April 12 th , 1961
Space. Little else was on Yuri Gagarin’s mind as he lay awake in bed thinking about dark expanse hanging over him.
He had been staring up at the night sky his whole life wondering what it must be like to mingle amongst the stars in the deep cosmos. Now his time had come. Today, Yuri would be one of those stars. Today he would launch head first into the final frontier. Today was the day mankind would begin their journey to the stars. Today history would be made.
What must the world look like after this moment in ten years? Or even fifty? The Soviet Union would have a gleaming scarlet flag atop the moon in no time. By the dawn of the new millennium they will have conquered Mars, interstellar space travel would be as common place and easy as driving a cars, jetpacks would reduce the need to walk, world problems like extreme poverty would be a thing of the past, robots would do all the work, and the world would be united as one under the USSR’s unrivaled space exploration program. They would all have him to thank.
Years from now, school children would read about Yuri’s orbit around the world in their history books. There might even by a Yuri Gagarin Day to immortalize this special moment in history. Statues of his likeness would be everywhere. Fathers would point skyward to his chiseled face and say “Look son, there’s a real hero.”
All of that would never happen if Yuri couldn’t accomplish his mission. He had to force the delusions of grandeur out of his head and focus on the task at hand. In a few short hours he would be launched into the cold recesses of space. The idea of having nothing between him and the unforgiving cosmos but thick metal was what really kept him up all night. They had sent satellites, chimps, and dogs up there with great success. Never a full grown man. A great amount of doubt still lingered about whether or not it was even possible for man to survive the launch and re-entry, but Yuri had faith his team knew what they were doing.
Still, the scary thought remained. If I do come back, will I still be the same?
His door cracked open.
Yuri quickly rolled over pretending to be asleep.
A rough hand shook him. “Wake up.”
Yuri yawned and feigned tiredness for the sake of his nighttime visitor. He did not need to sleep. He was as awake and alert as ever. “What time is it?”
“Five. Breakfast is waiting for you when you’re ready.”
The visitor left Yuri alone in his room. It didn’t take long at all for his eyes to drift toward the window. Though the first rays of sunlight were slowly warming the Russian earth, he still clearly see the stars in a sky making its slow shift from jet black to royal blue.
“Soon.” Yuri said to himself. “Soon.”
Soon Yuri’s Vostok I spacecraft would send him around the world for a tour lasting just over an estimated hour and a half from launch to land. The extreme tension in the bitter “space race” with the United States forced the Soviet Union to keep its Vostok Program top secret. Only elite members of the Soviet Space Program knew Yuri had been selected. In a few hours time, all the years of tiptoeing around the issue would be done and the whole team could bask in the glory of opening the universe to mankind.
No one would enjoy that moment more than Nikolai Kamanin. Chief Marshal of Aviation, Konstantin Vershinin, had put this delicate mission in his capable hands. He was the only other person in Baikonur Cosmodrome who got less sleep than Yuri Gagarin. If anything went wrong, the blame would most certainly fall on Kamanin’s shoulders. He hovered around Yuri wherever the cosmonaut went that morning – doing a very poor job of being invisible – watching for any reason to pull Yuri out and replace him with Gherman Titov. Not something he wanted to do considering the fact he’d chosen Yuri over Titov because a stronger man of Titov’s stature needed to take over the full day mission in August. If Titov went up instead of Yuri the whole Vostok program would be thrown off kilter. So far nothing appeared to be wrong with Yuri, the medical assessment would seal his fate.
Normally upbeat and talkative, the morning of April 12 th found Yuri in odd spirits.
“How is he doing?” inquired Kaminin to a nurse exiting the medical lab.
The nurse paused for moment. “He’s . . .good.”
“Nothing. He’s very healthy.”
Kaminin loomed over the nurse. “Keep in mind I am your superior officer. Tell me!”
The nurse gulped. “He seems preoccupied. Just answers all our questions with a short ‘yes’ or ‘no.'”
“So he’s relatively silent,” asserted Kaminin.
The nurse had to fight very hard not smile. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”
She threw open the lab door giving Kaminin full view of Yuri Gagarin surrounded by a team of doctors scribbling on their notepads. There was no need for a radio because their subject provided the entertainment.
” The Motherland hears, the Motherland knows. Where her son flies in the sky. “
“Are you feeling alright?” asked a doctor.
“Yes,” replied Yuri stoically.
“Do you have any pain in your neck or shoulders?”
“No.” Yuri went back to singing, loud and proud.
“See what I mean?” said the nurse.
“Well . . .” Kaminin found himself at a loss for words, “. . .he’s got a lovely voice. Suit him up.”
Carrying a tune was no reason to bounce the “Amazing Singing Cosmonaut” from his mission. All things considered, a more serious mental condition could have reared its ugly head. The point of no return had been reached. Kedr “Cedar”, Yuri’s call sign, would be rocketed up into Earth’s atmosphere. The mission’s fate now was up to God.
Yuri slipped into an SK-1 pressure suit. The visored helmet was sewn into the bright orange suit complete with an inflatable rubber collar in case of water submersion upon landing, a mirror sewn into the sleeve allowing for easy location of hard to see switches, and a gray checked pressure liner with connections for life support hoses. The gloves, heavy orange leather, made it almost impossible to handle anything without it slipping out of his hands. His dark boots emitted a low dull THUD with every step. Yuri would suffer through the hot constricting uniform for his country’s sake. Hopefully the future would have something a bit more comfortable in store.
Kamanin watched Yuri move awkwardly around the room with Chief Designer Sergei Korolev at his side. “Doesn’t allow for much flexibility.”
“Yes, well he won’t be moving around much where he’s going,” admitted Korolev honestly.
Thud. Thud. Thud. Yuri began his historic walk to the Vostok I rocket.
Kaminin and Korolev took their places in mission control. They had already embarrassed the United States with Sputnick; now they would humiliate them with the Vostok Rocket Program. Kamanin checked his watch. Quarter to seven. The Vostok I would be up and down in time before the Americans knew what hit them.
Upon liftoff, the Vostok rocket’s boosters would separate, leaving the 2.46 ton spherical descent module attached to a 2.27 ton conical instrument module to orbit around the world alone. The sphere would house Yuri while the cone’s engine system would detach from the craft upon reentry. At seven thousand meters Yuri would have to eject himself and parachute to the ground separate from his module. Much could go wrong, and had in previous test flights, but it only needed to go right once.
Once Yuri eased himself into the cockpit, his picture appeared on the television screens of Mission Control. The tight fit was cause for slight discomfort. Yuri reminded himself that he did not exactly want to be moving around in a loose harness whilst being rocketed up at breakneck speed. Nobody said flying into space would be like sitting on a cloud.
“Can I get some music in here?” asked Yuri.
“Sure.” Kaminin called a technician. “Get him a radio.”
Korolev was still popping pills for his persistent chest pains as he waited impatiently with Kamanin for the hatch to be re-sealed. It had been closed earlier only to discover that the seal would not lock completely. Technicians had spent the past hour unscrewing the whole hatch to fix the problem.
“His heart beat is holding steady at sixty-four beats per minute,” reported a technician. “The hatch has been successfully resealed. It’s time.”
Kaminin wiped a bead of sweat from his brow as he picked up the radio. “Preliminary stage.”
Technicians cleared the launch pad.
The thrusters roared to life.
The Vostok spacecraft shook as the powerful force of the engine doubled.
A patriotic cheer for the Soviet motherland rang out.. The U.S.S.R’s bold scarlet flag shone brighter than ever before. All eyes on the Cosmodrome gazed upwards watching the first man in space travel up… up … up.
That was the first time man dared to push the limits of nature and science to go higher than ever before. That day space travel became more than just a dream.
Mankind’s arduous journey to the far reaches of the universe would not be a smooth one. Or quick, by any definition of the word.
In as little as ten years, space exploration would be on top.
In twenty, it would lose it’s attractive luster.
Fifty years later, space would again be just a far off unattainable dream.
A tear slid down Kaminin’s cheek. “We wish you a good flight. Everything is alright.”
Yuri’s eyes narrowed as he rocketed through the atmosphere higher than man ever thought possible into the final frontier. “Let’s ride!”