Monday, April 12th will mark the 60th anniversary of the first human flight into near earth orbit. Incidentally, it is also the 40th anniversary of the maiden flight of “Columbia”, America’s first Space Shuttle (not counting “Enterprise” that served as an aerial test vehicle). This historic Soviet achievement evokes memories of a period the during the Cold War when there was intense technological rivalry between the communist block nations lead by the Soviet Union and the capitalist western powers with competitive elections and the rule of law, with the United States at the fore. It was a global struggle for supremacy as to which system of government and economic organizing principles could best provide prosperity for its populaces, all the while avoiding overt hostilities between two nuclear superpowers. This was the political and logistical backdrop when the race to explore the harsh and unforgiving environment of space, first began in 1961.

Launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site in south central Kazakhstan, the Vostok spacecraft carried 27-year-old Yuri Gagarin around the earth in a single orbit lasting some 108 minutes. Chosen from among twenty other cosmonauts, Gagarin was not only one of the more popular candidates but also had highly favorable evaluations in the simulators. Just before liftoff Gragarin exclaimed “Poyekhali!” (off we go!) to reassure the spacecraft’s chief designer Sergei Korolev with whom he was communicating with in the launch control room. The phrase went on to become a popular slogan in Eastern Block countries that was enthusiastically used to promote the growing space race.

After firing the retro-rockets over eastern Africa, Vostok reentered the atmosphere as Gagarin ejected from the vehicle four miles above ground, and parachuted to the ground. Since Gagarin was later selected as the backup cosmonaut for Soyuz 1 program in 1967, he fully expected to fly in space again. Unfortunately, that mission’s equipment malfunctions resulted in the tragic death of a cosmonaut named Vladimir Komarov. Fearing the loss of their national hero, whom they had showered with awards and even promoting him two ranks from senior lieutenant to major, officials permanently grounded Gagarin from all future spaceflights. He nonetheless continued flying until his death in March 1968, when Gagarin and a fellow pilot flew a MiG-15 jet at low altitude near Moscow, and a larger fighter passed too close to them in the clouds. The resulting backwash induced a tailspin in the smaller trainer aircraft, and caused it to crash, killing both pilots. Gagarin is buried in the Kremlin Wall.

An Amazing Design for Its Time

The Vostok spacecraft weighed 5.2 tons at launch and 2.6 tons when it landed on the ground. By contrast, America’s Mercury capsule for its first manned missions weighed 2.0 tons at launch and 1.2 tons at splashdown. The Vostok was launched atop a modified R-7 booster whose design had been used during the launch of Sputnik less than four years earlier. It was comprised of a conical instrument module for electrical power and orbital propulsion behind a 7.5-foot diameter reentry sphere with life support and a heat shield. Two unmanned test flights the previous month in 1961 that were labeled Korabl-Sputniks 4 and 5, were used to validate Vostok’s design and operation capabilities. Its single passenger occupied an ejection seat contained within the sphere from which to egress and deploy a parachute four miles above ground.

Because of the cramped quarters, early Soviet cosmonauts were short in stature – for acceptance into the space program, they were limited in height to 5′ 9″ and Gagarin stood only 5′ 2″ tall. As with their American counterparts in the Mercury program, their training was rigorous, both physically and mentally, not to mention hazardous. But then, as 19th century Episcopal clergyman Phillip Brooks once advised “Don’t pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men.” So we should honor Gagarin and other such men and the technology that made, and continues to make, their exploits possible.

Vostok spacecrafts was flown on five more manned missions including two pairs of concurrent missions in August of 1962 and June of 1963. Later the basic design was modified to accommodate three cosmonauts when the Voskhod 1 spacecraft flew in October of 1964, and then further modified to enable an excursion outside the spacecraft with Voskhod 2 in March of 1965 – both of which were firsts in manned spaceflight. The 2017 Russian film “Vremya Pervykh” (meaning “first time”), which began streaming domestically in January on Amazon Prime as “Spacewalker” dramatically presents the latter’s harrowing and perilous journey.

Although Vostok was retired from manned flight, upgraded versions of it continued to be produced for use in photographic reconnaissance with the Zenit-2 rocket that was first used to launch the satellite Kosmos 4 in April of 1962. Subsequent flights occurred through May of 1970 with further upgrades continuing through 1979. Zenit-4 and its rocket successors further expanded on this tradition from 1968 through 1980. Vostok also served as the basis for the biological and materials research with the Bion research satellites beginning in 1973 through 2013, and Foton satellites from 1985 until 2014.

The Space Race and the Human Race

No other species on earth has ventured so far around the globe and eventually beyond its atmosphere. Like the sailors and explorers from the Age of Discovery, mankind has once again embarked on an imperative to, like the mission immortalized in the original Star Trek series’ introduction, to explore strange new worlds. In retrospect, we can be grateful that our counterparts in Soviet Union goaded us out of the complacency of Cold War competitions for military supremacy. Without Vostok and Gagarin’s achievements, Apollo would never have landed men on the moon. But irrespective of the nationalities of its participants, the initial achievements by the West’s adversaries nonetheless exemplify the hopes and dreams of technological mastery over nature. The Soviet Union is no more, but America still stands, and it is its responsibility to ensure that our endeavors to reach the stars remain the prerogative of free people.