First Flights Into Space

Feature, Modern Era

Man Ceases to be Earthbound

Sputnik I went into orbit in 1957, the first man-made satellite to join the moon in its journey around the earth. The Soviet Union had constructed it; had assembled the enormously powerful rocket which shot it into space, beyond the effective reach of the earth’s gravity; and the Soviet Union had given it that pleasant Russian name, meaning “companion” or “fellow-traveler”. Within a week it had become a part of every language in the world.

To have launched an object so far into space that gravity was unable to recall it, yet not so far that it travelled on for ever, prisoner of its own momentum, and was lost, was a tremendous feat. “Sputnik” travelled round the earth many times before gravity claimed him and he burst into flames re-entering the atmosphere. He had till then travelled an orbit just far enough out for the centrifugal force dragging him off into space to be balanced by the slight force of gravity at that distance.

But this, though thrilling, was only one step, a first, tentative, step, in the race to conquer space, a race which has no foreseeable end. A “Sputnik” into orbit, a man into orbit, a team of scientists into orbit, to the moon, to Mars, to the outer limits of the Solar System…

Each stage in the race is more exciting, more exacting than the one preceding. When the Russians followed up “Sputnik I” (and other “Sputniks”) with a man into orbit, in 1961, the world rejoiced.

To the Soviet scientists listening it was as if contact had suddenly been established with Mars, as if a Martian wavelength had been found. But this new star, which scientists from Vladivostok to Jodrell Bank were soon tracking, was of far greater interest to science, to the man in the street, than a chance conversation with a man from Mars. The man with whom they had established contact was a perfectly normal human being, floating calmly serenely, it seemed, outside the earth’s atmosphere. A man in space.

It was fifteen minutes after the man had begun his journey into the unknown that the words came  back,  faint,  distorted,  but intelligible. “Flight proceeding normally”

The message came from somewhere over South America, a message from a young man who, a quarter of an hour earlier, had been lying down in eastern Russia, waiting to be flung into orbit like the “Sputniks” before him, on the nose of a rocket: the first human being, should he be successful, to achieve a visit to the outer regions, beyond reach of gravity, of human aid. Back in the Soviet Union he had just left, it was early morning on 12 April, 1961: here, over the middle of Argentina, it was late evening of the 11th.

An hour and forty-eight minutes after he had been launched into space, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin landed at a pre-arranged spot in the Soviet Union. Moscow time was 10.55 a.m. The first man into space (the first man, at least, to be brought back alive: no one outside the Soviet Union knew whether there had been failures before this final, crowning achievement), the first man was back, in good health, good spirits. He was fine, it had all been exciting, good fun. “One’s legs, one’s arms, they weigh nothing. Objects float around in the cabin, I didn’t just sit in my chair, I hung in space.”

Ten months after Gagarin’s flight, an American, John Glenn, followed him, on 20 February, 1962. As against Gagarin’s single orbit, Glenn achieved three, but in between had come the Russian Titov with seventeen and a half, in August, 1961. Historically, the American flight was of great importance: the United States, a slow starter, reluctant at first to devote the huge sums necessary for space research, was in the race at last. Would she catch up? (Recent developments suggest that she has.)

Gagarin had been twenty-seven when he made his flight, a round-faced, snub-nosed youth of five feet two inches, son of a carpenter. His American successor was a man thirteen years his senior, who had been flying combat missions against the Japanese when Gagarin was in Primary School; an American product of an American city, surrounded by all the technology of the twentieth century. Gagarin, by way of contrast, had been born in the remotest of Russian villages, surrounded by nothing, for as far as the eye could see, but rolling fields of grain. Both had been keen to fly, from an early age, both had managed to get into the Services and fly there.

Gagarin in 1941 had been forced to hide with his mother from the invading German armies: he was eleven years old before he was able to begin his schooling. Now he found that the only thing which really interested him was technology, and particularly aeronautics. He was sent off to Technical School in the industrial Moscow suburb of Lyubertsy, and here he could feast his eyes through the class-room window on aircraft from the nearby factory, being taken off, tested, landed, by their pilots. Soon his ambition was to become a test pilot himself. After waiting impatiently for several years, during which he worked in a factory by day and studied at night, he was able to enlist in the Soviet Air Force, in 1955. He passed out of the Training Centre with the highest honours, achieved his aim of becoming a test pilot and was soon selected for the special training of an astronaut.

John Glenn’s origins were different. His father was a railwayman who went on, in the Ohio where John was born and brought up, to become the well-to-do owner of a motor business, a transition which would probably have been impossible in Russia. John was an honour student in High School, and in 1942, thirteen years before Yuri Gagarin clambered into the cockpit of his first aeroplane, he took a Naval course in flying. From this he went on to join the United States Marines as a pilot. He served with distinction in the Pacific, was promoted to captain and transferred to the Regular service. Then, after further combat experience in Korea, he became a test pilot. In 1957, the year of “Sputnik I”, he made the first non-stop supersonic flight across the United States; two years later he was selected, as Gagarin, thousands of miles away, had been, to undergo training for space flight.

We know little about the training regimen of the Russians but it is reasonable to assume that it was similar to the American one. The seven American astronauts-to-be were exposed to extremes of heat and cold, to strong forces of gravity followed by complete weightlessness (achieved in a centrifuge, and, later, in a diving aircraft), and a whole catalogue of the other conditions they might encounter in space. They practised desert and water survival, astronomy, astronautics, meteorology, aviation biology and geography, and throughout all this were given physical and psychological tests at frequent intervals to see how they were reacting. In the United States each astronaut had to concentrate on one aspect of the programme: John Glenn’s was cockpit layout, controls and instrumentation. To a considerable degree, the final design was his.

We know nothing of Yuri Gagarin’s last hours before blast-off, but we do know that in Glenn’s case the delay, the postponements of the flight, were enough to have shattered the confidence of a lesser man. Two of the seven in training, Alan Shepard and virgil Grissom, had already made sub-orbital flights into space (leaving the earth’s atmosphere but not its force of gravity) in May and July of 1961, shortly after Gagarin’s orbit, and Glenn’s Flight was scheduled for December of that year. It was then postponed no fewer than ten times as a result of weather conditions and and technical hitches. On several occasions he lay strapped into his capsule on the launching pad at Cape Canaveral on the Florida coast (now Cape-Kennedy) before learning the launch had been cancelled. Eventually, on 29 February, 1962, three hours after he had been closed into Ins capsule for an eleventh time, he was blasted off. When he returned to earth a few hours later he had circled it three times, had seen three sunsets, three dawns.

His capsule, to the television audience watching, was a tiny pimple on the nose of the huge Atlas-D rocket. It was fired at 0947. At first it seemed hardly to be moving, just wobbling precariously in a cloud of smoke and vapour. Its name, “Friendship Seven”, a reference to the seven American astronauts, was clearly visible, painted in large letters round the side. Then, very slowly, that name, centre of a million television screens, wobbled away to the top right-hand corner, obscured by clouds of what seemed steam. There was a shrill, mounting, whine from the rocket, and then it began to crawl into a clear-blue, Florida sky. Its speed rose as it cleared the tower, but still, to viewers, it was too slow to be true: it was like some slow-motion film. Then it grew faster, rose rapidly, disappeared. Moments later it was visible again, a white-hot flare in the sky, growing smaller and fainter.

At an altitude of a hundred miles an electrical mechanism tilted the rocket and capsule, separated them so the capsule was free to travel alone on its orbit of the earth. From now on Glenn was in continuous contact with the ground, reporting what he saw, how he felt, how “Friendship Seven” was behaving. In fact, much of this reporting was done for him: his blood pressure, respiration rate, temperature, were radioed continuously to earth in a complex code which included details, as well, of the behaviour of the capsule itself, its temperature, its controls.

John Glenn’s flight lasted four hours and fifty-six minutes. He had covered 81,000 miles, at altitudes between ninety-nine and a hundred and sixty-two miles, before it ended at 2.43 p.m., when “Friendship Seven” dropped into the sea off Puerto Rico and was picked up by a destroyer. (Unlike the various “Sputniks” and other un-manned satellites, which had been allowed to burn up on re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, as the friction of air on their skins heated them to incandescence, “Friendship Seven” had an arrangement of “retro-rockets” designed to slow it down at this critical point.)

The trip had been successful. Two things went wrong and were rectified: the hydrogen peroxide jets for controlling the capsule’s balance behaved erratically, and Glenn took over manual control to let “Friendship Seven” complete its third and final orbit; and a faulty mechanism signalled to earth that the heat-shield, designed, in collaboration with the “retro-rockets”, to prevent the capsule overheating during its descent, had become detached. The information was wrong: the descent worked smoothly.

The fact that an American had achieved orbital flight was of immense importance to American (and indeed Western) morale, which had suffered since the launching of the first Russian “Sputnik” in 1957. It seems likely that, though the Russian capsules were heavier, their rockets more powerful, the American control and reporting devices on “Friendship Seven” were considerably more sophisticated. Certainly the Russians have done less in the way of research satellites than have the Americans: the United States has put into orbit immensely complicated bundles of equipment varying in size and shape from a football to a sailing boat, with functions from simple measurement of cosmic radiation to a complete “space switchboard” between other “communications satellites” designed to relay television signals around the curvature of the earth.

The next stage in what, for reasons of prestige, has become a “space race”, between the United States and the Soviet Union, is the landing of a man on the moon. Both sides have crashed spacecraft into the moon and have received television pictures of its surface (the Russians, of the previously unseen reverse side, taken from a distance of thousands of miles, the Americans, of the familiar side, but from distances down to less than one mile), and although there are indications that the Russians, for economic reasons, have slowed down their progress, it is likely that one or both will have men on the moon before 1980.

Already the epoch-making feats of Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn have paled into comparative insignificance. Yet, in years to come, when, perhaps, travel to and from the moon, possibly even to planets, has become a commonplace, children will still be taught: about these two brave men, the first in their two countries to run the unknown risks of a journey into space.