How It Works

How Vostok 1 worked – 51 years of spaceflight

Gagarin’s Mission

On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in history to reach low-Earth orbit, otherwise known as ‘space’. He travelled there inside a metal sphere called Vostok 1, the world’s first manned spacecraft, beating American Alan Shepard into space by just 25 days.

Vostok 1 was a spherical cabin, coated entirely in an ablative material to act as a heat shield as it re-entered the atmosphere. There was a window out of which Gagarin could view the Earth, and an ejector seat for his return (as he would separate from the capsule as it re-entered the atmosphere). Beneath Vostok 1 was a service module containing the chemical batteries and rockets to maneuver the spacecraft. After almost one complete orbit of Earth, lasting 68 minutes, the spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere and landed in Kazakhstan an hour and 48 minutes after launch.

As Gagarin ejected from the spacecraft before it landed, under FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) rules it did not qualify as an actual space flight, although the Russians kept this quiet for several years after. Nonetheless, Gagarin was still the first human to venture into space.

Check out the front page of the American newspaper The Huntington Times from the day Gagarin completed his famous mission on the left. Below, you’ll find an annotated diagram of Vostok 1.

On the next page we’ve got two astronomically detailed infographics telling you all about Yuri’s journey through the heavens and a look back at 51 years of space travel. But first, you’ll want to check out the video below. It’s an incredible piece of work taken by astronaut Paolo Nespoli aboard the ISS in 2010 that shows almost the exact view Gagarin would have had from his spherical ship as he rattled around the Earth.