Science: The Cruise of the Vostok

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Triumphant music blared across the land. Russia's radios saluted the morning with the slow, stirring beat of the patriotic song, How Spacious Is My Country. Then came the simple announcement that shattered forever man's ancient isolation on earth: "The world's first spaceship, Vostok [East], with a man on board, has been launched on April 12 in the Soviet Union on a round-the-world orbit."

From Leningrad to Petropavlovsk, the U.S.S.R. came to a halt. Streetcars and buses stopped so that passengers could listen to loudspeakers in public squares. Factory workers shut off their machines; shopgirls quit their counters. Schoolkids turned eagerly from the day's lessons. Somewhere above them, a Soviet citizen was arcing past the stars, whirling about the earth at 18,000 miles an hour, soaring into history as the first man in space.

Radio reports identified the "cosmonaut" as Major Yuri Alekseevich Gagarin, 27. According to the official announcement, the Vostok had blasted off from an unidentified launching pad at exactly 9:07 a.m., Moscow time. Brief bulletins, from time to time, traced its orbital track. Word came that at 9:22 a.m. Gagarin had reported by radio from a point over

South America: "The flight is proceeding normally. I feel well." At 10:15 he checked in over Africa: "The flight is normal. I am withstanding well the state of weightlessness." At 11:10 a report was broadcast that at 10:25 Gagarin had completed one circuit of the earth and that the spaceship's braking rocket had been fired. This was the perilous point when the Vostok, its nose white-hot from friction with the earth's atmosphere, began its plunge to a landing. All Russia waited nervously—and the government-controlled radio milked every moment for suspense. Not until 12:25 was the proud announcement put on the air: "At 10:55 Cosmonaut Gagarin safely returned to the sacred soil of our motherland."

Hats were heaved aloft. Russians cheered, hugged each other, telephoned their friends. The celebration spread from factories to collective farms, from crowded city streets to clusters of huts on the lonely steppes. Newspapers blossomed with bright red headlines. Everywhere people paraded with banners hailing the Soviet leap into space. Not even for Sputnik 1 had the U.S.S.R. worked up such effervescent enthusiasm.

Never the Same. The extravagance was understandable. Yuri Gagarin had flown higher (188 miles) and faster (18,000 m.p.h.) than any other man ever before; yet even such startling statistics shrank into insignificance before the infinite implications of his trip. Suddenly man's centuries-old dream of space travel had been transformed into reality.

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