The First 'Ivan' to Go to Space

Unknown facts about Gagarin’s flight

Tue, Apr 12, 2016 | 536 Comments
Yuri Gagarin - the first man in space
Originally appeared at Zvezda TV news. Translated by Julia Rakhmetova and Rhod Mackenzie

Today, 55 years ago, the first man flew into the outer space. Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin inscribed his name among the immortals and glorified his native country, but also opened a new era in the history of space exploration by humans. In the beginning of the 1960s nearly a quarter of newborn boys were called Yuri after Gagarin in the Soviet Union. There were large-scale rallies in maternity hospitals after April 12, 1961: babies were named Yuri.

There is a town (former Gzhatsk) and an area in the Smolensk region named after Gagarin. Enterprises and organizations, streets and avenues, squares, boulevards, parks bear his name. The current hockey cup KHL also bears the name of Gagarin, as indeed do many other sporting tournaments and school competitions.

It seems that we know absolutely everything about Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin, gleaned from books, textbooks and films, because Gagarin is a visiting card for our country, its pride and a source of respect. His biography is well known down to almost every minute – from his birth (March 9, 1934) to the space flight (April 12, 1961) until his death as a result of a plane accident (March 27, 1968). In remembering the First Cosmonaut, we will not repeat the famous facts of his biography as far as possible but will focus on maybe less important but interesting details which also significantly characterize Yuri Gagarin; and maybe even unveil some myths and legends about the most important cosmonaut of the Earth.

American experts from NASA, having failed to be first themselves, for a long time disputed Yuri Gagarin's flight into space and orbitation of the Earth. Their arguments were based on a few positions, the first being that there was another unknown Soviet cosmonaut who flew to the space, the fate of whom has never been known.

“There was indeed a Gagarin predecessor who had been to space twice," reveals historian of the Aviation and Cosmonautics House Antonina Yevgenyevna Dementyeva. Called "Ivan", or "Ivan Ivanovich", it was a dummy dressed in a space suit and equipped with sensors and other devices, which made a few circles around the Earth and delivered quite a lot of information on the effect of weightlessness on humans and other effects on the body during the launch and flight.

During the second launch of “Ivan” on March 15, 1961, it was equipped with radio transmitter with audiotaped messages. To disorient the Americans, who tried to track every detail of Soviet test flights, it transmitted to the Earth not enciphered data but cooking recipes. Americans struggled to fathom its meaning, finally concluding that the Soviet cosmonaut had gone crazy as he spouted stories on how to make shchi (cabbage soup) or kharcho (spicy Georgian meat and vegetable soup) as well as sang choral songs!

It was the world-famous dogs Belka and Strelka who preceded Gagarin into space. They safely returned to the Earth after a three-day flight in orbit. Another legendary little dog who flew into orbit was the mongrel Laika, who unfortunately died during the test mission. A brand of cigarettes was named after Laika, which were as short as the dog’s life.

The memorial to Laika is situated near the Dinamo metro station in Moscow at the checkpoint of the Institute of Aerospace Medicine of the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation. During the test missions 20 dogs died – Dezik, Tsygan, Lisa… Only female dogs were chosen for long flights because they did not need to lift their hind leg to urinate.

The sacrifice of dog-cosmonauts allowed for Yuri Gagarin's subsequent flight by helping ensure the safety of humans. The members of the state committee who chose the first cosmonaut largely expected a fatal outcome. The spacecraft Yuri Gagarin was supposed to make his flight in was designed to launch nuclear warheads as the United States. Gagarin was chosen from among twenty other people. Design Manager Sergei Korolev selected the candidates in person.

Height, weight and health were the most important characteristics. Six people passed the selection, including Yuri Gagarin and his backup, German Titov. It is thought that Secretary General Khrushchev liked the easy-going and friendly Yuri and that it was this that sealed the final choice. It was thought that Titov’s non-Russian first name, German, prevented him from being the first choice. But objectively speaking, Titov was prepared more thoroughly and was there not just as a backup but for the more complex and longer flights that were to occur soon afterwards. Nevertheless, German Stepanovich was of course disappointed that it was not to be him to make the first manned space flight.  

A well-known fact is that Yuri Gagarin flew into the space as a senior lieutenant but returned as a major, bypassing the rank of captain. The Defense Minister, Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, gave him a title of major literally two hours later after he landed near the settlement of Smelovka in the Saratov region. When Gagarin was airlifted to the town of Kuibyshev (Samara) on April 12, he reported on the completion of the mission to the Chairman of State Committee, Konstantin Rudnev, at the private residence of the regional committee of the CPSU wearing…sportswear.

Only the next day was he seen in a dress uniform with a major's shoulder straps on him. Commissary workers brought him shoes and a pack of regulation socks.

By the way, Gagarin was barefoot when he got aboard the spacecraft for the first time. Nine months before the launch Sergei Korolev took the six candidates to Development Design Office-1 at the closed plant in the town of Kaliningrad (Korolev) near Moscow and offered them a look at the cabin. Gagarin asked to be first, and before taking the place of pilot, he took off his shoes. Korolev remembered that: “like coming into a house”.

The flight of the first Vostok-1 spacecraft was conducted in fully automatic mode. No one could guarantee that under weightlessness a cosmonaut would be able to operate normally. Before the flight, Yuri Gagarin was given a special code that allowed the activation of manual control of the spacecraft in the case of emergency. In actual fact, this was merely a psychological trick as it was only possible to control the spacecraft from the Earth.

There was a risk concerning the mental state of the cosmonaut: he may faint or land in the territory of another state. In such an event, the recovery capsule was mined, destruction of which would be conducted remotely. In case contact with the craft was disrupted, destruction was programmed to occur automatically within 62 hours of entering dense atmosphere.

Gagarin had a gun – not to commit suicide but as a defense against wild animals should he land in a desolate location. Afterwards, all cosmonauts were armed with personal defense weapons. Alexei Leonov and Pavel Belyayev had to use it when they landed in the taiga of the North Urals and fire at bears.

There were three message prepared for the information agency TASS before the launch of the manned spacecraft to cover different contingencies: the envelope containing the first message in the case of an onboard emergency or the craft landing outside the USSR; the second in the case of complete success; and the third in the case of a forced landing on foreign territory.

The third one was for in the case of a catastrophe. When Gagarin reached the orbit and the first data on altitude, declination and orbital period were received, the Kremlin gave the following command to TASS: “Tear open the first envelope!” There was also a fourth envelope aboard the recovery capsule. It contained the very secret code to switch to manual control of the capsule, but Gagarin had already been informed about it before the launch.

Yuri Gagarin was meant to land not in the recovery capsule (its original is stored in the museum of the Aerospace and Cosmonautics House) but to be parachuted, catapulted from the altitude of 6-7 kilometers. Landing in the capsule was initially planned, but Korolev doubted that a man was capable of surviving the impact. At the same time, according to the regulations accepted by the special international agreement, in order to claim altitude records, pilots had to stay inside their aircraft. The decision was saved for the last minutes, and Gagarin was prepared to stay inside the capsule until it touched the ground.

“There was another emergency among eleven others that occurred over the whole flight," reveals Antonina Dementyeva. "When the spacecraft began re-entry, the dense atmosphere failed to disintegrate the cylinder of the onboard systems section from the recovery capsule, and pyro cartridges failed to disconnect the wires connecting the two blocks. There was tremendous bumpiness and oscillation of the whole construction, and then the speed increased. Only ten minutes later, the twisted wires burned out but the oscillation did not stop. Then Mission Control Center gave a command to catapult Gagarin out of the capsule, which saved his life. There were witnesses who watched the landing of the capsule. They testified that it bounced into the air three or four times when hitting the ground. If there were a man inside it, there would have been practically no chance of his survival."    

Because of this fact, Americans tried to dispute the fact of space exploration itself made by the Soviet pilot. Afterwards, however, they recognized the superiority of the USSR in achieving manned flight and orbit of the Earth.

Yuri Gagarin’s popularity all over the world is well-known – he was welcomed like God everywhere he went. The Queen of England, Elizabeth II, even forsook protocol in the presense of the Soviet cosmonaut and used the spoon at the table like Gagarin, as he was unsure of the correct cutlery to use. One day, when popular actress Gina Lollobrigida kissed Yuri Gagarin at the film festival in Moscow, noticing his wife's raised brows in surprise, he smiled and reassured her: “It wasn’t her, Valyusha, but you who was wandering with me over the Arctic Circle. We will belong together until we die…” This phrase tells all about Yuri Gagarin, who in spite of his fame remained a simple and genuine person. That’s the way we remembered him.  

“Many outstanding people who stood at the origins of our space program died, but their memory and the memory of exaltation that swept all the Soviet people on April 12, 1961, remains" ,says Georgy Grechko, a space pilot who was twice awarded the medal of Hero of the Soviet Union. The memory of Yuri Gagarin’s feat is alive because the first manned space flight was such a real and great feat. Also alive is the memory of wonderful Gagarin’s smile and his legendary "Let's go!"

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