The path to low orbit never did run smooth... E&T examines the life and times of both the first man to break into Earth orbit and the troubled engineer whose Vostok spaceship got him there
Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin was born on 9 March 1934 in the village of Klushino, 160km west of Moscow. His father, Alexei Ivanovich, and his mother, Anna Timofeyevna, worked on a collective farm – he as a storesman, she with the dairy herd.
Yuri's brother Valentin was ten years older, and his sister Zoya, seven years his senior. A younger brother, Boris, was born in 1936. Despite hardships, the family was reasonably content, given the harsh conditions of the prevailing Stalinist regime and the occasional frightening disappearances among their neighbours.
The description of the Gagarins as 'peasants' is a propagandist myth. Anna Timofeyevna's father was an oil-drilling manager in St Petersburg until the 1917 revolution disrupted that existence. Anna was educated, a voracious reader, while Alexei was a skilled craftsman. At his side, Yuri learned practical skills, including woodwork and the maintenance of farm machinery.
The war and its aftermath
Everything changed. though, in summer 1941, when German troops invaded Russia. Yuri and his brothers witnessed horrifying battles unfold in and around Klushino. The Germans dug down into the village, forcing the Gagarins and other familes into a crude dug-out shelter, while their homes were overrun.
Many of the childhood games played by Yuri and his friends were infected with death. Finding a depot of German tank batteries awaiting replenishment, the kids poured mud into their water filler caps. Hunting for the saboteurs, the Germans found only little Boris and hanged him from a tree. Fortunately they botched the job, and the Gagarins cut him down just in time to save his life.
In 1943, Valentin and Zoya were herded onto a 'children's train' for deportation to Germany as slave labourers. Yuri wouldn't see them again until after the war, but they did survive.
As some kind of normality returned, the Gagarins moved to nearby Gzhatsk, where Yuri went to school. One of the school teachers, Lev Bespavlov, had been a gunner in the Red Army Air Force. Yuri found him an inspirational figure.
In 1950, Yuri was apprenticed to the Lyubertsy Steel Plant in Moscow, and then transferred to a technical college at Saratov on the Volga river. At weekends, he volunteered for part-time training as the Soviet equivalent of an air cadet. His first flight, in a stringy old biplane, changed his life. In late 1955 he was making solo trips in a more modern Yak-18 and was recommended to the Military Pilot's School at Orenburg, on the Ural river. The only distraction from the shiny new Mig jets at Orenburg was Valentina 'Valya' Goryacheva- a shy, pretty hazel-eyed medical technician.
Korolev and Glushko
Sputnik was as much a surprise to Russia as the rest of the world. The name of the man responsible for this triumph was never spoken aloud. In the proud Soviet announcements about Sputnik he was referred to only as the 'chief designer'. Born in 1907 in Ukraine to Russian parents, and educated in Kiev and Moscow, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev began his career as an aircraft designer. At first, he saw rockets as a useful power source for aircraft, but by the late 1930s, he knew they could be vehicles in their own right.
Soviet military commanders showed a keen interest in rockets. In 1933, Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky sponsored a research centre, the Gas Dynamics Laboratory, hidden away behind the ramparts of the Petrapavlovskaya Fortress in St Petersburg, known at that time as Leningrad. Another facility in central Moscow, the Reaction Propulsion Laboratory, worked along similar lines.
From the union of these two efforts, Valentin Glushko emerged as the most promising designer of combustion chambers and fuel pumps, while Korolev thought in broader terms about how to combine engines with fuel tanks, guidance equipment and a payload, so that rockets could deliver bombs to distant targets, make weather measurements in the high atmosphere and, one day perhaps, explore space.
Marshal Tukhachevsky's interest was in useful weapons for the Red Army. Unfortunately, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was terrified of intelligent soldiers and, by 1937, had started a wide-ranging purge of the officer class. Tukhachevsky's swift trial and conviction on charges of espionage took place on 11 June and he was shot dead that same night. All the rocket engineers he had sponsored came under suspicion, and by June the following year they were in custody and suffering various extremes of coercion and torture.
Korolev was dragged away on 27 June 1938, brutalised by his interrogators and condemned to ten years' hard labour in the freezing wastes of Kolyma, Siberia – essentially a death sentence. Engine designer Glushko seems to have escaped the gulags by denouncing Korolev. The sequence of events is uncertain, but one thing is obvious: throughout their future working alliance on some of Russia's greatest achievements in rocketry, the two men absolutely loathed each other.
Fortunately for Korolev, the aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev, also a political suspect, was head of a sharashka in Moscow, where valued political prisoners could work on engineering projects in relative comfort. At Tupolev's request, Korolev was allowed to join his team.
One telling detail of Soviet leniency was the fact that Korolev was released from the Siberian camp after five months and ordered to report to Moscow, but no transport was made available to him. His improvised journey back: on foot, by ship, and by hitching rides on trucks – took many weeks and nearly killed him.
In 1945, Korolev travelled into the crumbling German heartland, searching for any remnants of Wernher von Braun's brilliant, but infamous, V-2 rocket programme that the British and US forces hadn't already removed. Then, throughout the 1950s, with incredible energy and determination, he developed an increasingly sophisticated series of rocket missiles, with Glushko an uneasy collaborator on their propulsion.
Korolev's greatest creation was the R-7 missile, or Semyorka, 'Little Seven', as it was affectionately known by the men who built it or flew on it. Fuelled with liquid oxygen and kerosene and incorporating four dropaway boosters parallel to a central core, this was the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile. Glushko's compact turbine fuel pumps and pipework serviced four combustion chambers simultaneously. The thrust of 20 separate nozzles was distributed among just five engine assemblies.
The first two launches of the R-7 failed, but on 3 August 1957, it flew a simulated nuclear strike mission (over Soviet territory), then began its career as a space launcher on 4 October that year, launching Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. Sputnik II went up on 3 November, carrying the dog Laika.
This was a clear indication where Korolev was heading. He told the military chiefs that he could build spy satellites to overfly the West, but first he would use the R-7 to to launch a man with excellent eyesight so that he could look out of a window and describe what the spy cameras would have to cope with. The generals believed him, and the Vostok ('East') programme was born.
The first spaceman
Lieutenant Gagarin graduated from Orenburg on 7 November 1957, and was posted, with his new wife Valya, to the Luostari airbase on the northern tip of Murmansk, well above the Arctic Circle, from where he flew a MiG-15 on reconnaissance.
Valya discovered a terrible hinterland of sub-zero temperatures, biting winds and long dark nights. Flying conditions at Luostari were dreadful. A good friend was killed in his first month.
On 4 October 1957, while Gargarin and Valya had been preoccupied with the happier business of planning their marriage, Russia had launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. In autumn 1959, the shockwaves of this news reached the young Gagarin family.
Mysterious recruiting teams arrived without warning at all major air stations in the Soviet Union, including Luostari. They didn't say what they wanted, but Gagarin signed up for a trip to Moscow, where he would be assessed to fly an unspecified new craft. Valya, now a mother to six-month old Lena, agreed that anything was better than Luostari. She had no idea what lay ahead.
The posting turned out to be with the first cosmonaut squad, training at a new complex called Star City, outside Moscow. By the end of 1960, Gagarin was one of two top contenders for a flight into space, riding Korolev's R-7. His competitor was Gherman Titov, but the Kremlin decided it liked Gagarin's 'peasant' origins better than Titov's more obviously middle-class background, so Gagarin won the mission. On 12 April 1961, he rocketed into history.
The first spaceship
Gagarin's capsule, the Vostok, consisted of a ball-shaped crew module and a rear equipment module with life-support tanks, batteries, radiators and braking rockets. The launch vehicle was Korolev's R-7 missile. Two hours before take-off, Gagarin ascended to the top of the gantry at Baikonur and climbed into Vostok through a round hatchway. Technicians then sealed the hatch with explosive bolts. These could be fired at a moment's notice, so that an ejection seat could blast Gagarin to possible safety, if anything went wrong during lift-off.
The rocket was ignited at 0906, Moscow Time. Gagarin shouted out the phrase, Poyekhali – 'Let's go!' Some nine minutes later, he was in orbit. 'Weightlessness has begun,' he reported. 'It's not at all unpleasant, and I'm feeling fine. The machine is functioning normally. Reception is excellent. I'm carrying out observations of the Earth. Visibility is good. I can see the clouds. I can see everything. It's beautiful!'
At the end of the one-orbit mission, small rockets on the rear module braked Vostok for reentry. Then, four metal straps were cut by explosive charges, releasing the ball. An ocean splashdown was avoided in case inquisitive American ships might be nearby.
The ball came down within Soviet territory. The shock of its heavy landing would have been too severe for Gagarin to survive without risking injury, so the mission sequence required him to eject at a safe altitude and come down under a separate parachute. Soviet authorities were deliberately vague about this in their press announcements.
Most accounts state that Gagarin's descent went smoothly, but his subsequent report contained a hint of trouble: 'The braking rockets functioned automatically. The turning I was worried about soon stopped.' An umbilical cable, with a dense bundle of wires, had failed to release. For several minutes, the ball and the equipment module hurtled towards Earth like a pair of boots with tangled laces. In secret evidence, Gagarin said, 'The craft began to spin rapidly. I waited for the separation but something was wrong.'
Atmospheric heating burned through the umbilical, but the effect was to sling the ball away with an additional sickening spin. Gagarin nearly fainted, but the ball settled down when its parachute opened. Gagarin ejected safely and landed near a village called Smelovka in the Saratov region, not far from where his flying adventures had first begun.
He recalled, 'Stepping onto firm ground again, I saw a woman and a little girl looking curiously at me. I was still in my orange space suit, and they were frightened. 'I'm a friend!' I shouted, taking off my helmet. 'Have you come from outer space?' the woman asked. 'As a matter of fact, I have!' I replied.'
Gagarin then toured the world relentlessly, while his masters exploited him as an icon of Communist success. Valya found these trips difficult, especially when drink and women claimed her husband's frustrated energies. He was desperate to fly again, but was considered too valuable to risk. When Soviet premier Krushchev was deposed from power in 1964 by Leonid Breznev, Gagarin was allowed back to work at Star City.
Back to Earth
In January 1966, Gagarin and his close friend, fellow cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, visited Korolev at his home. The gruff chief designer had always loved his 'little eagles', but now he was succumbing to cancer. The young cosmonauts listened as Korolev told them about his career, his wrongful arrest and his appalling time in the gulag.
Gagarin came away from that encounter deeply thoughtful and angry. How could it be, that someone so unique as Sergei Pavlovich could be subject to repression? Korolev died in hospital a few days later.
Gagarin then led a team of engineers troubleshooting the new Soyuz spacecraft, designed by Korolev but being completed now by engineers with lesser skills. The craft was riddled with manufacturing errors. The KGB prevented news of these problems from reaching Brezhnev in the Kremlin. He expected Soyuz to make its debut flight in time for May Day, 1967, the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Communist Revolution. No one had the courage to disappoint him.
The first manned Soyuz mission was launched on 23 April, with Vladimir Komarov aboard. Multiple systems failures occurred, and when Komarov reentered the atmosphere the next day, the parachute system failed, probably as a result of the capsule's uncontrolled spinning. He was killed instantly when he and his wayward ship hit the ground.
Infuriated, but still desperate to get back into space, Gagarin decided to freshen up his piloting reflexes. On 27 March 1968, he took off from Chkalovsky airbase, near the Star City cosmonaut training centre, in a two-seater MiG-15 jet, with training supervisor Vladimir Seriogin occupying the other seat.
In poor weather and low visibility, their jet crashed into woodland about 100km north east of Moscow. Both men were killed. Alexei Leonov spent many months afterwards trying to piece together the facts. Inattentive ground controllers apparently allowed another jet to fly too close, possibly a new and powerful twin-engined Sukhoi fighter. The wake from the other plane may have caused Gagarin's Mig-15 to lose control.
Gagarin died young, but he will never be forgotten. No one can take away from him his charm as an international ambassador, his loyalty to friends and his love of his wife and family, despite the temptations of superstardom. Above all, he was - and forever will be - the first man in Space.
As for Korolev, he never achieved his ultimate dream of landing one of his 'little eagles' on the moon, but his rugged and reliable Semyorka became the basis for the Soyuz rockets that carry modern Russian capsules to the International Space Station. Nasa is about to retire its space shuttles. Korolev's great machine is the world's only human-carrying route to space.
'Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin' by Piers Bizony (50th anniversary edition) is published by Bloomsbury in April 2011