History of Manned Spaceflight - the pioneers

Yuri Gagarin: first human being to journey into outer space

It was 50 years ago that man first ventured into space. On April 12, 1961, Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in Vostok 1 (Vostok 3KA-3) on a flight lasting 108 minutes and became the first human being to leave the confines of the Earth's atmosphere. The space capsule was carried aloft by a Vostok 8K72K rocket, derived from the R-7 ICBM, from a launch site that was claimed to be at 47oN 65oE, not far from the mining town of Baikonur in Kazakhstan. In fact the true launch site was about 320km to the southwest, near Tyuratam railway station and the name 'Baikonur' was used to cause confusion and keep the location secret. Presently known as Gagarin's Start (45.920278oN 63.342222oE) the launch pad is part of the world's largest operational space launch facility now known as the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

The full details of Gagarin's flight were submitted to the FAI by The USSR Central Aero Club V. P. Tchkalov on May 26, 1961, requesting that records for flight duration (108minutes), altitude (327km) and mass lifted to this altitude (4725kg) be recognised as World Records. Two copies of the [[{"attributes":{},"fields":{}}]]  were provided, one in Russian and the other in English, each consisting of a title page and 16 numbered leaves, including Gagarin's own flight report signed in ink, and black-and-white photographs of Gagarin in uniform, Gagarin in his flight suit and an inside view of the Vostok capsule. Gagarin begins his statement by saying that “On the 12th of April, 1961, the Soviet spaceship-sputnik 'Vostok' was put in orbit around the Earth with me on board”. He goes on to describe briefly his training, physical fitness and the beginning of the flight “ ... In the course of the powered flight, in the ascent period, g-loads and vibrations had no depressing effects on me and I could fruitfully work in accordance with a predetermined programme. The spaceship put in orbit and the carrier rocket separated, weightlessness set in. At first the sensation was to some extent unusual, although I had experienced weightlessness of short duration before. But soon I adapted myself ..... and could continue fulfilling my programme”. He “ate and drank and maintained continuous communication with the Earth on different channels by telephone and telegraph”. He soon descends and lands uneventfully.

The inside view of the cosmonaut's compartment of the spaceship-sputnik "Vostok" : 1.- pilot's desk; 2.- instrument panel with the globe; 3.- television camera; 4.- porthole with an optical orientation system; 5.- control handle of the spaceship orientation

During the flight he also observes the Earth and “could clearly distinguish big mountain ranges, big rivers, large forests, coastlines and islands..... The sky was jet black .....The Earth had a very pretty and distinct blue halo [which] had a smooth transition from pale blue to blue, dark blue, violet and absolutely black .... a magnificent picture”. He concludes, “Thanks to a thorough training I experienced no discomfort from the effects of the space-flight factors. At present I feel fine. April 15, 1961.”

Gagarin's achievement launched a new era in the history of mankind. Further manned space flights occurred in quick succession. On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard piloted the Freedom 7 spacecraft and became the second person, and the first American, to travel into space. He was launched by a Redstone rocket, and unlike Gagarin's 108 minute orbital flight, Shepard stayed on a ballistic trajectory suborbital flight - a flight which carried him to an altitude of 187 km and to a landing point 486 km downrange.

Beginning of the Apollo program 

Following this success, President John F. Kennedy announced on May 25, 1961, the dramatic and ambitious goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. This was the beginning of the Apollo program. Ten years later, Shepard commanded the Apollo 14 mission, and was the fifth person to walk on the Moon.

Gus Grissom: second American spaceflight

Shortly afterwards on July 21, 1961, Gus Grissom piloted Liberty Bell 7 on the second American (suborbital) spaceflight. This was the second of seven manned flights in Project Mercury.

German Titov: Vostok 2

Meanwhile the Soviet manned space programme continued and on August 6, 1961, German Titov completed over 17 orbits in Vostok 2, before returning to Earth safely at the beginning of the 18th orbit.

The flight was an almost complete success, marred only by a heater that had inadvertently been turned off prior to liftoff, allowing the temperature inside the capsule to drop to 10°C, a bout of space sickness, and a troublesome re-entry when the reentry module failed to separate cleanly from its service module. Once again the USSR Tchkalov Central Aero Club submitted the Records File to the FAI in support of World Record claims for Earth orbit flight duration (25h 18m) and distance flown (703150km).

John Glenn: first American to orbit the Earth

The first American to orbit the Earth was John Glenn who made a total of 3 orbits in Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962. Interestingly, he became the oldest person to fly in space, and the only one to fly in both the Mercury and Space Shuttle programs, when at age 77, he flew on Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-95) on October 29, 1998.