In 1972, I found myself in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and discovered I was in the company of a fellow space "nut." I found out that (not so surprisingly) a Russian kid my age had been just as thrilled about Gagarin as I had been disappointed. Guy knew a great deal about Soviet-era rocketry and as we talked, I came to the conclusion that what we had in common was FAR more interesting that what separated us--no matter what the Cold War propagandists were trying to make us believe. The Cold War pretty much ended for me that day.
So here's to Gagarin--a VERY brave man.
Revelations from Secret Documents
Soviets Risked Gagarin's Life for First Space Flight
Previously secret documents reveal that the Soviets were willing to risk the life of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in the rush to beat the Americans into space. They show a series of defects that happened during the first manned space flight on April 12, 1961 -- including Gagarin almost not being able to open the breathing valve on his spacesuit.
There was anxiety in the air at the Cosmodrome space launch facility in Baikonur. Two days before the launch on April 12, 1961, engineers discovered that the combined weight of the spacesuit, seat and Yuri Gagarin himself was 14 kilograms (31 pounds) over the allowed limit. They hurriedly removed some of the craft's electronics, including two sensors for pressure and temperature. This in turn caused a short circuit, and it took the technicians the entire night to correct the defect.
Previously secret documents reveal not only a series of malfunctions, but also Soviet leaders' willingness to risk the life of the world's first cosmonaut in their determination to beat the United States into space at any cost. Cosmonaut Yuri Baturin was recently able to view the documents in Moscow.
To save time, the Soviet space program found quick and simple solutions, which were not always optimal from a technical standpoint. There was a conscious decision, for example, not to develop emergency systems for cases of fire or launch failure. moreThe Germans had a special affection for space travel. And why not? Most of the world-class rocket scientists in both USA and USSR in those days spoke German as their mother tongue. Some comments from Sigmund Jähn--a German cosmonaut.
East German Cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn
'Capitalism Now Reigns in Space'
Sigmund Jähn was the
first German in space.
In 1978, Jähn,
at the time a lieutenant
colonel with the air force
of the communist East Germany,
orbited the Earth on
board the Soviet space station Salyut 6.
Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight. In a SPIEGEL interview, legendary East German cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn talks about what it was like being the first German in space and the future of space travel.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Jähn, on April 12, 1961, Soviet fighter pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space. Did you ever meet him in person?
Sigmund Jähn: No, I was too young. But when he died tragically seven years after his space flight, I was studying very nearby, at the Soviet Air Force's military academy. I attended the funeral service in Moscow, and I saw myself how people waited in line for hours, with tears in their eyes, to pay their respects. It was genuine grief, not propaganda.
SPIEGEL: To this day, there are various theories about Gagarin's plane crash. Was it just an accident? Or suicide? Even murder?
Jähn: Those are nothing but rumors. Anyone who has never flown a MiG-15 UTI would be better off keeping quiet. As a flight instructor, I've flown this model often and I've studied similar crashes. Even at high speeds, it's possible for the fighter jet to stall, especially in clouds. Additionally, Gagarin had hardly flown since his space flight. I agree with the conclusion that the plane was at an unstable inclination, and then there wasn't enough time to pull out of the dive. moreAnd further proof (if more was actually necessary) that the space race was mostly about the Instinct of Workmanship.
Russia Seeks to Restore Space Glory
By Benjamin Bidder and Christoph Seidler 04/12/2011
Fifty years ago, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel to space. His historic trip gave the Soviet Union the lead in manned space missions. By investing billions, Moscow wants to defend its position as a world leader in space travel. Can the Russians overcome a spate of technical glitches and modernize their space program?
On April 10, 1961, a 27-year-old father reached for a pen and paper. To prepare for his journey, Yuri Gagarin began writing a farewell letter to his wife and daughters. "Some accident may happen here too ... I ask you all ... not to waste yourself with grief," he wrote. Two days later, he became the first man in history to orbit the world in a spaceship. The Vostok, meaning "East" in Russian, flew in space for 108 minutes.
Half a century ago, Gagarin's spaceflight kicked off the era of human space travel. The mission, in which the radio call sign "cedar" was used, propelled the Soviet Union to the forefront of the space race for manned flights. Despite temporary lapses, today's Russia has managed to retain a leading position in space travel.
"If you are going to be at all, then be first," Gagarin wrote in what, fortunately, turned out to be a premature farewell letter. The sentence has become a motto for a whole generation of Soviet space pioneers. The supremacy of communist rockets was established from out of the ruins of a war-torn country. Particularly at the start of the space program, under the leadership of Sergei Korolyov who once said that "anyone can build complicated things," they notched up one record after another. They put the first satellite and the first dog in orbit -- the unfortunate Laika, who paid for her first flight with her life. Then the first man in space, then the first woman, then they oversaw the completion of the first spacewalk. The West was traumatized and filled with consternation.
Gagarin's early death in 1968 when his Mig 15 training jet crashed came as a shock for the Soviets. His death came only a short time after that of Soviet space program mastermind Korolyov, who perished during a poorly performed routine operation in 1966. On top of those losses, the Soviets were beaten in the race to put the first man on the Moon in 1969. But the legacy of the Soviet rocket pioneers helped to return them to a position of supremacy in space once again. In addition to largely robust technology, this was attributable what has arguably been a lack of interest on the part of the Americans and, perhaps, an inability to ambitiously pursue its space program in recent years.
Following the expected retirement of NASA's Space Shuttle fleet this June, Russia's Soyuz capsules will be the only spaceships available to shuttle astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) for some years to come. Recently the Soyuz was given a bit of an overhaul, with the addition of a digital steering system, but the lion's share of the technology in the capsules harkens back to the very start of the Soviet space program in the 1950s and 1960s. And even if the Europeans and Japanese have built highly modern cargo transporters, the supply and continued operation of the International Space Station would be impossible without the Russians. more