Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was about to see what no other human being
had seen in the whole history of humanity . . .
Earth from Space
Fifty years later, on April 12, 2011, over two million people watched Christopher Riley's movie First Orbit, a recreation of Vostok 1's historic flight.
Vostok's on-board camera monitored the cosmonaut, not the Earth, so there's no film of what Gagarin saw. But Christopher Riley wondered if it Gagarin's tour could be filmed from the International Space Station. The European Space Agency (ESA) was supportive and their engineers calculated that the space station did fly over most of Gagarin's route - and at the right time of day - during a given six-week period. Obviously, things wouldn't look exactly the same and filming would have to fit into a busy work schedule on board.
Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli agreed to take charge of the filming. An accomplished photographer, he was to join the space station crew in November 2010. There was then just one six-week slot available to get the views they wanted and to get the movie ready for the anniversary.
During Vostok's flight Gagarin was in touch with the ground and these communications were recorded. It was difficult, but with help from a lot of people, a copy of the audio file was found just in time to be worked into the edited movie.
That took care of what Gagarin saw and heard, but he was the first man in Earth orbit. It wouldn't be so exciting for people watching the movie, so what about a musical score? As it happens, Philip Sheppard, who wrote the music for In the Shadow of the Moon, had been working on some music inspired by space travel. Amazingly, the music was already on board the space station – he had loaded it on the iPod of a friend, astronaut Cady Coleman. She and Paolo Nespoli were surprised to discover their independent connections to the movie.
And what about the movie itself? As the opening credits go by, we see some pre-flight footage. The lift-off was no-frills. Ground control pressed the ignition, Gagarin exclaimed "Poyekhali!"(Let's go!) and off he went. But this time we were going to go with him.
The view from orbit is fantastic, but much of the flight was over the Pacific Ocean at night. I have to admit that, despite Sheppard's great music, this is where I found myself thinking that I had liked the idea of the movie better than I liked watching it.
At least seeing the Moon was a diversion - this was a little memorial present from Riley to Gagarin who had not been able to see it on his flight. Gagarin had said he would see it "next time." Sadly, there never was a next time for the valuable ambassador whose smile, as someone described it, "lit up the darkness of the cold war."
When the craft came out of eclipse, the sunrise was a beautiful sight and it was a relief to have something to look at at, even if it was more ocean. Then, at last, back on land. The landing itself came suddenly and was indicated by something that seemed to be blowing in the wind. We were then told that Gagarin had parachuted to Earth from 7 km (4 miles) up.
While I was watching the movie, I had lots of niggling questions. The main one was "Where are we now?" But also I wondered who is "Number 20" that ground control mentions? And what about the "Blondie" Gagarin asks about? There was a long untranslated passage voice-over in Russian – was that a radio report?
When the movie was over, I went looking for some answers.
Gagarin keeps assuring them that he's fine, because at the time no one knew how the human body would deal with the forces of liftoff or with weightlessness. In case the cosmonaut were left unconscious, the flight was controlled from the ground by its designer, the great rocket engineer Sergei Korolev. He was "Number 20" and we do actually hear his voice on occasion.
Korolev was the mastermind who, with meager resources, had kept the Soviet space program a step ahead of the USA. He was also a well kept secret, even in the Soviet Union, and he became known to the world only sometime after his death in 1966.
If you want to see the route, this is Sven Grahn's annotated map. Kedr (Siberian pine) was Gagarin's call sign. The call sign for the ground was Zarya (dawn), so Z1, Z2 and Z3 represent these stations. There is also some technical information. If you are interested in this, have a look at the references at the end of this article.
By the way, "Blondie" turned out to be fellow cosmonaut Alexei Leonov who was at Yelizovo (Zarya 3). In 1965 he would perform the first spacewalk ever.
The first radio report was from Radio Moscow in English, which the BBC picked up. And there was another one in Russian.
I'm glad that I saw the movie and will probably watch it again knowing what I know now. I do wonder if it would be possible to have an optional commentary for a general audience. However I hope that with the additional information in this article you will have a look at First Orbit and perhaps imagine yourself high above the Earth as the person who saw it for the first time.
(1) Sven Grahn, "An Analysis of the Flight of Vostok" http://www.svengrahn.pp.se/histind/Vostok1/Vostok1X.htm
(2) Daniel Terdiman, "Celebrating 50 years since Yuri Gagarin's 'Let's Go!'"
(3) Anatoly Zak, http://www.russianspaceweb.com/vostok1.html (an interactive version of the flight map)
(4) First Orbit is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKs6ikmrLgg