Yuri Gagarin: The winner of US-Soviet space race

When Gagarin was flying into space, no one even hoped that the cosmonaut would ever return

On April 12th, 1961 the Soviet Union achieved an incredible accomplishment: the USSR left the USA behind in the most prestigious race of all. Soviet citizen Yuri Gagarin became the first man, who orbited planet Earth in a manned spacecraft and returned home. 

The date of April 12th is celebrated as the Cosmonautics Day in Russia. However, very few people know that only tragic events on the Baukonur spaceport in October of 1960 delayed the launching of a manned spaceship till April. Yuri Gagarin was supposed to fly into space in December. The launching of the Vostok spacecraft should have taken place on December 1960, according to the decree issued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Cabinet of Ministers of the USSR, dated October 11th, 1960, the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper wrote.

A horrible accident occurred on the Baikonur launching pad about two weeks after the Soviet government issued the above-mentioned decree. A space rocket exploded during the launching: the powerful explosion burnt 268 people alive, including Soviet Marshall Nedelin.

Yuri Gagarin's heroic deed still evokes great respect all across the globe, even when US shuttle return to Earth in the form of fragments. When Gagarin was flying into space, the probability of a successful space launch was estimated at only 50 percent. Soviet specialists conducted six preliminary launches – three rockets blew up as a result of the tests. Sergei Korolyov, the director of the Soviet space program, set the date of the seventh launch with man on board the spaceship on April 12th, 1961. The USA was working on the launch of its own – it was slated for May 2nd the same year.

There were other variants of the Soviet space project: it was particularly suggested that Yuri Gagarin, the father of two daughters, should be replaced by Gherman Titov, who had no children, the Moskovsky Komsomolets wrote.

When Yuri Gagarin was leaving Earth, no one was sure if he was ever coming back to the planet. The Soviet news agency, Tass, prepared three national messages at once, just to be on the safe side. The first message was about the successful completion of the first manned space flight in history (which was eventually announced for the whole world later). The second message said that the spaceship did not enter the orbit, whereas the third message established the fact of death of the Soviet cosmonaut.

The accident risk was rather high for the Soviet spaceship. The Vostok's orbit was situated very close to the upper layer of the Earth atmosphere. If the engines of the spacecraft had stopped operating, it would have landed on the planet because of the “friction” against the atmosphere. In this case, however, the spacecraft would be flying for about a week and there would be no guarantee that the cosmonaut would survive the emergent landing. The food and air stock on board the spacecraft was enough for ten days, though.

The probability of a psychological breakdown was high too. Gagarin was not allowed to turn the radio transmitter off: the cosmonaut was talking to the Mission Control throughout 108 minutes of his flight. When Gagarin returned to planet Earth, he became the national hero of the USSR and a globally recognized person.

It is worth mentioning that Russia is taking great efforts in projects connected with the International Space Station as well. American astronauts say that Russia saves the ISS when it launches Progress and Soyuz rockets. US astronaut Michael Fincke said that he never forgets to give Russia credit during his lectures for American students.


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Author`s name Olga Savka