Youri Gagarine and Columbia (1)

Dossier ~ Friday 29th April 2011
Explorers on the Moon

The date of 12 April has double significance for space enthusiasts: on 12 April 1961 Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, and on 12 April 1981 American space shuttle Columbia made its first space flight.

Before 12 April 1961 nobody had ever heard of the Baïkonour space centre in Kazakhstan. In the early hours of the morning Yuri Gagarin and stand-by astronaut Gherman Titov were fast asleep at the Soviet space centre. At 5 am they were woken by General Kamanine; the two astronauts put on their orange spacesuits. They were then whisked by bus to launch pad number 1, where the Vostok 1 space capsule was waiting for them on top of an R-7 Semiorka rocket. At 7 am Gagarin was strapped into an ejectable seat inside the capsule. In front of him there was no complex dashboard of instruments, the entire flight being automatic. Before closing the hatch, a technician whispered the secret code '1, 2, 5' into Gagarin's ear. This code would allow the astronaut to take manual control if necessary. The hatch was then closed but the whole process had to be restarted due to a failed locking indicator light in the launch control room.

The SK-1 spacesuit?Baikonour Space Centre

At 9.05 am the command key was set to 'go' and the rocket's 32 tailpipes spewed engine fumes. Gagarin said the word 'poyhekali'  -  'we're off'  -  and the spacecraft was launched without any problems. Exactly 11 minutes and 16 seconds after having left the launch pad, the first astronaut in human history was in orbit, feeling good and describing what he could see through his porthole. Vostok was on an elliptical orbit, the highest point of which was 315 km above the Earth. A little later Radio Moscow interrupted its programs to give the following announcement: 'A spaceship with a man on board was launched on 12 April, to make an orbit of the Earth.'

The Vostok capsule

Arriving above Angola, the retro-rockets put Vostok on a course for re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. A problem that had occurred during the separation of the three modules making up the original rocket, caused the remaining craft to swerve for around 10 minutes. Gagarin hurtled passed Egypt, Turkey and the Black Sea before arriving in Soviet airspace. At 7 km altitude Gagarin ejected. Vostok hit the Earth first with Gagarin arriving 10 minutes later, 26 km from the village of Engels.

The instrument panel on board the Vostok

It was another moment of humiliation for the Americans. On 15 May the new President, John Kennedy, famously announced that an American would set foot on the Moon before the end of the decade.

Twenty years to the day since Yuri Gagarin made his historic space flight the first American space shuttle, Columbia, took off on its maiden voyage from launch pad 39 at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

Columbia - The first American space shuttle

On board were astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen. The flight was successful despite the loss of 16 heat-resistant tiles. Two days later Columbia returned, gliding to a safe landing on the dry lakebed runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California. A new era of space exploration was underway.

Pierre-Emmanuel Paulis

Euro Space Center

Mars Society Belgium.

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