Science: The Cruise of the Vostok

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Gagarin said that weightlessness in orbit makes everything easier to do. "One's legs and arms weigh nothing. Objects float in the cabin. I did not sit in my chair as before, but hung in midair. While in the state of weightlessness, I ate and drank, and everything occurred just as it does on earth. I even worked in that condition. I wrote, jotting down my observations. My handwriting did not change, although the hand did not weigh anything, but I had to hold the notebook. Otherwise it would have floated away. I maintained communications over different channels and tapped the telegraph key."

"I did not see the moon," he reported. "The sun in outer space is tens of times brighter than here on earth. The stars are easily visible. They are bright and distinct. The entire picture of the firmament has much more contrast than when seen from the earth." The sunlit side of the earth, he said, was quite plain, and he could easily see the shores of continents, islands, big rivers, folds in the terrain, large bodies of water. When passing over the Soviet Union, he spotted the great squares of collective farms. He could even tell cultivated land from pasture.

None of this was surprising to space scientists. Everything the first cosmonaut reported had been suggested earlier by the instruments of unmanned satellites or by earthbound theory. The narrow blue band that Gagarin saw was the familiar color of the clear sky—the blue component of sunlight that the atmosphere scatters upward into space as well as toward earth. Still, all such details held a fresh fascination: they were part of a firsthand observation, an eyewitness confirmation. They belonged to a tale told by an adventurer into the unknown, and if they added little to man's knowledge, they glowed nonetheless with bright authenticity. Gaga had been there.

Smooth Landing. At the end of the first jubilant day, Gagarin was still at an unspecified base, undergoing a careful physical examination and presumably being questioned by experts. But whatever the Soviet space experts learned, they added little to Gaga's own story. They published only the bare statistics of the flight: it lasted 108 minutes, of which 89 minutes were actually spent in orbit; the rest was climbing to orbit and descent to the earth. Academician Evgeny Fedorov, one of the big brains of the Soviet space program, spoke briefly about the descent. It was accomplished with retrorockets, which slowed the Vostok and brought it down into a "braking zone" of gradually thickening air. There the ship was heated by friction and suffered tremendous strain, but the braking effect was distributed over thousands of miles of flight. "At the height of several tens of kilometers [one kilometer—.62 miles] above the earth." said Fedorov, "the spaceship's speed is reduced to a few hundred meters [one meter—1.094 yards] per second. With a shriek, it cleaves the air, rushing toward its preselected landing place. Parachutes open and the speed is reduced to a few meters per second."

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