Vostok 1 (roughly translated as East 1 or Orient 1) was the very first human spaceflight. Launched on April 12, 1961 by the former Soviet Union from the Baikonir Cosmodrome, the craft was piloted by Yuri Gagarin. This historic event not only marked the first time a human being was launched into space, but also included a complete Earth orbit. It was a very short flight by today’s standards, lasting just 108 minutes. Gagarin’s Vostok craft reached an altitude of 327 kilometers, or some 203 miles.
At a time when the United States and what was then the Soviet Union were battling for supremacy in the “Space Race,” the launching of Vostok 1 served as a blow to the US Space program. There was now no denying it: The Russians were winning soundly. However, the flight of Vostok 1 prompted the United States to eventually surpass and overtake the USSR in the race to the moon.
American pilots of spacecraft are known as astronauts. In earlier decades, Russian space travelers were called cosmonauts. These terms are interchangeable, but during the Cold War rivalry, the labels just had to be different. As a matter of fact, there were a lot of different things about the old Soviet space program.
Instead of making relatively soft splashdowns in the ocean as US capsules did, the Russian spacecraft of that period parachuted to the ground. Interestingly, due to the secretive nature of the Soviet space agency under Communist rule, it wasn’t known until many years later that Yuri Gagarin actually ejected from the craft at an altitude of some 7 km (about 23,000 feet) and parachuted to the ground. In fact, Vostok 1 landed about ten minutes before he did!
Another fact that is still not well-known among America’s lay public is that all of Vostok’s manual controls were locked and thus the entire flight was automated by ground personnel. Before any human was ever launched into space, scientists were uncertain as to whether or not one would even survive. Gagarin was well aware of this, and thus he was gifted with quite the daredevil spirit and warmly regarded as a hero upon his return.
Vostok’s cabin was much larger than its US Mercury counterpart. It was spherical in shape, had three different portholes for viewing, and roomy enough to allow Gagarin to float freely in weightlessness. Also within the cabin were radios, instruments, a life-support system that would sustain Gagarin for ten days if needed, and the ejection seat that would propel him out of the ship after re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Following a single orbit around Earth, Vostok 1 landed in Kazakhstan.
Sadly, Yuri Gagarin was killed when piloting a MiG aircraft that crashed near Moscow in 1968. At the time, he was in training for another space flight. Gagarin is often labeled as the “Columbus” of the cosmos.
The Vostok program continued through the early 1960s and closely paralleled America’s Mercury missions. Less than a month after Yuri Gagarin’s milestone flight, US astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American to fly into space.