Moving up: how the USSR managed to escape into space first

Category: English  |   12 Апрель 2021    

Moving up: how the USSR managed to escape into space first

60 years ago, the whole world learned that our compatriot, a simple Russian guy, Yuri Gagarin, became the world's first cosmonaut. This event will never disappear from our historical memory, and the great date of April 12 is celebrated worldwide as the Day of Aviation and Cosmonautics. We don't need to be reminded of what happened that day. But many details I want to emphasize and supplement. Izvestia - about the stages of the great space race between the superpowers.


Race of the Century


The launch of the first artificial Earth satellite on October 4, 1957 marked the beginning of the space age. The world rejoiced, but the reaction of official Washington was most easily expressed in one phrase: "The Soviets have overtaken us." Americans, by and large, for the first time felt vulnerable in a military sense. Of course, after that, America began to intensively develop rocket and space research in order to take revenge by launching a man into space.


The first breakthrough of the Soviet Union in orbit could still be explained by a combination of circumstances, the ingenious flair of the designers. But from the launch of the satellite to the flight of Gagarin, it took only three and a half years. And it was the time of the space race between the two superpowers.


At each stage, the USSR again and again overtook the competition. It is enough to recall the triumphant flight of Belka and Strelka — two space dogs-pioneers who reached near-Earth orbit, flew around our planet 17 times and safely returned home alive and unharmed. From such a flight to the launch of a man into space was only a step away.



белка стрелкаCosmonaut dogs Belka and Strelka


But across the ocean, they were waiting for a decisive breakthrough from the creator of the Nazi "retribution weapon", rocket scientist Werner von Braun, who was taken out of the defeated Germany. And we knew about the enormous financial capabilities of the United States, and many seriously feared that the first person in space would still be an American. In short, the two powers looked at each other with alarm. By the way, neither American nor Soviet intelligence was able to obtain accurate information about the space developments of the opposite side. Only approximate information about the work of competitors was received. And in the USSR, from about the beginning of 1960, they knew that the Americans were preparing a human flight into space.


It was then that our designers began to force this complex and risky project, a project in which partial success could not be. It was not enough to put the first cosmonaut into orbit. He had to come back alive. But with animals and dummies, there were quite a few unsuccessful launches. The risk was great.


Squad for the "East"


Our capabilities were known, they were enough for various variations of the spherical satellite, one of which was the future spacecraft "Vostok-1". To operate in such a tight space, the future astronaut must be lean, youthful flexible. It was immediately possible to exclude pilots above average height from the list of candidates.


The training of the first group of cosmonauts had to be accelerated with an eye to overseas competitors. Therefore, our "fathers of cosmonautics" relied on young, but already quite experienced pilots who were able to withstand the most difficult training program, and then not break down in flight.


And here, as in a revolutionary song," the fees were short-lived " — only one year. Short-lived, but difficult in an unprecedented way. It was a grueling test of survival, without compromise. Yuri Gagarin and German Titov went this way a little better than others.


Small spool, but expensive. And the first spaceship was far from spacious. 5.2 cubic meters — that's all the space for the pilot; plus another 3 cubic meters for the equipment. Gagarin's spacesuit had a four-hour supply of oxygen. This was the first space apartment — small, but, as the flight showed, reliable.


It was clear that in the flight of a person waiting for unprecedented overload. And neither the doctors nor the chief designers knew exactly what to protect themselves from and how. The space pioneer had no guarantees of safety, although the engineers, of course, did everything possible, fighting for the life of the cosmonaut in advance. We calculated emergency modes, developed a system for emergency parachute descent in case of a fire at the launch of a rocket. But they could not have foreseen many of the surprises that space is fraught with. And they knew about it. Otherwise, Gagarin's flight probably wouldn't have been such a feat with a capital letter.


Many experts were afraid of weightlessness — mysterious, unexplored. How will the human body react to it, even the most trained? Attempts to create artificial weightlessness on board the plane could not give a definitive answer. Many doctors believed that in an unusual state, the psyche can not stand it.



The Vostok-1 spacecraft, piloted by Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin


"What a beauty!"


The doctors were worried — how would the first cosmonaut survive the overload of the launch, this unthinkable speed in the fire and rumble? But Gagarin's voice sounded surprisingly optimistic in the first minutes of the flight. He admired the beauty of the cosmic views, which he was the first in the world to observe through the porthole. "What a beauty!" — these Gagarin words referred to both the Earth and the sky. Later, this exclamation will be involuntarily repeated by almost all cosmonauts. The radio communication of the East with the Earth, with Moscow, was almost not interrupted. In addition, Gagarin throughout the entire flight (even in the most difficult, critical moments) recorded his impressions and feelings on a tape recorder.


The descent was the most difficult and unpredictable. Not just because the technique didn't work perfectly. Gagarin saw flames in the porthole. It was the capsule's hull that was burning. The fire did not pose a fatal danger to the cosmonaut, but this effect was not practiced on Earth — Gagarin not only mentally, but also aloud, under the recording, said goodbye to his comrades. At the same time, he carried himself like a pioneer and an officer, with courage and dignity. And he did not burn in the fire and did not drown in the water, because he landed almost two steps from the Volga.


Gagarin spent 108 minutes in space, climbed to an altitude of 302 km and made one orbit around the Earth. He started on April 12 as a senior lieutenant, and landed as a major, passing the rank of captain. So Nikita Khrushchev decided personally.

How his experience helped future cosmonauts! And designers, and engineers, and doctors. After Gagarin, space was no longer a "dark forest", they knew which direction to work in. Gagarin continued to participate in the preparation of all Soviet space flights, regardless of the position he held. There is a myth that after the flight Gagarin was overprotected. This is not true. It is enough to remember that Yuri Alekseevich was the understudy of Vladimir Komarov in his tragic flight, that is, at any moment he was ready to replace him and passed the training program. And shortly before his death in March 1968, the first cosmonaut of mankind discussed with the management the details of his new flight...


Factors of victory


What helped our country win this "race of the century"? There were several reasons and circumstances. Both Soviet and American specialists tried to attract German scientists to work, to take possession of the rocket developments of the Third Reich. As it turned out, the Americans captured many more Fau missiles and brought many more large rocket scientists, led by von Braun, to the States. But it was this "wealth of choice" that largely prevented the Americans from finding the only correct, optimal path to a powerful rocket that could enter orbit. The state, centralized system in this case was more effective than the American one.


Let's not forget about the human factor. The Soviet Union had such geniuses as Sergei Korolev and Valentin Glushko. Their developments (royal rockets and Glushkov engines) still serve cosmonautics. From them, a direct line to the" prophet " of interplanetary travel, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who did not live to see 1961, but predicted the rise of Gagarin. Back in 1958, we had a unique R-7 rocket, which became the carrier for all the first spacecraft. An equally important breakthrough was the appearance of the RD-107 liquid-propellant rocket engine developed by Valentin Glushko's OKB-456.


Information warfare


What about the Americans? They were preparing a retaliatory move, but it was not effective enough. Three weeks after Gagarin's triumph, on May 5, the flight of the first overseas astronaut Alan Shepard took place on the ship "Mercury"... this was not a convincing answer to Gagarin's feat. First, it was a suborbital flight, essentially a jump into the stratosphere, which lasted only 15 minutes. The ship did not manage to fly around the Earth, and this was not provided for by the mission program. In terms of contribution to the exploration of outer space, it was inferior not only to Gagarin's achievement, but even to the flight of Belka and Strelka.


The fact is that in terms of payload capacity, the American missiles were inferior to our "seven" - the Gagarin heights remained inaccessible to them. Shepard's spaceship was even closer than our Vostok. And his view was much worse. The American astronaut saw almost no stars, only noted that the earth's landscape was clearly visible from the height. The only advantage of this "jump" was its demonstration on live television.


For the first time, the Americans managed to enter orbit only on February 20, 1962-almost a year after Gagarin. On that day, John Glenn, an outstanding test pilot, also a participant in the Second World War, made three orbits around the planet in 4 hours and 55 minutes. But how far he was from the Soviet cosmonaut number two Herman Titov, who six months earlier had spent more than 25 hours in space, circling the Earth 17 times! Therefore, in 1962, no one had any doubts: space priorities belong to the Russians.


And yet, the Americans initially tried to win the information war, at first not recognizing Gagarin's priority. They noted that Gagarin flew in automatic mode, without mentioning that at any time, if necessary, he could put the ship in manual control mode and controlled the situation. But it didn't last long. Gagarin was admired by the whole world — and Washington had to admit defeat.


John F. Kennedy, in a special statement dedicated to the Gagarin space flight, said: "We will need time to catch up with the competition. And we can assume that there will be some other unpleasant news waiting for us before the situation improves."


The American press loved the scary pictures with a hammer and sickle instead of stars in the sky darkened with horror. Space has long been the most expressive symbol of the "Russian threat".


But in the Soviet Union itself, space achievements were presented without militarism. The ideological lining looked like this: the path to the stars began in October 1917, we defended it in 1941-1945, and now we are on the finish line to communism. It was emphasized that space achievements belong not to one country, but to science, and therefore to the whole world. And this was another reason for our victory — not only in the space race, but also in the information battle.


Decades passed, and it became finally clear that only "the whole world"can seriously explore space. This is what happens on the modern International Space Station. But how can we forget that the first person to overcome the earth's gravity spoke Russian and was our compatriot, one of us? The history of manned space exploration began with it, and over the centuries the importance of this discovery will only increase: it is impossible to imagine the future without studying the Universe.




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