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Gagarin’s 50-year-old feat remembered

STAR CITY, Russia (AP) ― It was the Soviet Union’s own giant leap for mankind, one that would spur a humiliated America to race for the moon. It happened 50 years ago this Tuesday, when an air force pilot named Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.

The 27-year-old cosmonaut’s mission lasted just 108 minutes and was fraught with drama: a break in data transmission, glitches involving antennas, a retrorocket and the separation of modules. And there was an overarching question that science had yet to answer:

What would weightlessness do to a human being?

“There were all kinds of wild fears that a man could lose his mind in zero gravity, lose his ability to make rational decisions,” recalls Oleg Ivanovsky, who oversaw the construction and launch of the Vostok spacecraft that carried Gagarin.

The flight was to be fully automatic, but what if weightlessness caused Gagarin to go mad and override the programmed controls? The engineers’ solution was to add a three-digit security code that the cosmonaut would have to enter to gain command of the spacecraft.

It proved unnecessary. The flight went off safely, and the handsome Russian with the big smile became a poster boy for the communist world, still a national idol 43 years after his death in a jet training accident, and remembered with enormous affection by the last surviving pioneers of the Soviet space program at Star City outside Moscow, where he trained.

From the stern and uncompromising chief designer, Sergei Korolyov, to young nurses and rank-and-file launch pad workers, “people loved, really loved him,” Ivanovsky told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Korolyov was eager to cement the Soviet edge in space after the October 1957 launch of Sputnik, the world’s first manmade satellite, and he wanted to move to human spaceflight and score another victory in the race against the Americans.

But after a series of botched experimental flights throughout 1960 and a launch pad explosion that killed 126 people, safety was an overriding priority, Ivanovsky says.

The flight was limited to a single orbit because of the questions about weightlessness, and Gagarin was supposed to parachute out of the capsule on return because a soft-landing system was not ready yet.

Despite the risks, competition for the mission was strong among the 20 young pilots on the short list, and Gagarin was the favorite.

He was a man who made people feel at ease and radiated kindness, former cosmonaut Vladimir Shatalov, now 83, recalled at the Star City training center, which he headed for 20 years.

Just three days before blastoff from what would later be known as the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Gagarin was told that he was chosen for the mission. In a letter to his wife, Valentina, he asked her to raise their daughters “not as little princesses, but as real people,” and to feel free to remarry if his mission proved fatal.

“My letter seems like a final will. But I don’t think so and I hope you will never see this letter and I will feel shame later for that brief moment of weakness,” he wrote.

“Gagarin was aware of the fears concerning zero gravity, and he also knew about all failed launches preceding his flight, but he never showed any fear or doubt,” Ivanovsky said.
This photo released by TASS in April 1961 shows cosmonaut Major Yuri Gagarin during training. (AP-Yonhap News)
This photo released by TASS in April 1961 shows cosmonaut Major Yuri Gagarin during training. (AP-Yonhap News)

On the eve of the flight, Gagarin and his backup, German Titov, went to bed early and were awakened at 5:30 a.m. Gagarin was joking, his pulse was an exemplary 64 beats a minute and it remained the same after he took his seat in the Vostok.

Before boarding, Gagarin saw Korolyov looking haggard after a sleepless night. “Don’t you worry, Sergei Pavlovich, he told the chief designer, “everything will be just fine.”

“It was he who was comforting me!” Korolyov would marvel later.

He thought of Gagarin as a son, and Gagarin carried Korolyov’s picture in his wallet.

The security code for use in emergency was supposed to stay in a sealed envelope for the cosmonaut to open only if necessary, but Ivanovsky was too nervous to stick with protocol. As he escorted Gagarin to the capsule, he whispered the code to him: 1-2-5. Gagarin smiled and said he already knew; his instructor, equally protective, had already let him in on the secret.

Ivanovsky helped Gagarin up the ladder and into the cockpit, patted him on the helmet and wished him luck before closing the hatch, only to hear Korolyov telling him from the control room that a light that was meant to indicate the hatch was hermetically closed had failed to turn on. Ivanovsky and his two assistants had to remove all 32 screws sealing the hatch and then put them back at a frantic pace.

Inside the capsule, Gagarin was whistling a tune. Later he would joke to Ivanovsky: “You should have seen yourself while you were working on the hatch; your face had all the colors of tarnished metal.”

Gagarin’s rocket lifted off as scheduled on April 12, 1961, at 9:07 a.m. Moscow time. “Poyekhali!” (Off we go!), the cosmonaut shouted as he took off.

Korolyov and his engineers quickly got their first jolt: a signal suggesting a problem with the booster. It turned out to be just a break of a few seconds in data transmission. Gagarin’s confident reports from orbit eased the tension, and only after the flight, it emerged that an antenna malfunction had put the Vostok into a much higher and riskier orbit.

On re-entry, a glitch involving a retrorocket made the ship rotate swiftly, and the landing capsule was slow to jettison the service module. Scientists had to take a deep breath as they lost contact with the ship during its fiery earthward plunge.

Gagarin bailed out as planned, and parachuted onto a field near the Volga River about 720 kilometers southeast of Moscow. There he was spotted by a forester’s wife and her granddaughter who tried to run away from the stranger in his bright orange space suit and white helmet. They may have thought he was a U.S. spy, given that less than a year before, U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers had been shot down over the Soviet Union in his U-2 spy plane, an incident that had badly strained U.S.-Soviet relations.

“Hey, where are you running? I’m one of us!” Gagarin shouted.

Then others arrived, realizing he was the cosmonaut they had just heard about on the radio.

Gagarin learned to his great surprise that while aloft, he was being promoted two levels higher, to major. Korolyov and others flew to the landing area and met with Gagarin at a Communist Party guesthouse. Their raucous reunion lasted late into the night. On April 14 Gagarin was flown to Moscow, where he was greeted by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and driven into town on a highway lined with cheering Russians.

“People took to the streets; everybody felt excited, it felt like V-Day,” Korolyov’s daughter Natalya recalled.

Americans, waking up as the Soviet Union was well into its celebrations, were shocked. The next day members of Congress grilled NASA officials. One demanded that the U.S. be put on a war footing.

NASA explained that the Soviets had a greater lead time, having started their effort in 1954, four years before the American space agency was founded.

Twenty-three days after Gagarin’s flight, on May 5, 1961, American Alan Shepard became the second man in space. But his suborbital hop lasted just 15 minutes. It wasn’t until John Glenn’s flight on Feb. 20, 1962, that an American managed to emulate Gagarin’s globe-circling feat.

“Now let the other countries try to catch us,” Gagarin had declared after returning from space, and the U.S. quickly set out to do so. Barely three weeks after Shepard’s launch, President John F. Kennedy committed the nation to putting a man on the moon by decade’s end. The goal was achieved in July 20, 1969.

Gagarin’s legacy, meanwhile, has been dogged by conspiracy theories. Rumors still abound of botched and fatal space missions, the result of pervasive secrecy that surrounded the Soviet space program. “The degree of secrecy created shadows in which monsters could lurk,” said Oberg, the NASA veteran.

Some early flights used mannequins which might have been mistaken for real people. But at least one death was real: cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko died in a pressure chamber fire during ground training less than a month before Gagarin’s flight.

And then there was Gagarin’s own death on March 27, 1968. It still drives conspiracy theories that the KGB wanted him dead because he supposedly opposed the Soviet regime.

Shatalov, the former cosmonaut, sat in his own jet, waiting his turn to take off after Gagarin and his crewman. He saw his friend smile and wave, and the next thing he knew, their MiG-15 had crashed into a forest. Shatalov surmises that the shock wave from another plane’s sonic boom was to blame.

Gagarin’s flight on the Vostok was entirely automated, yet simply by having the courage to face the unknown, he taught his fellow humans a vital lesson: that they had a future in space.

“Before this first flight there were reasonable suspicions that human beings weren’t made for this environment,” Oberg said. “And once Gagarin answered that question, I think every other discovery on every other manned spaceflight was just details. He answered the most challenging, the most awesome question by his performance.”

<한글 기사> 

가가린 우주비행 50년: 인류 첫 우주를 열다

우주선 '보스토크' 타고 108분 우주비행
34세에 추락사로 요절

옛 소련의 유리 가가린이 역사상 처음으로 우주비행에 성공한 지 올해로 50주년을 맞는다. 가가린은 1961년 4월 12일 우주선 '보스토크 1호'를 타고 108분 동안 우주를 비행한 뒤 지구로 무사히 귀환했다. 

당시 27세의 청년 가가린이 성공시킨 우주비행은 그를 일약 세계적 스타로 만든 것은 물론 옛 소련이 우주개발 경쟁에서 미국을 앞지르는 데 크게 기여했다. 

가가린은 그러나 우주비행 성공 7년 뒤 비행 훈련 도중 전투기가 추락해 34세의 나이에 요절했다. 사고 원인은 지금까지 베일에 가려 있다. 

◇ 가가린, 우주를 열다 = 1961년 4월 12일 아침. 인류 최초의 우주비행을 앞둔 카자흐스탄 바이코누르 우주기지에는 숨 막히는 긴장감이 감돌았다. 전해에 이루어진 여러 차례의 우주선 발사 실험이 실패한 뒤였다. 

소련 당국은 가가린의 우주 비행 성공 확률을 50%로 봤다. 이 때문에 국영 타스 통신마저 사전에 비행이 성공했을 경우와 우주선 발사가 실패했을 경우, 우주인이 사망했을 경우 등 3가지 상황을 상정해 예비기사를 마련해 뒀을 정도였다. 

하지만 보스토크 우주선 설계자이자 우주 비행 책임자였던 세르게이 코롤료프는 미국이 같은 해 5월 우주 비행을 계획하고 있다는 소식에 압박을 느껴 모험을  감행 했다. 

어린 두 딸의 아버지였던 가가린 대신 자식이 없던 다른 우주인 게르만 티토프를 우주로 보내자는 제안도 나왔으나 가가린을 직접 면접한 코롤료프가 그를 고집했다. 

출발에 앞서 코롤료프는 가가린을 안심시켰다. "유라(유리의 애칭), 걱정하지 말게. 어디에 착륙하던 우리가 자네를 찾아낼 걸세. 지금 전 공군에 비상이 걸렸네. 혹 소련을 벗어날 경우에 대비해 외국에 지원을 요청하는 호소문도 준비해 뒀네". 

발사 1분전 가가린은 긴장을 풀려는 듯 당시 유행하던 노래 '날아라 비둘기야 날 아라'를 나지막이 부르고 있었다. 하지만 우주인의 호흡은 점점 가빠져갔다. 흥분하고 있음이 역력했다. 

몇 초 뒤 코롤료프가 "출발"을 명령하자, 가가린은 모든 각오를 마친 듯 그 유명한 "파예할리(그래 가자)"란 말을 내뱉었다. 

오전 9시 7분(모스크바 시간). 가가린을 태운 보스토크 1호가 드디어 불을 뿜었다. 우주선은 지상 299km까지 올라간 뒤 76분에 걸쳐 지구 궤도를 한 바퀴 돌았다. 

우주 당국은 가가린을 심리적으로 안정시키기 위해 지상과 계속 교신토록 했다. 궤도에 진입한 가가린은 "지평선이 보인다. 하늘은 검고 지구의 둘레에 아름다운 푸른색 섬광이 비친다"고 알려왔다. 

오전 10시 23분. 지상과의 마지막 교신에서 가가린은 "비행이 순조롭게 이루어 지고 있으며 몸 상태도 아주 좋다. 모든 기기가 정상 작동하고 있다"고 보고했다.  

그리곤 교신이 끊겼다. 

여러 차례의 우여곡절을 겪은 끝에 가가린은 예정대로 지구 궤도를 돌고 지상 7 천m 상공에서 사출(catapulting) 좌석을 이용해 귀환 모듈에서 튀어나와 낙하산으로 무사히 땅 위에 내렸다. 귀환 모듈도 낙하산에 매달려 지상에 착륙했다. 

오전 10시 55분이었다. 108분간에 걸친 인류 최초의 우주 비행이 성공한 것이다. 예상 착륙 지점을 벗어나긴 했지만 1시간 뒤 가가린은 구조대에 발견됐다. 

인류 첫 우주 비행은 예상치 못한 비상 상황의 연속이었다. 출발 몇 분을 앞두고 우주선 출입구 밀봉 여부를 확인해주는 시스템이 작동하지 않아 32개의 볼트를 풀었다가 다시 조여야 했다. 

비행 중간 단계에선 기계실이 오랫동안 분리되지 않아 귀환 모듈 하강 궤도가 가팔라지면서 모듈이 통째 타버릴 위기도 있었다. 사출 이후엔 우주복 호흡 밸브가 제대로 작동하지 않아 가가린이 질식사할 뻔하기도 했다. 

하지만 신은 평민 출신의 조종사 가가린에게 이 모든 역경을 딛고 인류 최초의 우주인이 되는 행운을 안겨줬다. 

◇ 목수의 아들에서 우주 영웅으로 = 가가린은 1934년 3월 9일 러시아 서부 스몰렌스크주(州)의 작은 시골 마을에서 태어났다. 아버지 알렉세이는 농민 출신의 목수였고 어머니 안나는 유제품 가공공장에서 일했다. 

1951년 남부 사라토프주(州) 공업전문기술학교에 입학해 4년 만에 우등으로 졸업한 가가린은 재학 시절인 54년 처음으로 항공기 조종 서클에 가입해 하늘과 인연을 맺었다. 

기술학교를 졸업하고 군에 입대한 그는 이후 조종사 양성학교에서 전문훈련을 받고 북해함대 소속 전투비행연대에서 2년 동안 근무했다. 

23세 때인 1957년 발렌티나 고랴체바와 결혼한 가가린은 2년 뒤 우주비행사 후보 신청서를 제출했고 곧이어 신체검사 등을 거쳐 우주인 훈련 프로그램에 참여하게 된다. 

첫 우주 비행 성공은 목수의 아들이자 1m 58cm의 단신인 가가린에게 세계적 명성을 안겨줬다. 당시 소련 정부 기관지 이즈베스티야는 '세계를 뒤흔든 108분'이란 제목으로 가가린의 우주 비행 성공 소식을 크게 보도했다. 

우주 비행 성공과 함께 가가린은 대위에서 소령으로 진급했고 국가 영웅 칭호를 받았다. 최고회의(의회 격) 대의원에 선출되기도 했다. 소련에선 새로 태어난 아이 이름을 '유리'로 짓는 게 유행할 정도로 그의 인기는 끝없이 치솟았다. 가가린은 세계 30여개국을 돌며 하루에 18~20여 차례나 강연을 해야 했다. 

◇ 34세에 찾아온 의문의 죽음 = 60년대 후반 가가린은 두 번째 우주비행을 준비하고 있었다. 당시 우주인 훈련 프로그램에는 항공기 비행 훈련도 포함됐다. 

1968년 3월 27일 가가린은 교관 블라디미르 세료긴과 2인승 훈련용 전투기 MIG- 15에 탑승했다. 10시 18분 모스크바 인근 츠칼로프스키 비행장을 떠난 가가린은 10시 30분 예정보다 빨리 훈련을 마치고 지상에 귀환 허가를 요청했다. 이후 교신이 끊겼다. 

그리고 1분 뒤 전투기가 엄청난 속도로 땅에 처박히면서 가가린과 세료긴은 즉사했다. 그의 지갑에는 운전 면허증과 40루블, 스승인 코롤료프의 사진이 들어있었다. 인생의 황금기에 요절한 가가린의 유해는 국가 영웅들이 묻히는 모스크바 크렘린궁 외벽 아래에 안장됐다. 

사고 후 조직된 국가조사위원회는 "비행 도중 대기 상황 변화로 급기동을 하면서 급강하하게 됐고 수평을 유지하려는 노력이 실패하면서 지상과 충돌해 사망했다.

전투기의 기술적 문제는 없었으며 유해에 대한 혈액 분석 결과 (알코올 등의) 외부 물질은 발견되지 않았다"고 밝혔다. 

하지만 급기동을 하게된 원인에 대해서는 아무런 설명도 하지 않았다.
이에 실제 사고 원인을 둘러싸고 온갖 추정과 가설들이 난무했다. 조종 실수에 따른 단순 사고설에서부터 그의 인기를 시기한 소련 공산당 서기장 레오니트 브레즈 네프의 교사설 등 수많은 가설들이 끊이지 않았다. 인류 최초 우주인 가가린의 죽음은 지금도 여전히 베일에 싸여 있다.