Declassified Sources on Gagarin
Collectively these 20 declassified documents provide an extraordinary peek into the preparations and implementation of the flight of Yuri Gagarin, the first Soviet cosmonaut, who flew into space in his Vostok spaceship on April 12, 1961.
The documents come from a variety of archives including the Archive of the President of the Russian Federation (APRF) and the archive of the Energiya Rocket-Space Corporation. Most of these have been published in collections of documents published in Russia including: V. A. Davydov, ed., Pervyy pilotiruyemyy polet: sbornik dokumentov v dvukh knigakh, kn. 1-ya (Moscow: Rodina MEDIA, 2011).
Document No. 1, dated June 26, 1958, is the first formal request from scientists – in this case a number of biomedicine specialists – to the Soviet leadership asking for a significant expansion of existing research on aviation and space biomedicine. The authors ask that a unit from the Air Force’s existing Institute of Aviation Medicine be detached and made into a new institute for space medicine.
As a result of this initiative, a number of powerful industrial leaders, military officials, and scientists wrote a letter, Document No. 3, directly to the Central Committee on December 2, 1958, suggesting that instead of creating a new institute, space biomedicine be given an expanded portfolio in the existing institute, which would be henceforth known as the Institute of Aviation and Space Medicine. The decision on this expansion is shown in Document No. 4. This institute would later become the main force behind the selection and training of the first cosmonauts.
During this same period, the Experimental-Design Bureau No. 1 (OKB-1) based in the Kaliningrad suburb of Moscow began to explore the possibility of creating an orbital spacecraft to carry a human being. The chief designer of OKB-1, Sergey Korolev, devised a clever plan in which he proposed creating a new spy satellite, but one with a human on board, one that could be an add-on to already ongoing research to develop an automated spy satellite. As Document No. 2 from September 16, 1958, shows, Korolev wrote directly to the minister overseeing his organization, Konstantin Rudnev, and suggested creating a spy satellite called OD-2 (or “Oriented D”) that could carry a human being, to succeed an earlier robotic variant known as OD-1.
On May 22, 1959, the Central Committee and Council of Ministers issued a joint decree, shown in Document No. 5, approving the development of the so-called “Object Vostok,” the first Soviet reconnaissance or spy satellite. Korolev made sure that the design of Vostok was such that in a slightly modified variant, it could be adjusted to carry a human being. The program had the highest priority in terms of development. From that point, OKB-1 began developing two operational variants of the Vostok, one for robotic spying and one for human spaceflight.
Simultaneously, the Soviet Air Force began preparations to select and train cosmonauts for a spaceflight. Beginning October 1959, a massive selection process began that ended with an initial group of 206 pilots undergoing intensive tests from October 1959 to April 1960 at the Central Military Scientific-Research Aviation Hospital in Moscow. This group was narrowed down to 20 pilots who formed the core of the first cosmonaut team. Document No. 6 shows a formal proposal, dating from June 15, 1960, from leading managers of the space program to the Central Committee requesting permission to establish a Cosmonaut Training Center (TsPK) and to approve basic guidelines for the professional activities of cosmonauts. This request was formally approved on August 3, 1960 by a decree shown in Document No. 7.
Once the cosmonauts arrived to train at the Cosmonaut Training Center, six of the best candidates were put into accelerated training as potential candidates for the very first mission. The personal and political characteristics of these men – Bykovsky, Kartashkov, Nikolayev, Popovich, Gagarin, and Titov – are shown in Document No. 9, dated September 27, 1960. Within weeks Kartashov was replaced in this group by Nelyubov. These six candidates then took a series of intensive exams on January 17 and 18, 1961, as shown in Document No. 12. All passed with flying colors but a commission assigned to rank them recommended assigning them to flights in the following order: Gagarin, Titov, Nelyubov, Nikolayev, Bykovskiy, and Popovich.
As shown in Document No. 8, the first formal request to carry out a human space mission was sent to the Central Committee on September 10, 1960. This was prompted by the successful flight, in August 1960, of a prototype Vostok spacecraft which carried two dogs that were successfully recovered after a day in space. As the document shows, at that point, the deadline for carrying out a human spaceflight was December 1960. Strikingly, the schedule for the robotic reconnaissance version, the Vostok-2 variant, was put on the backburner to focus on the crewed space mission. As a result of this request, the Central Committee and Council of Ministers issued a decree, shown in Document No. 10, on October 11, 1960, to carry out a piloted space mission by December of the same year.
The preparations for the Vostok launch were delayed by a number of events including the catastrophe involving an R-16 missile that killed over 70 people on October 24, 1960, at the launch site. On November 10, 1960, Korolev and four leading personalities directing the space program – Dmitriy Ustinov, Konstantin Rudnev, Mstislav Keldysh, and Kirill Moskalenko – issued a new plan. As shown in Document No. 11, they proposed two precursor missions carrying dogs in a simplified Vostok spacecraft called Vostok-A.
In March 1961, the Soviets carried out the last two penultimate missions carrying dogs. The first of these was carried out in early March. Document No. 13 shows a report to the Central Committee indicating preparations for the second one, which was carried out on March 25, 1961 with the dog Zvezdochka.
After the success of Zvezdochka’s flight, all the leading managers of the Vostok project reported, on March 30, 1961, to the Central Committee that they were ready to perform the actual piloted space mission. As Document No. 14 shows, these officials recommended publishing an announcement on the mission even if the cosmonaut failed to reach orbit so as to increase the chances of rescuing him. The Presidium (as the Politburo was known at the time) formally approved the implementation of the human space mission at a meeting on April 3, 1961, as Document No. 15 shows.
We gain some insight as to Nikita Khrushchev’s own feelings on the impending flight in a transcription of his dictated thoughts while he was at the resort of Pitsunda on the eve of the launch, April 11, 1961. As Document No. 16 shows, Khrushchev was thinking of using the publicity surrounding the mission as a way to open discussions on nuclear disarmament.
The preliminary report summarizing various aspects of the Yuri Gagarin’s mission which also highlights all the things that went wrong, are shown in Document No. 20. This report was issued on May 3, 1961, by OKB-1 and signed by Sergey Korolev, Konstantin Bushuyev, and Mikhail Tikhonravov. The mission report shows a number of critical anomalies on the mission that jeopardized the mission at various points. For an analysis of this document, see an earlier essay I wrote for The Space Review.
Gagarin’s own impressions of the mission are captured in two striking documents. The first, displayed in Document No. 17, is his full oral report to the State Commission (headed by minister Konstantin Rudnev) on April 13, 1961. Gagarin comes off precise, insightful, and full of candor, remembering every single aspect of his mission. The State Commission posed some follow-up questions and Gagarin’s answers to these, shown in Document No. 18, are equally eye-opening and interesting.
The final Document No. 19, which contain the transcripts of a Presidium (or Politburo) meeting on April 26, 1961, shows that immediately after the flight, the Soviet Party and government were invested in publicizing the mission as aggressively as possible through the publication of books, articles, and pamphlets that could be distributed across the country and beyond.
Asif Siddiqi is a professor of history at Fordham University and teaches and writes on the history of science and technology.
Photo shared by Arto Jousi under a Creative Commons license. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.