Yuri’s Night

Look Honey! We have a coin celebrating Yuri Gagarin.

Yuri’s Night is a global celebration of humanity’s past, present, and future in space. Yuri’s Night parties and events are held around the world every April 12 in commemoration of Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human to venture into space on April 12, 1961 and the first human to see Earth from space.

Three-quarter profile head-and-shoulders view of Soviet cosmonaut Major Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin in pressure suit and helmet (faceplate raised), probably on or about April 12, 1961, when he made his orbital space flight in Vostok 1.

Some people have argued that Gagarin does not qualify for the title “the first man in space” because he didn’t land inside his aircraft. When Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth on 12 April 1961, the plan had never been for him to land inside his Vostok 1 spacecraft. His spherical re-entry capsule came through the Earth’s atmosphere on a ballistic trajectory. Soviet engineers had not yet perfected a braking system that would slow the craft sufficiently for a human to survive impact. They decided to eject the cosmonaut from his craft. Yuri Gagarin ejected at 7 kilometres from the ground and deployed a parachute at 2.5 kilometres in altitude before landing safely on Earth. Soviet engineers had not discussed this shortcoming with Soviet delegates to the FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) prior to his flight. They prepared their documents for the FAI omitting this fact. This led everyone to believe that Gagarin had landed inside his spacecraft. It was not until four months later, when Gherman Stepanovich Titov became the second human to orbit the Earth on Vostok 2 and the first person to spend a full day in space (circling Earth 17 times), when the controversy began to brew. Titov owned up to ejecting himself. This led to a special meeting of the delegates to the FAI to re-examine Titov’s spaceflight records. The conclusion of the delegates was to rework the parameters of human spaceflight to recognize that the great technological accomplishment of spaceflight was the launch, orbiting and safe return of the human, not the manner in which he or she landed. Gagarin and Titov’s records remained on the FAI books. Yes, Gagarin did not follow the rules that the FAI established before his flight. However, as is true with any sports organization, the FAI reserved the right to re-examine and reinterpret its rules in light of new knowledge and circumstances. Yuri Gagarin remains indisputably the first person in space and the concept that the first cosmonauts had to land inside their spacecraft is a faded artefact of the transition from aviation to spaceflight.

Even after Soviet-made models of the Vostok spacecraft made it clear that the craft had no braking capability, in 1968 the FAI created the Yuri Gagarin Gold Medal that it awards annually to greatest aviation or space achievement of the previous year.

In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin carried tokens with them to the Moon, to honour three US astronauts and two cosmonauts who died during the early days of spaceflight. One of those symbols, a medal, honoured Yuri Gagarin. The medal is still on the Moon today. A crater on the Moon is named for Gagarin as is asteroid 1772 Gagarin.

Yuri Gagarin was born on a farm in a region west of Moscow in the Soviet Union (now Russia). He learned to fly as a teen and began training as a military pilot at the age of 22. Just two years after Gagarin graduated from flight school, the Soviets began looking for candidates to become cosmonauts (the Soviet term of astronauts). Out of 3000 applicants, they chose 20 men. Gagarin was one of them.

Training in the program was intense. It involved not only technical study and flight training, but also physical and psychological tests. In January 1961, Gagarin was one of 6 candidates chosen for the final testing. As the hopeful cosmonauts prepared for the tests, tragedy touched the Soviet space program. One of the candidates died when fire broke out during a training session. Gagarin and the other four candidates continued with their training.

On April 8, 1961, Soviet officials chose Gagarin to be the first cosmonaut in space. His warm personality was a deciding factor. Officials thought Gagarin would make a good impression in his ensuing wave of public appearances as the first person in space. The next day, Gagarin was told of the decision.

On April 12, 1961, Gagarin entered a Vostok spacecraft to fly on his mission, named Vostok 1, at Baikonur Cosmodrome. At 9:07 am local time, the command to ignite the booster rocket was given. Over the radio Gagarin said, Poyekhali! (“Here we go!”). The rocket began to rise and the booster was ejected. Gagarin and his capsule were in orbit.

Model of Vostok 3KA spacecraft with third stage of launcher. (Wikipedia)

Gagarin orbited Earth once, completing the trip in 108 minutes. Radio communications was lost briefly between tracking stations and the lack of contact worried officials. However, communications was soon resumed – to everyone’s great relief.

Gagarin did not actually fly the spacecraft during his trip. Soviet officials worried that the first cosmonaut might do something wrong, and they locked the controls. He did have a code to unlock them if anything went wrong.

The spacecraft re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere was difficult. The last set of booster rockets was discarded just before re-entry, but they did not completely separate. That caused the spacecraft to jostle as it headed back to the ground. As the spacecraft neared Earth, Gagarin opened a hatch and ejected from the capsule. He opened a parachute and reached the ground in a gentle descent. The historic first spaceflight by humans had been achieved.

This handy infographic gives details of Gagarin’s flight.

Fearing losing Gagarin in a fatal space accident, Soviet officials banned him from any more spaceflights. (President John F. Kennedy essentially did the same to John Glenn, the first US astronaut to orbit Earth in 1962, covertly banning him from any more spaceflights. In 1964, when John Glenn realised this, he left NASA.) Gagarin remained in the space program, helping to train new cosmonauts. In the middle 1960s, Gagarin was promised he could go into space once more and he began flying planes again to regain his status as a pilot. He died in a training flight in 1968 (age 34) when his airplane crashed. (John Glenn did get to fly into space again, on October 29, 1998, aboard Space Shuttle Discovery, becoming the world’s oldest astronaut, at 77.)

Legend says that Gagarin had to relieve himself on the way to the launch pad. And today (male) cosmonauts do so as well: “They leave the bus and stand at the back wheel of the bus, to relieve themselves,” says the European Space Agency. Chris Hadfield talks about the tradition in his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth:

When the driver pulled over to the side of the deserted road, Roman, Tom and I were delighted to get out and breathe some fresh air. We also had a mission: to pee on the rear right tire of the bus, as Yuri Gagarin apparently had. Much is made of this as a tradition, but really, if you’re going to be locked in a rocket ship, unable to leave your seat for quite a few hours, it’s just common sense. However, we had a problem that previous crews had not: we had to figure out how to get out of our suits of downy armour. In the end the suit techs on board had to help us undo all the tricky fasteners they’d painstakingly closed not an hour before, so we were able to urinate manfully on the tire without spoiling our plumage. Female astronauts who bring little bottles of their pee to slash on the tire may feel just as self-conscious, but I doubt it.

The National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC has acquired a bronze sculpture of Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in commemoration of the 55th anniversary year (2016) of the first manned flight to space.

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, bronze sculpture by Aleksei Dmitrievitch Leonov
National Air and Space Museum, Washington D.C.

The museum also has on display space suits that Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn wore. Both suit designs were adapted from high-altitude pressure suits.

Left: John Glenn wore this space suit on February 20, 1962
Right: Yuri Gagarin wore this SK-1 pressure suit during training exercises for his April 12, 1961, flight on Vostok

Yuri Gagarin wore this SK-1 pressure suit during training exercises for his April 12, 1961, flight on Vostok 1. Notable features include a visored helmet that is not detachable from the suit; the inflatable rubber collar for use in the event of water landing; the bright orange nylon oversuit, which has a mirror sewn into the sleeve to help the cosmonaut locate hard-to-see switches and gauges; and the grey-checked pressure liner with connectors for life-support and communications hoses. The suit also has leather-palm gloves, heavy leather boots, and a leather-covered radio headset.

John Glenn wore this space suit on February 20, 1962, when he became the first American to orbit Earth. Like the Gagarin suit, its design was adapted from high-altitude pressure suits worn by aircraft pilots. Glenn’s suit was a lightweight multi-layered garment with an aluminized nylon cover layer. Thirteen zippers, plus custom-fitted gloves, boots, and helmet, assured a snug fit.

Little Puffles and Honey don’t have a photo with Yuri Gagarin or with John Glenn, but they have a photo with the first real Buzz in space 🙂

With Buzz Lightyear and Magellan T. Bear at National Air and Space Museum

Twenty years after the historic first spaceflight by humans had been achieved, on April 12, 1981, Space Shuttle Columbia made its historic first flight becoming the first winged spaceship to orbit Earth and return to airport landing. While technically Enterprise was the first shuttle, it was not built for spaceflight. Enterprise was built for NASA as part of the Space Shuttle program to perform atmospheric test flights after being launched from a modified Boeing 747. Space Shuttle Columbia was the first space-rated orbiter in NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet.

OV-102 Columbia
Over 22 years of service Columbia completed 27 missions before disintegrating during re-entry near the end of its 28th mission, STS-107 on February 1, 2003, resulting in the deaths of all seven crew members.

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