A NASA archive of a newspaper front page given over to Gagarin

Fifty  years ago tomorrow afternoon Australian time Yuri Gagarin was blasted into a single orbit flight around the earth, becoming the first human to fly beyond  the aerodynamic limits of the atmosphere and enter space,  experiencing prolonged weightlessness in the confines of his Vostok 1 capsule.

His voice can hardly be heard over the rocket’s roar shouting “Off we go” as  it lifts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in this YouTube video of a newsreel, in response the the mysterious Chief Designer, later identified as Sergei Korolev, telling him all the rocket motors have ignited.


This was an important observation. Only one of the cluster of motors on the four booster units or the main rocket had to fail for the space craft to reach less than orbital speed, leading to an aborted  sub orbital trajectory of uncertain outcome.

Within minutes 27 year old Gagarin felt the multi g-force accelerations of the launch give way to weightlessness, and saw, from a place no human had ever been before, the white and brown vastness of Siberia roll away beneath him as the capsule began a diagonal crossing the Pacific from Kamchatka to sudden nightfall near the tip of South America.

After the retro rockets broke his orbital velocity over Africa he became the centre of a fireball as re-entry buffeted the tight fitting confines of Vostok 1. No-one had ever gone from 27,400 kmh to around 300 kmh in only a few incandescent minutes until that day.

One hundred and eight minutes after lift off  it was mathematically certain the flight had ended, but as it proved impossible to receive transmissions from the capsule as it headed toward an imprecise landing zone in the Russian steppes no-one knew Gagarin’s condition nor exactly where he was.

However the thunderous final stage of the re-entry over the wheat fields near Engel caught the attention of an elderly farmer and a young girl who  first saw the capsule crash heavily to the ground nearby followed some minutes later by Gagarin under a parachute, a figure in a space suit that spoke Russian and asked for directions to the nearest public phone so he could call Moscow.

It took Gagarin 10 minutes longer than Vostok 1 to reach the ground after the planned parachute ejection at 7000 metres, as it wasn’t until later versions of the capsule design began using high compression thruster canisters to cushion the landings at the last moment that cosmonauts could remain on board all the way down.

It was a tumultuous event, comparable in shock to the loss of technological leadership that came with the October 4, 1957 launch by the Soviet Union of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite.

In Australia, just past high noon in the golden age of the Menzies era,  the news was in  plenty of time for the front page of the first editions of the daily papers, but would have struggled to make today’s print editions which lock up hours sooner than was the case half a century earlier.

Back then this journalist was still the last shipping cadet and working late (and not in the pictorial department as incorrectly recalled in an item in Crikey today but finishing my shift monitoring the police, ambulance and fire brigade radios).

That night was one of those old fashioned newspaper nights when everyone knew this was, suddenly, one of the major mid 20th century stories, and that they—we—were writing an edition for history rather than fish wrappers.  People hung around for their copies off the presses before they were put  on the trucks that took out the country editions at 11 pm.

The preoccupation of space stories in 1961 was all about the ‘Red Threat’ and implications for the arms race, and the security of Australia, and they were written by foreign affairs editors and international correspondents, not science reporters.

The jet age was for Australia and the west, less than three years old.  1961 came during the final transition of the economy, and social values, from the post war austerity and substantial government direction it had experienced into a consumer driven society similar in many aspects to that of the US in the mid to late 50s.

It was, peculiarly, a time of more obvious change and associated tensions than 2011, mainly because there was perhaps even more that needed to change in Australia then than now.

The big stories in Australia the year manned space flight began included the allowing of easy sale of oral contraceptives, and the attendant uproar over the ‘permissive’ society, the banning of the DH Lawrence novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover at a time when book banning was normal, the jailing of Stephen Bradley for the kidnapping murder of Graeme Thorne a year earlier,  the near disappearance of Australian maritime shipping,  Richmond failing to score a goal in a VFL game (which hadn’t happened to any club since 1922), and the disastrous crash of an Ansett ANA Vickers Viscount into Botany Bay (courtesy Wikipedia and the 1961 Australian Government year Book).

Also that year, the last Sydney trams of what was once claimed to be the world’s largest such network ran the final services to La Perouse a few months before Gagarin rocketed to fame and Four Corners first went to air four months later.

The only Australian space related story of note was the opening of ‘the dish’ the Parkes Radio Telescope, which no-one could have guessed would be become the relay point for images of  the first moon landing by Apollo 11 in July 1969 and the Giotto images of the nucleus of Halley’s Comet in March 1986.

Australians had money, in fact coins made out of real silver, in their pockets, and were learning to spend.  The most dangerous way to earn a few shillings after school was to work the tram and bus stops, sometimes jumping on and off them, to sell afternoon newspapers in a society where driving to work remained a minority transport mode.

Yet even though car ownership was small, and even home telephones were less than common, the major cities of Sydney and Melbourne were visibly filthy with smog in times before pollution laws began to clean up cars, trucks and manufacturing (not that manufacturing with hindsight had much life left in it).  The population of Australia was only 10.48 million, compared to an estimated 22.58 million now.

The greatest engineering project in Australia, the Snowy Mountains scheme,  was nearing its climax, but the onset of high rise city developments was at least 8-9 years into the future. In Canberra the only sign Lake Burley Griffin was ever going to fill was the desultory construction of the  Kings Avenue Bridge, which opened later that year, three years before the waters rose beneath it.

As ever history has lain in ambush for those who made predictions after Gagarin’s flight as to  how manned space flight would lead to missions to Mars by the mid eighties, and the first expeditions to the stars about now.

Who could have foreseen back in 1961 that by April 12, 2011,  the US would be about to lose its capacity to launch people into space, relying instead of on a scaled up version of the original Vostok craft to service the International Space Station on the retirement of the Space Shuttles, and that the USSR, like its handsome space hero, would be long gone (Gagarin died in a plane crash in 1968).

Alpha Centauri must wait a little longer.