Vostok lands successfully
On the way back, everything looked good until the conclusion of the 40-second burn of the braking engine, initiated successfully at 10:25 Moscow Time. The spacecraft started spinning about its axis with very high speed. For decades, the very fact, not to mention the cause of the whole incident with the separation of the capsule and its instrument module remained unknown to the general public. Even half a century later, popular accounts of the accident are wildly inaccurate.
A bumpy ride home
Everything looked good until the conclusion of the 40-second burn of the braking engine, initiated successfully at 10:25 Moscow Time. In his post-flight report, Gagarin wrote:
Gagarin, was expecting the separation of his reentry capsule from the instrument module to take place 10-12 seconds after the deorbiting burn, however it did not take place. In the meantime, the spacecraft continued tumbling wildly, as it approached denser layers of the atmosphere. Despite this situation, Gagarin wrote that he believed everything was on track for a safe landing:
According to Gagarin, the separation finally did take place at 10:35, when the spacecraft was over the Mediterranean Sea.
For decades, the very fact, not to mention the cause of the whole incident with the separation of the capsule and its instrument module remained unknown to the general public. Even after Gagarin's report was published, at least one participant of the events denied any problems during the reentry and tried to explain the situation by Gagarin's confusion about the real time of the separation. However thanks to the efforts of the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine, and, particularly, its tireless researcher Igor Lissov, (232) a credible picture of the event had finally been painted during 2000s.
As it turned out, a single valve within the braking engine failed to shut completely at the beginning of the engine burn, letting some fuel leak out and avoid the combustion chamber. As a result, the engine "ran out of gas" and shut down around a second earlier than scheduled. The aborted maneuver slowed the spacecraft by 132 meters per second instead of the programmed 136 meters per second. Even though it was enough to push the spacecraft off its orbit toward reentry, it was apparently not enough for the "punctual" flight control system to generate the nominal command to cut off the engine.
In the absence of a proper cutoff command, the propellant lines of the engine remained open, after it ran out of fuel and stalled. As a result, the pressurization gas and remaining oxidizer continued escaping through the main nozzle and steering thrusters, causing the spacecraft to spin wildly.
Although the engine was later cut off by a timer, the lack of delivered thrust also caused the flight control system to scrub the primary sequence for the separation between the reentry vehicle and the instrument module. Fortunately, the separation did take place some 10 minutes later, (or around 10:36 Moscow Time), supposedly, as a result of an emergency command. The exact mechanism which generated this backup command was a subject of debate as late as 2010. The prevailing theory was that temperature sensors reacting to the heat of atmospheric reentry triggered the separation. (233) However, estimates made by Igor Lissov showed that by 10:36 the spacecraft could only have descended to an altitude of 150-160 kilometers -- likely still too high for temperature sensors to trigger the separation. (464) Therefore, this aspect of the flight still remained under a question mark as of 2010.
Reentry and landing
The descent module of the Vostok 3KA No. 3 spacecraft which carried Yuri Gagarin into space. The capsule's hatch can be seen on the left and the demo version of the ejection seat is on the right. A guide rail used by the ejection seat is well visible in the lower section of the main hatch. A storage locker can be seen above. Vostok carried enough provisions for a 10-day mission.
As the spacecraft plunged into the atmosphere, Gagarin saw a bright crimson glow appear behind his windows. It was accompanied by the crackling noise of thermal protection layers burning in the heat of atmospheric reentry.
Gagarin estimated that at their peak g-forces exceeded 10:
Potentially much more troubling and unexpected than g-loads was the burning smell in the cabin. Fortunately, it was very slight and short-lived, according to Gagarin's recollections after the flight.
As G-forces subsided and the capsule continued descending safely, Gagarin prepared to eject from his craft. At an altitude of seven kilometers, the main hatch of the capsule was jettisoned and seconds later, the pilot ejected. It was 10:42 Moscow Time. Gagarin's ejection seat then came lose gently and he was left falling toward earth. The main parachute of the PS-6415-59 system deployed successfully, however the backup chute came out later as well and, after some delay, deployed. As a result, Gagarin was descending under two parachutes. During the parachute descent, which lasted from six to 10 minutes, Gagarin struggled to open a valve for breathing atmospheric air. The device stuck below his external orange layer and he had to use a mirror to pull the valve.
According to Gagarin, he gently hit the soft surface of freshly plowed dirt in an open field not far from the town of Engels. Later, his landing was determined to be not far from the village of Smelovka, in the Ternovsky District near Saratov. Many sources say Gagarin landed at 10:55 Moscow Time (228) but, according to post-flight report dated May 29, 1961, and published in 2011, the the descent module landed at 10:48 and the pilot at 10:53 Moscow Time. They were 1.5 kilometers apart. (463)
On July 17, 2012, the Russian government declared a monument three kilometers southeast of the Novaya Ternovka station in the Saratov Oblast, Engels District, a federal cultural heritage site.
Post-landing recovery operations
A local woman Anikhayat Takhtarova and her five-year-old grandaughter Rumiya Nurskanova, who were planting potatoes near by, were initially scared when they saw a man dressed in a bright-orange suit and a helmet walking toward them across the field. However they overcame their doubts and responded to his greetings. Takhtarova helped Gagarin to open a tight lock of his helmet and offered him milk from a can she had with her for lunch.
According to the commander of an anti-aircraft division in the area Major Akhmed Gasiev, he heard the loud bang and his subordinate Sopeltsev told him that he had seen a flying vehicle in the air. Deputy Commander of the Unit, Konstantin Kopeykin immediately departed toward the expected landing site of the spacecraft on a crawler track, while Gasiev headed toward descending Gagarin on a wheeled track. Gasiev confirmed that he saw Gagarin touch the ground at 10:55 and claimed that he reached him just four minutes later. Gagarin attempted to make an official report to Gasiev, but he interrupted him with a big hug. Gagarin asked for the nearest telephone and Gasiev offered to drive him to his unit from where they could make a call. According to Gasiev, Gagarin spent around 40 minutes at the unit, where they made a phone call to military headquarters of the division and Gagarin reported to General Vovk that he had been in good shape. He then removed his orange overalls and ask Gasiev to save it, along with a watch, a pistol and a handkerchief. Practically all personnel of the unit, as well as their relatives, who already heard the news flocked to the site.
Gasiev then asked a permission to take pictures and Gagarin gladly posed with him and with his six-year-old son Sasha, but did not care to brush his messed up hair after removing the helmet. Lieutenant Buryak took the pictures.
Gagarin then asked to drive him back to the location of his parachute and an ejection seat. Lieutenant Kalmykov and sergeant Yershov were guarding the spot. As soon as they got on the main road, they heard a helicopter and began waving to the pilot.
As it transpired, Gagarin's nominal landing site was located 300 kilometers further northeast, near the regional center of Pestravka, 89 kilometers from Kuibyshev (Samara). (468) Headquarters of the search and rescue team led by K. T. Tsedrik, the Commander of the Volga military district of the Soviet Air Force, were located at the Kryazh airfield, 79 kilometers from Pestravka.
On the morning of April 12, search helicopters and the plane with doctors trained as sky divers appeared over the expected landing site, but Gagarin's capsule nowhere to be found.
One of the helicopters, which flew along the Vostok's expected flight path finally spotted Gagarin and his accidental saviors waving hands in an open field around 300 kilometers southwest of the planned landing site. The helicopter landed, picked Gagarin and Gasiev onboard and they first flew to his landing site. Gasiev remained at the site, where he helped to erect a marker with a sign: "10:55, Do not touch."
Apparently after another stop near the descent module, the helicopter with Gagarin onboard made it to the airfield in Engels, some 25 kilometers to the northeast. This runway was the closest to the actual landing site and became the de-facto meeting point for the rescue team. An Il-14 aircraft piloted by Captain Lebedev with a team of medics spotted landing site of the descent module too late for the scheduled post-flight medical checks of the cosmonaut. Parachute jumps were canceled and the team was redirected to Engels.
Lt. Colonel Vitaly Volovich, who led the medical team, had to wave his handgun in order to elbow through the excited crowd near the check point of the airfield. He finally caught up with Gagarin on the second floor of the airport building, from where Gagarin. apparently made his phone call to Moscow. However, Volovich got his first chance to measure Gagarin's pulse and blood pressure only onboard of Il-14 heading from Engels to Kuibyshev (Samara). All Gagarin's vital signs were normal.
From Engels, helicopters delivered a group of recovery specialists to the landing site of the Vostok capsule. The descent craft was found around just 10 meters from a slope of a ravine descending toward the Volga River.
By the end of the day on April 12, the technical group of OKB-1 led by Arvid Pallo returned to Engels, while five members of the recovery team led by M. A. Chernovsky and a few parachutists were left for the night to guard the capsule. As started getting dark and temperature plunged, they realized that they had no food or shelter in the open grasslands with some patches of snow still on the ground. They were forced to use a parachute of the descent module as a blanket, while Chernovsky and the head of parachute team ventured to nearby village. After reaching the settlement they had to nock into the windows of several houses until they were directed to the head of the village council. He called a driver and ordered to load firewood and a couple of loaves of bread for the team, which were quickly delivered to the landing site. They made a fire, but still had to spend the night wrapped into a parachute. (463)
In the morning, Chernovsky sent his people down to the ravine to cut several sticks, which were arranged into a 10-meter circle around the descend module. Then they cut a string from a parachute and attached it to sticks, forming a perimeter around the spacecraft. Pallo and his engineers flew back in the morning and found the capsule in good shape.
From the beginning of the day, numerous people started arriving at the site to see the capsule and Chernovsky made himself available to answer questions from the public. Despite the improvised fence, some people tried to get souvenirs from the capsule. Since nobody cared to provide food to Chernovsky rescuers, they helped themselves with the space food in the capsule.
Once the news of the successful landing reached Tyuratam, members of the State Commission, including Korolev, Keldysh and Ryazansky, and other top officials rushed to the Lastochka airfield for a flight to Engels. However, they arrived at the landing site by a helicopter on April 13.
Arvid Pallo, told Korolev that based on his inspection of the spacecraft, it could used again after some updates and tests. However, to chief engineer Genrikh Ivanovsky the look of the capsule reminded tanks, which just emerged from battles of World War II.
Only by the end of the day, technicians eventually packed the capsule for transportation and attached it to a Mi-6 helicopter to airlift it to Engels. At the small indentation left by the capsule, when it first hit the ground, they installed a hand-made pole with a date. Only then, the rescue team was finally able to leave the landing site and have their first normal meal in Engels, as it was already dark.
In Engels, the capsule was re-loaded into the An-12 transport aircraft and sent to OKB-1 in Podlipki. (463)
In the meantime, Gagarin spent two days at the country house of the local party leadership near Kuibyshev, while Moscow was hectically preparing for his triumphant arrival. On April 14, 1961, he flew from Kuibyshev to Moscow onboard a passenger Il-18 aircraft. As the plane was approaching the city, a group of fighter jets provided an escort. At the tarmac, Nikita Khrushchev with a full entourage of Communist Party officials along with a cheering crowd of onlookers were watching Gagarin dressed in his air force uniform emerge from the aircraft and walk on the red carpet to a hero's welcome by the Soviet leader. (A lace on one of Gagarin's shoes had gotten undone during this historic walk captured in timeless film footage and photographs.)
A day after the launch, as the whole USSR celebrated Gagarin's triumph, a group of engineers (stranded in Tyuratam by Korolev's strict order) had to go through historic but mundane task of studying telemetry tapes recorded during the launch. That's when they discovered the failure of the radio-control system, RUP, monitoring the rocket's range and acceleration and responsible for issuing the engine cutoff command on the core stage known as Block A. Radio engineers led by Mikhail Borisenko explained the problem by the failure of the power converter. (466)
As remembered by Nikolai Semenov, an engineer of the RUP system, a critical signal to cutoff the engine "stumbled" inside one of the deciphering units and then came out the fraction of a moment later than required. It distorted the rocket's range readings, causing a calculating device at one of ground stations of the RUP radio-control network to issue the cutoff command slightly later than planned. (51)
According to another source, the evaluation of the telemetry tapes revealed the failure of the power supply to the RUP antennas just 156 seconds after the liftoff, cutting the communications between RUP ground stations and the vehicle. As a result, the autonomous flight control system took over the guidance of the rocket. However, its velocity sensor was calibrated to cut off engines one second later than the timeline of the RUP system, resulting in the 83-kilometer altitude overflight. (463)
Estimates made by Igor Lissov suggest that the 0.6-0.7-second delay of the engine shutdown would be enough to send the spacecraft around 100 kilometers higher than required. (467)
Lucky not to drawn
A post-landing investigation revealed that during landing, Gagarin and his capsule were heading directly into the Volga River, where they would certainly end up either in quiet weather or under easterly and southern winds. Given the fact that Gagarin's emergency kit, including a boat and a radio, was ripped off during the descent, such a splashdown could end catastrophically. Fortunately, a strong western wind at an altitude of seven kilometers caused huge drift of the descent capsule and the pilot, precluding their water landing. Gagarin ended up around nine kilometers from the shore.
The landing site was located around 50 meters above the sea level on the soft soil at a temperature of around 7.5 degrees outside. (463)
Launched into space from the abyss of secrecy, Gagarin returned to Earth an international celebrity. The shockwave of the Vostok mission spread far outside the Soviet space program and long outlived its hero.
Following Sputnik, Gagarin dealt another major blow to American nationalism. At the same time, Vostok solidified American determination to invest heavily into their fledgling manned space program and made it politically easier for the US government to commit to the risky and ambitious goal of landing a man on the Moon within ten years. Along with Sputnik, Gagarin's mission helped create an oversized, overpriced and technologically dead-ended Apollo program, before its own success would reveal that it had no future beyond scoring points with the Soviets. Until today, popular American books and magazine articles on the history of space exploration, which are largely oblivious of any developments outside of the United States, do make an exception for Sputnik and Gagarin.
At the same time, Gagarin's leap above the Earth helped create the deceiving appearance of the Soviet Union as the most advanced and forward-looking nation on Earth. With Vostok, the caprice of history handed the Kremlin the kind of arrogance it had just stripped off the White House. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev and his much more conservative successors made Gagarin one of the most prominent icons of the Soviet system, while continuing down the path of self-destructing economic policies, unchecked arms race, isolation and oppression of any dissent. Ironically, the Soviet military industrial complex, which made Gagarin's success possible, also contributed to the economic bankruptcy and the ultimate demise of the very system this achievement was supposed to advance. In the meantime, half a century after Gagarin's pioneering mission, the world's manned space program was still looking for direction.
Sites related to Gagarin's landing:
Main records officially claimed by the USSR at the conclusion of the first manned Vostok flight:
*According to later sources, the mission lasted 106 minutes.
A mockup of the braking engine of the Vostok spacecraft. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
A monument to Yuri Gagarin faces the rising Moon over the Baikonur Cosmodrome's Site 2, where the first cosmonaut of the planet spent his last night before the historic flight in April 1961. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
A Soviet period exhibit featuring the Pravda newspaper, a mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, published on April 13, 1961. In the orwellian fashion of changing the past, censors of the Brezhnev era cut out a part of the publication, in an apparent attempt to erase any memory of Nikita Khrushchev, as a revenge for his efforts to expose the crimes of Stalinism. The display likely no longer exist. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
Yuri Gagarin became the subject of numerous monuments throughout the Soviet Union. Click to enlarge.