first cosmonaut

Baikonur cosmodrome, 9.06am (Moscow time) on 12th April 1961, the rockets fire on the massive Vostok spacecraft and 27 year-old Major Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union embarks on the first manned mission into space.

‘Let’s go.’ Gagarin’s words as the craft lifts off.

After nine minutes, he reaches space – ‘weightlessness has begun… I’m feeling fine.’

Vostok travels at 28,000 kilometres per hour, yet Gagarin has no sensation of speed.

From the porthole he sees clouds and oceans and nations – and, with no atmosphere in the way, more stars than anyone has ever seen from surface of the earth.

‘I can see everything – it’s beautiful!’

At 10.25am he is over west Africa when deceleration commences. As the retro-rockets burn, Gagarin reflects -

‘I think about my mother, does she know where I am now?’

Just before re-entry, the main capsule fails to separate from the equipment module and Vostok tumbles out of control – connecting straps fail to release. The spin is so severe that Gagarin nearly loses consciousness and if the equipment module doesn’t separate, Vostok could disintegrate or careen into  deep space.

The intense heat of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere eventually burns through the straps and Gagarin can see blue sky through the porthole. At seven kilometres up, the hatch blows and Gagarin ejects to descend via parachute. He lands a few kilometres from the town of Saratov in the southern Soviet Union – the place where he had first trained to be an airman.

It is an extraodinary 108 minutes. Gagarin survives near-deadly technical failure and becomes the first human being to escape the bonds of earth, changing the course of history forever.

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