If the western world was shocked in April 1961 on hearing the news of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin being sent into Earth orbit, thereby becoming the first man in space, then four months later it would be both shocked and awed by the news of another cosmonaut, Gherman Titov, spending a whole day in space and orbiting the globe a staggering seventeen times. The flight of Vostok-2 was not only a seminal moment in human exploration but also an uncomfortably loud wake-up call for the US.
Gagarin’s flight in Vostok-1, though a groundbreaking event, had only lasted for 1hr 48 minutes, so for the flight of Vostok-2, head of the Soviet Space Program Sergei Korolev (the legendary ‘Chief Designer’) made the bold decision to go for a day-long flight despite being ignorant at that time of the possible negative effects such a duration might have on a cosmonaut; though dogs sent previously into orbit had, worryingly, shown signs of vestibular (balance) problems and had vomited more than once.
Korolev’s decision was also influenced by the need for his cosmonaut to land in southern Russia. A flight of more than three orbits (the original plan, but ultimately deemed too short) would have meant a landing site too far west and getting further west with each orbit. Only a day-long flight would bring Vostok-2 full-circle and allow a landing in European Russia. Korolev’s plans for the flight of Vostok-2 were approved by the Soviet Central Committee in July of 1961 and all was go for an August launch.
The Vostok-2 mission had three main goals. The first and most important was to explore the effects of weightlessness on the cosmonaut. Yuri Gagarin had reported no ill-effects during his flight, but a day-long flight was another matter entirely, and with plans for more ambitious missions in the future already in the pipeline, it was vital to understand the effects of ‘zero-g’. Titov (unlike Gagarin) would also take control of his capsule for a while in order to explore the viability of manual control, and Soviet scientists were also keen to find out how easy it would be to photograph and film Earth from space. This last goal had obvious ‘Cold War’ motives.
The launch of Vostok-2 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan was scheduled for the morning of August 6 and cosmonaut Titov entered his capsule around two hours before launch. Perched atop a simmering three-stage Vostok-K carrier rocket, Vostok-2 contained several modifications and improvements, including a much-improved TV transmission system, which had performed poorly on Vostok-1, and improved telemetry. After final pre-flight checks had been completed, Vostok-2 blasted off into the wild blue yonder at 9am Moscow time.
The launch was problem-free and some twenty minutes later it was confirmed that Vostok-2 had reached its correct orbit, with a perigee and apogee of 114 and 152 miles respectively (the closest and furthest distances from Earth in an elliptical orbit) and each orbit taking 88 minutes. An hour after launch, cosmonaut Titov briefly switched to manual control and all systems worked well. He then shot some film of the Earth, which was made available to the media by Soviet authorities.
The most important test on the flight though was of Titov’s physical condition and this proved a little more problematic. Though it was officially claimed that Titov suffered no ill-effects during his flight, he did in fact feel unwell and dizzy for most of it, throwing up his meal in the process, though his discomfort did markedly improve during his twelfth orbit. He had clearly gotten his ‘space legs’. He also managed to sleep on and off for several hours and, naturally, became the first man ever to relieve himself in space, without a problem too, though the Soviet authorities chose not to broadcast this fact, perhaps deeming it ‘too much knowledge’.
The following morning, during the seventeenth orbit, Vostok-2 was automatically aligned for the 40-second braking maneuver, which took place just before 10am. Seven minutes later Titov’s spherical capsule separated from the service module and reentry took place above the Mediterranean Sea. What followed must have been an unpleasant few minutes for the cosmonaut as his capsule tumbled wildly and he himself experienced extreme g-forces, causing his vision to blur and eyes water, though it didn’t last long.
While still several kilometers in the air, Titov was blasted from his capsule and began a ten-minute parachute descent to the ground. With Vostok-2, the Soviets admitted for the first time that Vostok cosmonauts didn’t land with their capsules. He landed beside a railroad track near the small town of Krasny Kut, six-hundred miles SE of Moscow, narrowly missing a passing train in the process (and thereby averting a tragic irony). The Vostok capsule landed about three miles away. The Vostok-2 mission had lasted 25 hours and 18 minutes, completed more than 17 orbits, and covered a distance of 437,000 miles.
The flight of Vostok-2 was seminal because it was the first proper orbital space-flight, one in which it was established that a cosmonaut/astronaut could handle the stresses of zero-g for a prolonged period and ably take control of a spacecraft. It was certainly a huge PR coup for the Soviet Union and one that was fully exploited, but it was first and foremost a landmark in human exploration and the first confident step on a journey through the decade that would end on the surface of the Moon. An American boot would make that final step, though the space rivals would learn from each other along the way, showing perhaps that mutual curiosity will always trump mutual suspicion, and that can only be good for humanity.