The inside story of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space

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FIFTY years ago tomorrow, as the sun rose on the steppes of Kazakhstan in the southern USSR, an antiquated bus trundled towards a giant metal gantry rising out of the plain.

Inside the bus was a 27-year-old Soviet air force pilot dressed in an orange flight suit and white helmet. At the back, among military officers and doctors, sat another identically dressed figure – a back-up should any accident befall the first man.

Both men were unknown to the wider world, but in a few hours the name of one of them would rank alongside Columbus, Magellan and the Wright brothers as one of the greatest explorers in history.

The atmosphere was tense, no-one smiled, nerves were evident. Suddenly the bus made an unscheduled stop, the lead figure got out, and urinated against the wheel of the bus. The suited figure was destined for outer space – and what could have been his last act on Earth was to become a tradition repeated by all subsequent Russian cosmonauts.

The bus halted by the gantry, now seen to be enclosing a gigantic steaming rocket topped by a spacecraft named Vostok, Russian for east. The lead figure got out and reported his name – Yuri Gagarin – to his superiors, then ascended a lift to be strapped in to the capsule by technicians.

Gagarin had only been informed of his selection three days earlier as the pilot for the first space flight. Three press releases had already been prepared – one for success, two for failure.

Test flights using the same design of craft had put several dogs and a dummy cosmonaut into space. The results did not inspire total confidence. Of the dogs, four survived but two burned up in the atmosphere during re-entry. The dummy cosmonaut was still up there – stranded in space in a dead craft after a retro-rocket failure.

The clock ran its course to the appointed hour – the Russians did not do countdowns – then the rocket burst into life. "Poyekhali!" Gagarin shouted into the radio, "Let's go!" Vostok rose on a tower of flames and smoke, then arced off to the east, climbing higher and higher, accelerating away until it was a tiny bright speck in the sky.

The ground crew gaped at the steaming launch pad, astonished by the enormity of what they had just done, and wondering how it would end. Ensconced at the tip of the rocket, Gagarin sounded calm: "I feel excellent. Continuing the flight. G-load increasing. All is well."

Within minutes, he had smashed the human speed record of 1,600mph, then the human altitude record of 19 miles. Booster rockets peeled off and crashed to the steppes, as the core rocket stage drove Gagarin ever faster.

The sky in his porthole turned from blue to black. Finally, at a height of 112 miles the rocket shut down violently, he was thrown forward into his straps, then suddenly found himself weightless. Several loose objects appeared and floated silently around his cabin. He had attained orbital velocity of 17,000mph, but felt strangely motionless.

If he was nervous, he did not show it: "The craft is operating normally. I'm feeling fine, and I'm in good spirits."

"I see Earth! It is so beautiful," Gagarin radioed. He could pick out fields, forests and rivers. He sped above Siberia and Japan, then out over the Pacific Ocean as darkness fell on Hawaii. The stars were the brightest he had ever seen, unflickering and unfiltered by atmosphere.

His curved orbit took him south to the Straits of Magellan at the southern tip of Chile, which he reached an hour after launch.

Now, news of his flight was announced to the world on Radio Moscow. A storm of excitement ensued, and not a little fear in Washington. At home, his wife Valya with their two daughters, and mother Anna, knew little if anything of Gagarin's secretive training. "What has he gone and done?" his mother wailed, aghast.

As he hurtled over the South Atlantic and into daylight once more, Gagarin saw his second sunrise of the day. He made several radio transmissions which went unanswered, as the Russian communications network did not extend so far south. The coast of Africa was coming up fast; time to fire the retro-rockets to bring him down out of orbit – the moment for re-entry. Vostok was turned to face the correct way, and the rockets fired for 40 seconds to drop out of orbit on a course back to Russia. The retro compartment was jettisoned, and Gagarin reported: "Everything is OK."

All had gone well so far, but now something was wrong. Vostok was swinging about wildly, not the stable flight required for a safe re-entry. When the retro compartment had separated over Egypt, the electrical cable connecting it to Gagarin's capsule failed to sever. Now the dead retro-module was trailing along behind, banging into the capsule.

Gagarin was alarmed, but didn't tell mission control. As the air resistance and temperature mounted, the gyrations increased. Finally the wire was burned through, and with a final jerk, Vostok was free. It settled into a stable path towards Earth.

As the flames flickered around Vostok's portholes, Gagarin was crushed into his seat by eight times the force of gravity. He raced earthwards towards the town Engels in the Saratov region.

Two schoolgirls saw the capsule hit the ground: "It was a huge ball, about three metres high. It bounced and then it fell again. There was a huge hole where it hit the first time."

But the capsule was empty. The Soviet authorities initially claimed that Gagarin landed inside his craft, thus abiding by the sporting code of the International Aeronautical Federation, which records achievements in flight.

Years later, fellow cosmonaut and space artist Alexei Leonov – the first man to walk in space – made an accurate painting of Gagarin's landing. It showed the Vostok capsule descending on a red-and-white ringed parachute, just as the schoolgirls saw it – but Gagarin floats behind it in his red spacesuit under a separate parachute. Gagarin landed about 10 minutes after ejecting from Vostok. He had circled Earth in just under two hours.

A farmer and her daughter, tending a calf, had observed the strangely clad figure make his descent. They were astonished, but also suspicious. A year earlier, American pilot Gary Powers had been shot down in his U2 spy plane and parachuted into captivity, much to the delight of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Gagarin later said: "When they saw me in my spacesuit and the parachute dragging alongside, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don't be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space. I must find a telephone to call Moscow!" The peasant women in their headscarves embraced him. The first human spaceflight was safely over. Gagarin was feted around the world, meeting heads of state and premiers, charming all with his broad smile, smart uniform and sincerity. He was mobbed when he visited London and Manchester, meeting Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and having lunch with the Queen. But his wife said she saw more of him on television than at home.

Just seven years after his space flight, Gagarin died in March 1968 when his MiG-15 jet fighter crashed in a forest outside Moscow. Many conspiracies have been built on the unanswered questions which surrounded the crash – that he was drunk, suicidal, or assassinated. Since formerly secret files have been made available, most investigators have concluded that technical failure of the plane, or a close encounter with another aircraft, was the true cause.

l A statue of Gagarin will be unveiled near Admiralty Arch in London in July to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his UK visit. He has a stone at Skara Brae in Orkney, and a street, Gagarin Way, is named after him in the Fife mining village of Lumphinnans. Tomorrow night, Yuri's Night will be celebrated around the world with various events. A free film, First Orbit, is also being launched on the internet.

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'The shock was that they got there before we did'

AMERICAN astronaut Dick Gordon, whose grandfather emigrated from Aberdeenshire, distinctly remembers where he was on 12 April, 1961 when Yuri Gagarin beat his nation into space.

"When Yuri flew, I was a young flight instructor in a fighter squadron in Miramar, California. Once the Russians got into orbit, and we followed with our own satellite, we knew very well that humans were going to be next. The shock was that they got there before we did."

Gordon's first space flight was Gemini XI with another naval aviator Pete Conrad. Gordon undertook a spacewalk which was so exhausting he fell asleep in open space. Gordon was selected as command module pilot for Apollo 12, the second lunar landing in November 1969, just months after Neil Armstrong's historic descent. They rode into orbit through a thunderstorm, before Gordon remained close above the Moon while his two colleagues landed for a two-day stay.

He was to be commander of Apollo 18 and set for a moonwalk himself, when the programme was prematurely curtailed at Apollo 17.

Despite the Cold War rivalry, Gordon met several Soviet cosmonauts and remains good friends with Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space.

When Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin finally set down on the Moon's Sea of Tranquillity in July 1969, a year after Gagarin's death, they laid a Russian medal in his honour in the dust.

'We built the rocket in which Gagarin flew ...'

SOVIET cosmonaut Georgi Grechko, who turns 80 next month, was a friend of Yuri Gagarin and was closely involved in the construction of his spacecraft. Grechko worked in the design office of the mastermind of the Soviet space programme, Sergei Korolev.

"We made the rocket for Gagarin, and the ship in which he flew. We sat in our workplaces and listened to the broadcast of Gagarin's flight from launch to landing," he recalls.

When Gagarin landed, their first reaction was relief: "The first cosmonaut was still alive and well, and our technical equipment, to which Gagarin entrusted his life, worked properly." Grechko later flew in the rockets that he helped design, and made three space flights.

Grechko remembers the day Gagarin died. "His plane failed to return and as time passed we realised all the fuel must have been used up." A crash site was then found and, first, searchers found the body of an instructor who was on board. "This kindled hope Gagarin had escaped by parachute, but then they found Gagarin's remains."

Grechko knows Scotland well. He came to Edinburgh and Glasgow in 2007 with the Association of Space Explorers, the exclusive club of people who have orbited the Earth. He returned in 2008 to Inverness and Orkney, where he laid the Gagarin stone at Skara Brae.