Science: The Cruise of the Vostok

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Gagarin arrived in a turboprop airliner escorted by a swarm of jet fighters. Along with his parents and Wife Valentina, the entire upper crust of the Soviet hierarchy was on hand to greet him. The nuzzling, the bear hug and the long kiss he got from Premier Khrushchev seemed even more active than Valentina's warm embrace. Other dignitaries greeted the cosmonaut in their turn. Then, in a column of flower-decked cars, the official party drove slowly toward Red Square and a 20-gun salute from Red artillerymen.

Standing atop the Lenin-Stalin tomb, the most sacred spot in Communist Moscow, Gagarin was greeted by the Presidium, the powerful ruling body of the Soviet Union. Khrushchev made a long speech comparing him to Columbus, naming him a Hero of the Soviet Union and awarding him the brand-new title of First Hero Cosmonaut. The new major, neat in his grey and blue uniform, spoke with admirable poise, the party line rolling easily off his tongue. He thanked the party, the government and Premier Khrushchev for trusting him, a simple Soviet pilot, with the first flight to outer space. "While in outer space," he said, "I was thinking about our party and about our homeland."*

Next day, the stories began to take on an added polish. Russian papers published reports that Gagarin had slept like a baby the night before his flight, that he had climbed into the Vostok as calmly as if he were taking off on a fishing trip. At a press conference in Moscow's green and white House of Sciences, Gagarin and a group of scientists, including Aleksandr N. Nesmeyanov, president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (TIME cover, June 2, 1958), added little new information, but they rehashed the flight with unflagging enthusiasm. And they promised to release more scientific data soon. Told that U.S. newsmen had suggested he came from a princely family, Gagarin cracked: "I express my regret, but I have to disappoint them."

Sophisticated Circuit. The U.S., which had long since conceded Russia this impressive victory in space, was embarrassed just the same. And the U.S. Mercury Project, still straining to perfect a rocket system capable of lofting a man into a short trajectory far less impressive than the Vostok's sophisticated circuit of the earth, seemed especially belittled.

For several weeks, signs that the Russians were about to try something big had been recognized and reported. The U.S. Navy spotted Soviet tracking ships in the Pacific; Soviet trawlers, perhaps radio-relay ships, were in the South Atlantic. Rumors circulating through the U.S.S.R. reached Washington promptly. Most of them were discounted, but one day before the shot, U.S. intelligence sent an urgent alert. Although the Vostok was launched at 1:07 a.m. Washington time, and the first Russian radio announcement was delayed until 2 a.m., it was only 1:30 a.m. when the Pentagon told Presidential Science Adviser Jerome Wiesner that a big Russian bird was aloft.

"Let's Go." As Washington awoke to its propaganda defeat, the proper people said the proper things. President Kennedy congratulated the Russians. So did James Webb, chief of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. But behind the cheerful and gracious phrases were frustration, shame, sometimes fury.U.S. spacemen had been beaten again.

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