The Vostok Missions - by Andrea

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After the historic orbital launch of the first human built object, the Sputnik 1 (on Oct 4th 1957), and after the USA quick reply with the Explorer 1, USSR began the work on the next ambitious step, a man in orbit round the Earth.

For this purpose they could use an existing vector, a derivative of the Soviet R-7 ICBM spacecraft, renamed Vostok (Russian for East), realized from the beginning for two different purposes: as a spy camera platform (for the Soviet Union's first spy satellite program, Zenit) and as a manned spacecraft. This dual design was crucial in gaining Communist Party support for the program.

The basic Vostok design remained in use for almost forty years, gradually adapted for a range of other unmanned satellites. The descent module design was reused, in heavily-modified form, by the Voskhod program.

The major versions of the Vostok vector were:

  • 8K72, used to launch the early Luna spacecraft and the prototype Vostok spacecraft
  • 8K72K, a refined version of the above. This was the version actually used for human spaceflight
  • 8A92, used for launching Zenit reconnaissance satellites throughout the 1960s
  • 8A92M, modified version for launching Meteor weather satellites into high orbits
One of the first
pictures of Vostok available
in Occident
The 3K capsule assembly

First manned spaceflight

The manned craft consisted of a spherical Reentry Module housing the cosmonaut, instruments and escape system, and a conical Instrument Module which contained propellant tanks and the engine system. There were several models of the Vostok, leading up to the manned version (Vostok 3K).

Three press releases were prepared, one for success, two for failures. It was only known ten minutes after burnout, 25 minutes after launch, if a stable orbit had been achieved. This flight has registered three records: Longer flight duration (108 minutes), higher speed (7,844 m/s) and higher altitude (315 km).

One orbit of the Earth

The payload included life-support equipment and radio and television to relay information on the condition of the pilot. The spacecraft altitude control was run by an automated system. Gagarin had a small doll with him, to serve as a gravity indicator: when the doll floated in midair he knew he was in zero-g. Medical staff and spacecraft engineers were unsure how a human being might react to weightlessness, for this reason the pilot's flight controls were locked out to prevent Gagarin from taking accidentally manual control. The three digits combination to unlock the controls was available in a sealed envelope in case it became necessary to take control in an emergency. Gagarin orbited the Earth once, in 108 minutes.

The automatic system brought Vostok 1 into alignment for retrofire about 1 hour into the flight. Retrofire took place off the west coast of Africa, near Angola, about 8000 km from the desired landing place. The liquid fuelled retros fired for about 42 seconds. Due to weight constraints there was no backup retro engine. In the event of retros failing, the spacecraft carried 10 days of provisions to allow for survival and natural decay of the orbit.

After retrofire, the Vostok equipment module unexpectedly remained attached to the reentry module by a bundle of wires. The two halves of the craft were supposed to separate ten seconds after retrofire, but this did not happen until 10 minutes had passed. The spacecraft went through wild gyrations before the wires burned through and the descent module settled into the proper reentry attitude.


Gagarin ejected after reentry from the Vostok capsule between 8 and 6 km above the ground, parachuting separately to the ground (the capsule's parachute landing was too rough for cosmonauts to risk). For many years the Soviet Union denied this, and for this reason Gagarin´s ejection height is still doubtful.

The FAI rules in 1961 required that a pilot must land with the spacecraft to be considered an official spaceflight for the FAI record books. At the time, the Soviet Union insisted that Gagarin had landed with the Vostok and the FAI certified the flight. Years later, it was revealed that Gagarin had ejected and landed separately from the Vostok descent module, that was recovered on April 12, 1961 8:05 GMT, in Saratov, South East of Moscow near the Volga river, some 1,600 km from where he took off.

A curiosity: when Soviet officials filled out the FAI papers to register the flight of Vostok 1, they stated that the launch site was "Baykonur" at 47°22'00N, 65°29'00E. In reality, the launch site was near "Tyura-Tam" at 45°55'00N, 63°20'00E, 250 km to the South West of "Baykonur". They did this to try to keep the location of the Space Center a secret. Ironically, in 1995, Russian and Kazakh officials renamed Tyura-Tam as Baikonur.

The re-entry capsule is now on display at the RKK Energia Museum in Kaluga.

First manned mission
Launch Vehicle: Vostok 8K72K
Date: 12.04 1961 06:07GMT
Capsule: Vostok 1
Flight Crew: Yuri Gagarin
Backup Crew: Titov, Nelyubov
Payload: Vostok 3KA s/n 3
Mass: 4,730 kg
Nation: USSR
Launch Site: Baikonur
Duration: 0.075 days
Perigee: 169 km
Apogee: 315 km
Inclination: 65.0 deg.
Period: 89.3 min.
Landing Date: 12 April 1961
Call Sign: Kedr (Cedar)
Vostok vector 8K72K data
Stage 0: Strap-on Boosters (4)
Gross Mass: 43,300 kg
Empty Mass: 3,710 kg
Diameter: 2.68 m
Span: 8.35 m
Length: 19.00 m
Propellants: Lox/Kerosene
Engines: 1xbooster = 4 8K72K-0
Stage 1: Core stage
Gross Mass: 100,400 kg
Empty Mass: 6,800 kg
Diameter: 2.99 m
Length: 28.00 m
Propellants: Lox/Kerosene
Engine: 1 x Vostok 8K72K-1
Vostok spacecraft data
Reentry Module:
Vostok SA "Spuskaemiy apparat "
Crew: 1
Length: 2.3 m
Diameter: 2.3 m
Mass: 2,460 kg
Parachute deploying at 2.5 km altitude
Instrument Module:
Vostok PA "Priborniy otsek"
Length: 2.25 m
Diameter: 2.43 m
Mass: 2,270 kg
First manned spacecraft in history

Yuri Gagarin

The pilot

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was born in Klushino, West of Moscow, Russia, on March 9, 1934 (renamed Gagarin in 1968), and his parents worked on a collective farm. He was the third of four children, and his elder sister helped raise him while his parents worked.

After starting an apprenticeship in metalworks as a foundryman, Gagarin was selected for further training at a high technical school in Saratov. There he joined the "AeroClub", and learned to fly a light aircraft. In 1955, after completing his technical schooling, he entered military flight training at the Orenburg Pilot's School, where he met Valentina Goryacheva, whom he married in 1957, after gaining his pilot's wings in a MiG-15. After graduating, he was posted at an airbase in Murmansk region, near Norwegian border.

In 1960, an extensive search and selection process saw Yuri Gagarin, amongst 20 other cosmonauts, selected for the Soviet Space Program. They were subjected to a series of experiments designed to test physical and psychological endurance, as well as training relating to the upcoming flight. Out of the 20 selected, the choice for the first to launch was between Gagarin and Gherman Titov, because of their excellent performance in training, as well as their physical characteristics.

Someone told that Gagarin was chosen due to his small size/weight (Gagarin was 5 feet 2 inches, approx. 157.5 cm tall).

The Space flight

On April 12, 1961, Gagarin became the first human to travel into space in Vostok 3KA-2 (Vostok 1). According to international media, from orbit Gagarin made the comment, "I don't see any god up here." However such words are not in the full record of Gagarin's conversations with the Earth during the spaceflight.

While in orbit Gagarin was promoted "in the field" from Senior Lieutenant to Major, and this was the rank at which TASS announced him in its triumphant statement during the flight. At the time the Soviet authorities thought it was more likely he would perish during his descent than survive.

Post-space activities

After the flight, Gagarin became a worldwide celebrity, touring widely the world to promote the Soviet achievement. He proved quite adept at handling the publicity. However, this appeared to gradually wear him down, and he began to drink heavily.

From 1962 he served as a deputy to the Supreme Soviet, but later returned to "Star City", the cosmonaut facility, where he worked on designs for a reusable spacecraft. In 1967, he was selected as backup for the first Soyuz launch. The Soyuz capsule's parachute failed during reentry and the craft crashed, killing Vladimir Komarov.


Gagarin became deputy training director of the establishment. In the process of this, he needed to requalify as a fighter pilot. On March 27, 1968 he was killed in a crash of a MiG-15 UTI on a routine training flight, together with his instructor.

It is uncertain what caused the crash, but a 1986 inquest suggests that the turbulence from a Su-11 interceptor airplane using its afterburners may have caused Gagarin's plane to go out of control. Weather conditions were also poor, which probably contributed to the inability of Gagarin and the instructor to correct before they crashed. The Russian press reported he stayed with the aircraft to prevent it from hitting a school, although this may have been apocryphal.

Vostok manned Launches

  • Vostok 1: Apr. 12 - Apr. 12, 1961- First manned orbital flight - Yuri Gagarin
  • Vostok 2: Aug. 6 - Aug. 7, 1961- First one full day manned spaceflight - Gherman Titov
  • Vostok 3: Aug. 11 - Aug. 15 1962 - Adrian Nikolayev - The first manned double Vostok launch
  • Vostok 4: Aug. 12 - Aug. 15 1962 - Pavel Popovich - in orbit simultaneously with Vostok 3
  • Vostok 5: Jun. 14 - Jun. 19, 1963 - Valery Bykovsky - Another double launch, three days in orbit
  • Vostok 6: Jun. 16 - Jun. 19 1963 - Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space - simultaneously with Vostok 5