It has been more than half a century since Yuri Gagarin rode in a Vostok capsule into orbit and into history. On April 12, 1961 he became the first human being to make it into space. His Vostok 1 circled the Earth just once. He landed back in Russia one hour and forty-eight minutes after his launch.
The rocket which took him into space was a modified version of the rocket that had taken the first satellite into orbit less than four years earlier, on October 4, 1957. And in fact, Gargarin’s launch vehicle belongs to the same family of R-7 rockets which even today are ferrying the Russian Soyuz spaceships and Progress cargo vehicles to the International Space Station. The Russians are very conservative: once they have a system that works, they just keep on reusing it. The Vostok that carried Yuri Gagarin was originally designed for use both as a spy satellite and as a manned spacecraft. It has, in fact, continued to be used, albeit modified, for a range of other unmanned satellites. It was about seven and a half feet in diameter. The equipment module to which it was attached was about seven and a third feet long, with a diameter of about eight feet.
On reentry, the astronaut did not ride the Vostok all the way to the ground because its parachute didn’t slow it enough. Instead, he or she ejected at about 23,000 feet and descended the rest of the way by individual parachute, while the capsule landed—hard—borne by its own chute.
A total of six Vostok missions were flown, the last of which, in 1963, carried the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova.
The Vostok program was followed by the Vokshold program, which took the design and parts from the Vostok spacecrafts, and then added a solid fueled retro rocket to the top of the descent module. The Russians crammed three people inside it instead of one. The Voksholds were used only twice to carry astronauts into space: once in 1964 and then again 1965. The solid rocket retro softened the landing enough that that three astronauts could remain in the craft all the way to the ground instead of having to bail out.
The first Soyuz flew in 1967. Like the Vokshold, it was simply a further modification to the original Vostok. Its main differences are the addition of a separate descent module and a much enlarged instrument and service module. The spherical orbital module, however, is nearly the same as the one on the original Vostok, perhaps six inches larger in diameter. The descent module, in which the three astronauts ride both up into space and then back down to Earth is only about seven feet long and seven and a quarter feet in diameter, while the Instrumentation and service module, which carries the solar panels for power, is a bit more than eight feet long and nearly nine feet in diameter. Thus, the descent module with its three seats for three astronauts is actually slightly smaller than the one passenger Vostok that Gargarin rode alone in fifty years ago.
Before Gargarin’s trip into orbit, the Russians launched several empty, unmanned Vostoks between May 1960 and March 1961 before deciding it was safe enough to try putting a man into one and shooting him off. Yuri Gagarin was only twenty-seven years old the day he went into space. He’d trained with other men but didn’t know that he’d been assigned to the first flight until April 8, only four days before launch. The spacecraft carried enough food, water and air so that if the retro rockets failed and he was stuck in orbit, he would survive until that orbit naturally decayed from friction and the spacecraft came back down on its own. The entire mission was designed to be automated, with the onboard controls locked out, since no one was sure how well a human being would be able to function in a weightless state. However, the Russians gave Gagarin an envelope with the lockout codes sealed inside, just in case something went wrong and he had to take manual control.
Although the launch and orbit went smoothly, there were some problems on reentry. Ten seconds after the retrorockets fired to drop the Vostok out of orbit, the service module was supposed to separate and fall away from the reentry module. Unfortunately, a bundle of wires holding the two parts of the spacecraft together failed to come apart, keeping both sections connected. Gyrations as the craft started entering the atmosphere finally broke the wires and the service module came loose. After that, the remainder of the reentry proceeded normally. At 23,000 feet from the ground, Gagarin was ejected and parachuted to a safe landing, near a very startled farmer and her daughter. He told them he had just come back from space and needed to find a phone so he could call Moscow to let them know he’d made it back okay.