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The First Man in Space

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On October 18, 1941, Germans occupied Klushino village when Yuri Gagarin was 7 years old, as they prepared to siege Moscow with a 3000km front in World War II. His family was forced to relocate to live in a new mud hut of only 3m x 3m size in a nearby area where the Nazi army could easily watch their movements. In that spring, his only sister Zoya and elder brother Valentin were abducted by the SS guard (paramilitary army led by the Nazi party) to deport them to Germany as prisoners, but luckily they escaped as the train that was used to deport prisoners commandeered to divert its course. His parents believed the army had killed their children. His grieving father had to spend the remainder of the war in hospital due to his serious injuries due to the beatings of the Nazi Army.

Yuri’s fascination with the pilot first came to light in his early life when a dogfight between two German Messerschmitts and two Russian Yak broke out, and one of the yaks crashed down yielding the yak completely out of shape with the injured pilot. Subsequently, a Polikarpov PO-2 came down to ensure the pilot didn’t fall into German hands. They eventually fell asleep, freezing and battered, and awoke early the next morning to see Yuri gazing at them.

At the age of sixteen, he left to avoid being a burden on his impoverished family and enrolled in a school incorporated by Lyubertsy Steel Plant in Moscow where he learned the skills of a foundryman. He was selected for training in a technical school in Saratov due to his excellent performance in that school. He graduated from Saratov Technical School with an “Excellent” grade in the spring of 1955, when he was 21 years old. He came across an advertisement for Aeroclub in that city and applied to be admitted a few days later. Dmitry Martyanov, the club’s war-veteran chief of training, offered Gagarin a short ride for the first time with canvas-clad YAK-18 and they went up to 1500m high with 100kmph. With the recommendation of Martyanov, Yuri signed up for Pilots’ School at Orenburg, a training center for military fliers. He achieved the rank of sergeant in February 1956 and took almost a year to make his first solo flight in a MIG-15. On October 4, 1957, Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite Sputnik-1, but he was more worried about his final exam at the pilot school. After graduation from Orenberg with honor, his first posting was  Nikel airbase on the northernmost tip of Murmansk on a reconnaissance mission flying a MIG-15 jet.

In 1959, an unannounced recruit representative arrived at Nikel Airbase, forcing a group of base applicants to attend the medical screening and several secret interviews with the recruit. From 2200 initial applicants throughout the Soviet Union, only 20 cosmonauts were chosen for a classified mission, one of whom was 26-year-old, Yuri Gagarin. Their early education for the mission consisted mostly of scholarly and physical labor at various institutions. A special training center for cosmonauts was founded in January 1960, where they underwent extreme physical training as well as psychological training such as inflicted trauma, stress, isolation, and exhaustion. One of the tasks was, they had to solve math and intelligence problems in an isolated chamber with negative and positive pressure at different times. Then they had to stay in that room without any book, magazine, or any interaction with the outside world, this session could long for 8 or 10 days. The light of the room was deliberately switched on and off abruptly to habituate them with irregular sleep patterns. In a whirling centrifuge, they were also exposed to unnerving artificial g-force ( 10-12xg). Though the rest of the world was unaware that the Soviet Union was planning a holy mission, Yuri was more focused on the reward of going into orbit, and he passed these arduous exams as well as many other infamous pieces of training without injury.

The chief designer Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, whose name was kept secret by the Soviet Union at the time, made a significant contribution not only to the development of Yuri Gagarin we know today but also to the reformation of the Soviet aerospace industry to win the space race and stay atop of the cold war. He began his career as an aircraft engineer in 1938, but due to anti-Stalinist views, he was imprisoned and sentenced to ten years in prison. But immediately after his fall against the invading Nazis, he was released and allowed to go back to his profession. Throughout the 1950s in the regime of Nikhita Khrushchev, he developed very advanced rockets and missiles with his amazing energy and dedication, alongside several other engineers who also developed powerful propulsion engines that the world had ever seen. By 1956, he took secure control of his industrial empire, the heart of which was a secret factory facility in Kaliningrad, just north-east of Moscow, known only as the Special Design Bureau-1 (OKB-1). He designed the worlds’ first intercontinental missile launcher (ICBM) Semeyorka (also known as little seven) was a dual-purpose R7 missile rocket launcher with four drop-away side-slung liquid oxygen and kerosene-fueled boosters. The first two launches of the R-7 failed, but on August 3, 1957, it flew successfully in a simulated ICBM trajectory, then began its career as a space launcher just two months later, on October 4, by launching ‘Sputnik’, the world’s first artificial satellite. They sent the dog Laika to space by Sputnik II on November 3 of the same year. This was a clear and stunning message to NASA that the Soviet space effort was heading the right way.

When it came to the candidate selection for the manned space mission out of 20 in the late autumn of 1959, Gagarin made a good impression on Korolev in the beginning. Korolev once asked Gagarin to tell about his life and family, and Korolev listened to him for almost 10 minutes forgetting about others in a session. They were escorted to OKB-1 where they would see several Vostok positioned according to the state of completion. Each space ship holds a detachable sphere to its’ top to carry crew beyond the atmosphere. They had to attend lectures where they would learn the functionalities of different components of the ship and the difference with the MIG aircraft. Korolev often took the cosmonauts to have closer look at one of the ground test ships fitted with the same equipment that will be used in actual flight.

The Soviet’s most prominent launch station was built in Baikonur ( a city of Kazakhaztan) as it is closer to the equator to take advantage of the west to the east rotation of the earth to add more energy to the departing rocket. Until 1973, no American had ever seen this location, although their reconnaissance plane, the U-2, was shot down in May-1, 1960, on its way to take a picture of the launchpad. In that year, a probe called Mars I was hurriedly designed and launched from this pad by an R-7 rocket, but it failed after climbing 120 kilometers due to a design flaw. It was accompanied by the problem of reserving liquid oxygen for a long time; R-7 needs recurring replenishment as time passes; to solve this problem, they engineered a new R-16 that can store oxygen for an extended period of time. But there was another issue: liquid fuel is extremely corrosive, which resulted in the deaths of 190 ground crew members due to a command error and corrosion leakage. Gagarin and his fellow cosmonauts were told that was a prototype missile and several technicians were injured, though the truth was an open secret. Another cosmonaut died in his high altitude isolation training due to a fire break out in that oxygen-filled chamber. Another appalling technical limitation was, they weren’t able to provide a sensation of weightlessness for a long time. The cosmonauts were trained in a lift falling freely from a 28 story building for 3 or 4 seconds. Korolev knew this was a psychological barrier for the Vostok space program, but the dread remained unconquered. Korolev’s planners proposed a suborbital trajectory after considering all the potential failures and the possibility of losing the astronaut in space permanently orbiting dead, but he made it known that he needs to surpass Americans by a large margin and set the World Aviation Altitude Record. The guidance system of Vostok was completely automatic, with no need for the crewman to control the spacecraft on his own. It will be controlled from the ground station, but in case of emergency the pilot can take over by pressing a secret code on a six-digit keypad. The prototype of Vostok was launched May 15, 1960, spiraled out of control and lost. Korolev’s team modified the Vostok capsule in the hope of better results and also boarded two dogs, Chaika and Lisichka. However, it failed this time as well, exploding into pieces shortly after the launch. On August 19, on their third trial, they found slight nourishment of sending the first human into space. Another two dogs were boarded this time, and R-7 successfully launched with the Vostok capsule and returned to Earth after a sub-orbital flight. On September 19, 1960, the Communist Party accepted Korolev’s formal call for human flight. After Zvyozdochka, the last dog to complete a safe flight, another life-size dummy named Ivan Ivanovich successfully landed on Earth after attempting a space flight. Vostok is ready for the real pilot, according to Korolev.

For the final run, they decided to keep Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov. Vostok’s ejector seat with little space could afford only one crew at a time. Gagarin’s short frame made him ideal, as did Titov. The flight is scheduled for April 12, but they wouldn’t disclose who would be the first man who will work as a backup. Korolev was swaying between the safety of the pilot and the extra weight penalty for the spacesuit. They thought Vostok’s pressure shell would be enough to protect its pilot until later on, they designed a spacesuit with its own life support system. On April 7 Titov and Gagarin were summoned to the launch pad to inspect equipment in detail and rehearse how to get off the pad if a fire broke out. On April 9 they were led to an office to uncover that Gagarin was to be the commander and Titov his back-up. The decision was unquestionably taken at the highest level. Yuri was born into a peasant family similar to Khrushchev’s. Yuri’s reach to the highest height would validate Khrushchev’s rise to power from the same origin. Besides, Titov was more reserved and less cheerful, not as engaging as Yuri.

At 5.00 in the morning of April 11, the doors of the main assembly shed rolled open and the R-7, with Vostok on its nose, trundled into the pre-dawn chill, supported horizontally on a hydraulic platform mounted on a railcar. All the preparations for launching and controlling from the ground were completed by the time. On April 12, Korolev visited them early in the morning to ask about their sleep, the wonder of becoming the first man in space, and also the uncertainty of death, is it possible for a man to get a full night’s sleep! His reaction, on the other hand, was positive. Then they both had gone through a final medical check-up before launch. After breakfast, when the doctors had finished with their pads and glue, the cosmonauts were driven across to the main spacecraft assembly building. The huge construction floor for the Vostok was empty. The technicians had dressed Titov first, and Yuri second, so that the First Cosmonaut would spend less time between here and the launch pad overheating in his suit. A matching pair of cosmonauts, the same sort of age, at the same peak of physical fitness, with the same hard slog of medical endurance and procedural training behind them. It could be either one of them going up today, but by some ridiculous anomaly of fate, it was going to be Gagarin. They were transported to the launch gantry by bus. Yuri said his goodbyes as he exited the bus and climbed to the Vostok 1 capsule. At 9:00 am (Moscow time) Vostok 1 left the launch pad to make 27-year-old Yuri Gagarin The First Man in Space. Within nine minutes after liftoff, the launch rocket was jettisoned from the Vostok capsule and reached 203 miles above the earth. He had orbited earth with 8 km/s (28000kmph) for almost 108 minutes. At 10:25 am (Moscow time) the retro-rocket began its deceleration burn precisely on time and at above 7 km Yuri ejected from the spacecraft and landed on earth safely.

Author: Khokon Chandra Sazzal

Policy Advocate, Mars Society Bangladesh

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