Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin

Fifty years ago this month, a young Russian military pilot, standing just 5'2'' tall and wearing a comically over-sized helmet that would later become an icon, was strapped into a capsule atop the Vostok-1 rocket and fired into space. His mission lasted just 108 minutes, but it turned him into the first cosmonaut--the first human to journey into space. This was 1961, and in the USSR. Here's a look at the technology they used, and how it's impacted the space programs of today.

Born March 9, 1934, Yuri Gagarin's life must've been a parallel to many thousands of other young men at the time. He was born in a moderately remote village to working-class parents, then went to school and worked hard so things could change. After doing well, he joined the Soviet Air Force and achieved the rank of Senior Lieutenant in November 1959.

Then everything changed. In 1960, he was one of 20 pilots chosen for the Soviet space program, and performed well enough that when the critical moment came, he was chosen to be the first man to fly into space--testing out a huge range of experimental and unproven technology. His April 12, 1961 flight made history. But it was his only journey into space--he was afterwards too precious a national asset to risk in such experimental technology.

Gagarin died March 27th, 1968, in a crash in his MiG-15 aircraft, during what is now thought to be a training accident caused by extreme maneuvers.

Vostok K Rocket

Vostok (meaning "East" in Russian) was a successful class of expendable carrier rockets, and the K-variant flew 13 times--most famously carrying Gagarin aloft.

The Vostok-K took its first flight on December 22, 1960, but 425 seconds into its mission, its third-stage engine failed, meaning its capsule never reached orbit. After descending to Earth, the capsule was recovered, and its two dog passengers were found alive. If they hadn't been, it may have delayed Gagarin's later flight.

The Vostok-K could lift just 10,000 pounds to low Earth orbit, and its first-stage engines could only provide about 912 kilo-Newtons of thrust. In comparison, the Mercury-Redstone rocket that carried the first Americans into space could lift just 4,000 pounds into orbit, and its single engine pushed out just 350 kilo-Newtons. A mere handful of years later, though, a single engine from the Saturn 5 rocket could push at 6.77 mega-Newtons of thrust (2,000 times more than Mercury) and the rocket could lift 262,000 pounds to orbit.

Vostok 3KA Capsule/Spacecraft

The tiny space capsule that carried Gagarin into the cosmos, bolted to a support spacecraft that seems equally tiny, seems incredibly old-tech to our 21st-century eyes. You could even call it Steampunk-esque.

The equipment module, which contained electronics, radio gear, maneuvering thrusters, and a small rocket to de-orbit Gagarin's capsule, measured just 2.3 meters by 2.4 meters and weighed a mere 2.3 tons. Gagarin's capsule itself was much more basic: Dubbed sharik ("sphere"), it had very limited equipment, and couldn't maneuver much--hence the need for its shape and heat shielding on all sides. It was just 2.3 meters across.

Gagarin's Capsule

Although it was only 2.3 meters across, Gagarin's sharik capsule contained life-support equipment, controls, a food stash--which, we've recently learned from declassified documents, contained sausages a-plenty as they were Gagarin's favorite--and Gagarin's ejector seat.

Upon its successful landing, the USSR told the world the capsule made a soft landing under parachute with Gagarin in his seat inside. But he had, as ordered, ejected at 7km altitude because the safety of the impact couldn't be assured. The space agency forced Gagarin to lie to the media under questioning.

This same capsule carried five other cosmonauts into space, before being retired. Its last passenger, in 1963, was the first woman in space--Valentina Tereshkova--aboard Vostok 6.

Vostok Control Panel

This is part of the control array that was within Gagarin's spacesuited-reach inside the capsule. The "X-marks-the-spot" inertial navigation Earth globe must've been one he intently watched as he waited for a safe touchdown--and, in the early days of the Cold War, a safe touchdown in a friendly country.

Absent from the unit, if you look, are many controls. In fact, the entire control assembly was passcode-locked, and the mission was run on an automatic and remote-controlled basis. This was because space medics couldn't be certain Gagarin would remain conscious in zero-g, or be able to accurately operate a control system. The password was available, should a technical emergency occur. But he didn't need it as all the electronics worked flawlessly...meaning Gagarin could be considered, technically, the first space tourist.

Soyuz Rocket

Without Vostok, there would've been no Voskhod--a larger, more powerful variant--and without Voskhod there'd be no Soyuz. This is the class of Soviet-designed rocket and capsule system that's still in use today to transport astronauts up to the International Space Station.

Many aspects of Soyuz's design stem directly from decisions made and expertise gained during the Vostok program--including the way the rockets are transported and launched. As you can see, the vehicles are rugged and structurally strong enough to lie on their side under full gravity, so they're transported by train to the launch pad. Here they're inspected, and then cranked into vertical position standing in a launch pit where they stand in a ring of support gantries--a very different system to NASA's iconic launch towers, and the crawler system and Vertical Assembly Building that it's been used since the days of Apollo.

Soviet Launch Complex, European Space Agency Logos

The rocket systems that Soviet expertise built up, learning from Gagarin's first flight and every one since, have proven so resilient that the tech has been sold to and borrowed by a number of nations. Most recently it's the European Space Agency, which is adding a special Soyuz variant rocket to its launch arsenal alongside the successful Ariane series.

The easily-reconizable features of this launch complex match several in Russia and Kazakstan, but they're in Kourou in French Guiana, where the facilities were completed this month. Two Russian-made, EU-adapted rockets were delivered years ago, and the first flight is expected late in 2011.

Buran Shuttle

Vostok was successful, with Gagarin's headline-grabbing flight at the lead. Its successor Voskhod was successful. And that system's successor, Soyuz, is still successful. But this is Buran, the Soviet version of the Space Shuttle, and it flew only once, in a mission that was, like Gagarin's, entirely automated. For technical and financial reasons, it never flew again, and the program languished after the collapse of the USSR.

It was a Soviet space program that would've amazed Gagarin, who worked on the design of a future reusable spacecraft briefly after his mission.

The Tech That Took Yuri Gagarin Into Space

Fifty years ago this month, a young Russian military pilot, standing just 5'2'' tall and wearing a comically over-sized helmet that would later become an icon, was strapped into a capsule atop the Vostok-1 rocket and fired into space. His mission lasted just 108 minutes, but it turned him into the first cosmonaut—the first human to journey into space. This was 1961, and in the USSR. Here's a look at the technology they used, and how it's impacted the space programs of today.

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