In April 1961 Yuri Gagarin was the first man to orbit the earth in a space craft. As the 40th anniversary approached Jeff Dugdale looks at the philatelic issues commemorating this historic flight. This article first appeared in Stamp Magazine (January 2001 issue) and is reprinted here with permission from Jeff.
The Soviet Union shocked the world in April 1961 with the launch of a man into outer space, without notice. The shock announcement followed the pattern established back in October 1957 with the launch of Sputnik. In the intervening period the Soviets had launched increasingly bigger satellites into orbit. The satellites often carried small animals and dogs, many of which perished in flight, as the West later learned. We know now that political pressures essentially from Premier Nikita Khrushchev – who was desperate to beat the Americans in the ‘Space Race’ had forced the hand of Sergei Korolev (the then anonymous Chief Designer of Soviet spacecraft) to launch a human being into space sooner than he would have liked.
Knowing that he was taking a risk, he selected as Cosmonaut No.1 – Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin. Gagarin had been one of a small group of his first cosmonaut team but was not Korolev’s number one or even number two candidate as the best in the group. To have launched Vladimir Komarov (who finally flew and ironically perished in Soyuz 1 six years later) or Gherman Titov, who acted as Gagarin’s back-up, was too risky. So the man selected for the first space flight was a 27-year-old test pilot born on a collective farm at Gzhatsk — a village 100 miles west of Moscow.
Bogus launch site
At 09.07 Moscow time on April 12, 1961 Gagarin was launched in the 4.75 ton Vostok (or East) spacecraft from Baikonur in Kazakhstan. In fact, as with so much of the Soviet space programme throughput the 60s and 70s, this bogus launch site was deliberate misinformation. The actual launch site was Tyuratam, which lies 230 miles south west of Baikonur, but it was about with secrecy and covering up possible failures.
The unknown and handsome Gagarin made but one orbit of the Earth and landed as a hero and international celebrity in parachute harness. He ejected (to plan) from the return capsule at 22,000 feet and landed in a cow field near the village of Smelovka near Saratskaya, just under an hour and 50 minutes after launch. His method of landing was not revealed by the Soviets until 1978 and for many years it was thought he had landed within his capsule, which would certainly have killed him!
There was, of course, much tabloid newspaper interest in the ‘First Man in Space’ story. At the time many rumours abounded that the Soviets had been responsible for the deaths of previous cosmonauts killed in disastrous space launches or flights before Gagarin. Following the glasnost era under Gorbachev the Soviets came clean and admitted failures, but only involving ground crew fatalities and it now seems clear that Vostok 1 was indeed the first true attempt to put a man in space.
The Soviet Union marked one of the most significant events in the history of mankind by issuing SG 2576 on April 17, 1961. The dark blue three kopek issue featured a photo of Gagarin surrounded by the legend ‘First Cosmonaut’ and images of the carrier rocket taking off and his Hero of the Soviet Union medal with a laurel leaf — the traditional symbolic award for achievement.
Some weeks later they completed the set with a six kopek stamp showing three spacecraft — including the unmistakable shape of Sputnik — flying above Moscow’s Spassky Tower and Baikonur tracking equipment with the Vostok rocket trailing a Salute to Soviet achievement. The final 10 kopek issue shows the carrier rocket clearly in orbit and in its wake a ghostly helmeted cosmonaut and a profile of the Kremlin buildings silhouetted against the sky. The images on the 10k stamp raise the fascinating subject of how the Soviets set out to conceal the true shape of their Vostok spacecraft for over four years.
If one studies the first philatelic essays of Vostok you can see a variety of responses to the problem faced by the stamp designer who has not the faintest what the spacecraft looked like. The first Issues far the Soviet Union — and satellite states such as Albania, Bulgaria, Cuba, East Germany, Hungary, Vietnam etc — all depict rockets that Jules Verne might have dreamt of and each is different from the next, some slightly so and some very much. However other designers must have thought their brief was too silly and they resorted to a much more honest approach using symbolism, such as The Cosmonaut (Czechoslovakia) or Red Star in Orbit (Poland and Mongolia). The Romanian designer solves the problem by putting his Vostok craft so far in the background it just looks like a tiny blip!
In the months and years before the truth about Vostok was revealed one false design comes to the fore – the thimble and collar style used by several countries in the years 1963 and 1964.