Science: The Cruise of the Vostok

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Fedorov's account suggested that the cosmonaut landed inside his space capsule, but according to other sources in Russia, Major Gagarin parachuted out of the capsule before it hit the ground. Space Scientist Nikolai Gurovsky said: "The cosmonaut came down smoothly in a glade near a field. Landing on his feet, without even tumbling, he walked up to the people who saw him."

Rash Risk? Although only stubborn skeptics expressed doubt that the flight had been made at all, with every report more contradictions came to light. And when newsmen checked back over the preflight publicity, more curious items turned up. For days, Moscow had been flooded with rumors about an imminent attempt at space flight. Before the Vostok flight, the Moscow correspondent for the London Daily Worker cabled his paper that the cosmonaut son of a famous Soviet airplane designer had orbited the earth three times and landed with serious injuries. The London Daily Sketch identified him as Gennady Mikhailov. Soviet authorities promptly denied both reports. But the rumors continued, and the papers stuck to their stories.

By the time Gagarin's flight was announced, the Soviet public was primed. Tension was increased enormously by the apparently reckless daring of passing the word while the Vostok was still in orbit.

The descent to earth, the most difficult and dangerous part of the flight, was still ahead. A last-minute failure might have left Gagarin in orbit to die a slow and lonely death, or fried him in the atmosphere. Earlier Soviet tune-up flights had suffered similar fates.

Had the Soviets really risked their space prestige so rashly? Most foreign observers felt sure that they had not. It seemed probable that Major Gagarin had arced into orbit and returned safely before anything was reported. There were also other minor mysteries about the Vostok's flight. According to the Russian official account, he checked in over South America only 15 minutes after the Vostok was launched. Yet South America is more than half an orbit away from the probable launching. At a space conference in Florence, Italy, Academician Anatoly Blagonravov, 66, a former Czarist artillery expert who often acts as a Russian space spokesman, was asked how Gagarin did his sightseeing from the Vostok. He replied that Gagarin looked out "by radio." This suggestion that the Vostok had no portholes only brought smiles from U.S. space experts, who pointed out that even the U.S. Mercury capsule has tough, heat-resistant portholes.

Upper Crust. Such problems did not seem to bother official Russia a bit. These days, whenever a rocket blasts off its pad, the flight is almost always as much a propaganda maneuver as it is a scientific adventure. But this time even the poorly organized and obviously inaccurate propaganda could do little damage to the towering scientific feat. Just two days after his trip, Yuri Gagarin got a hero's reception in Moscow. Red Square, the city's ceremonial center, was decked out in festive dress. Banners fluttered from tall silver flagpoles; streetcars, buses, autos, lampposts and buildings were draped with bunting. Portraits of the cosmonaut were spotted all over the city, and bookstalls were already peddling his biography. Crowd barriers were in place and honor guards lined the 20-mile route to Vnukovo Airport.

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