morning.'

At 5.30 a.m. Washington time, the Moscow News radio channel announced Gagarin's successful landing and recovery. An alert journalist called NASA's launch centre in Florida to ask if America could catch up. Press officer John ‘Shorty' Powers was trying to catch a few hours' rest in his cramped office cot. He and many other NASA staffers were working 16-hour days in the lead-up to astronaut Alan Shepard's first flight in a Mercury capsule. When the phone at his side rang in the pre-dawn silence, he was irritable and unprepared. ‘Hey, what is this!' he yelled into the phone. ‘We're all asleep down here!' Next morning the headlines read: ‘Soviets put man in space. Spokesman says US asleep.'

On the afternoon of April 12, President Kennedy held a press conference in Washington.

Normally a self confident and eloquent public performer, he seemed distinctly less sure of himself than usual. He was asked, ‘Mr. President, a member of Congress today said he was tired of seeing the United States coming second to Russia in the space field. What is the prospect that we will catch up?' ‘However tired anybody may be – and no one is more tired than I am – it is going to take some time. The news will be worse before it gets better. We are, I hope, going to go into other areas where we can be first, and which will bring perhaps more long range benefits to mankind. But we are behind.'

Top art courtesy of the Associated Press

Mr. Gagarin's Wild Ride

Piers Bizony is author of the award-winning 2001: Filming the Future a detailed account of the making of Stanley Kubrick's film.
Jamie Doran of Atlantic Celtic Films is an international award-winning documentary producer.

Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin is available from Amazon.com