Yesterday April 12th 1961 was the 60th anniversary of when Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth.
Over the course of 108 minutes, Vostok 1 traveled around the Earth once, reaching a maximum height of 203 miles (327 kilometers). The spacecraft carried 10 days’ worth of provisions in case the engines failed and Gagarin was required to wait for the orbit to naturally decay. But the supplies were unnecessary. Gagarin re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, managing to maintain consciousness as he experienced forces up to eight times the pull of gravity during his descent.
Vostok 1 had no engines to slow its re-entry and no way to land safely. About 4 miles (7 km) up, Gagarin ejected from the spacecraft and parachuted to Earth. In order for the mission to be counted as an official spaceflight, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the governing body for aerospace records, had determined that the pilot must land with the spacecraft. Soviet leaders indicated that Gagarin had touched down with the Vostok 1, and they did not reveal that he had ejected until 1971.
Reading some articles about it, I learned many surprising things about that flight. We are used these days to people returning to Earth from space flights with ground control and media tracking every moment of their arrival. There was nothing like that for Gagarin. Due to a slight malfunction, Gagarin overshot the planned landing site.
First, the launch was not publicized, since if anything went wrong, the Soviets didn’t want the world to know. As a result, it was a relative secret until everything was over.
Second, the landing wasn’t quite where the mission planners wanted. Due to a power supply failure to a set of antennae for the radio-controlled range and accelleration measuring system, the command to cut off the engines was very slightly delayed, resulting in an overflight of 83 kilometers/52 miles.
As a result, the Vostok capsule and Gagarin landed somewhere they didn’t really plan for, and surrounded by people that had no idea what was going on or to even be alert to expect people falling down from space.
Gagarin landed in a potato field, much to the shock of a woman and her five-year old granddaughter who were out planting potatoes and had no idea of what was going on. They were alarmed at the sudden appearance of a strange apparition in an orange suit coming towards them, and they planned to run away when the apparition spoke to them in Russian.
That place was the Leninsky Put Collective Farm in Kazakhstan, and instead of being greeted by a trained crew of officials and workers ready to handle everything, he was greeted by a grandmother and a little five-year old girl, planting potatoes.
The grandmother was named Anikhayat Takhtarova, who helped Gagarin remove his helmet, and gave him some milk.
The little girl, Rumiya Kudasheva, noticed “two red balls” in the sky, but grandma told her to stay focused on throwing potatoes into the holes her grandmother was digging.
Many years later, she recounted what happened next:
A little more time passed, and Rita had already forgotten about the strange balls in the sky, when suddenly the girl saw something huge and beautiful rise from the field.
It was an orange monster! – says Rita. – Suddenly he stirred, got up and went, and behind him on the ground dragged a huge parachute and ropes. I told my grandmother: “You didn’t want to watch, but now he is coming to us himself!”
When the helmet was removed from Yuri Alekseevich and his face became visible, the grandmother began to ask questions. There was no one else around – people rarely met on the field, and if they did, they usually came by car. The grandmother asked what he had come in. “On the ship!” – came the answer. “What ship? There is no water nearby!” – the grandmother was surprised. Then he said: “I am from the sky!” The grandmother did not believe it, and the man invited her to go to the booth so that she could be convinced of everything personally.
Rita wanted to go with them, but a calf came up to the bucket and began to eat potatoes.
At that time, the potato was more important for us than Gagarin, we didn’t know who he was – I remained to protect it. They were gone for a long time, and when they returned, a crowd of collective farmers had already appeared. Apparently, they heard on the radio about the landing. They ran to us, they had hoes, pitchforks.
People ran up and surrounded them. I made my way through the crowd and saw that the alien was lying on the field, and the spacesuit was being removed from him. People untied and twisted something on his arms and legs. And when the spacesuit was unbuttoned, I was finally convinced that this was a man. You know, he was different from everyone else in that he constantly smiled, he had a smile from ear to ear. Then a helicopter flew for him, if I’m not mistaken, from the Saratov Helicopter School, and took him away.
This video has an interview with the granddaughter at the location of the landing which has been made into a memorial.
After his arrival back on Earth, Gagarin accepted invitations to visit about 30 countries where he was warmly welcomed because of his feat and also because of his famous smile and charming personality but president Kennedy barred him from coming to the US, which strikes me as extremely petty.
I wonder if this story was the inspiration for Creedence Clearwater Revival’s funny 1969 song It Came Out of the Sky.