In case you weren’t aware, today is the 60th anniversary of humans first leaving the Earth and venturing out into space. That first human was Yuri Gagarin, citizen of a country that’s no longer really here, but what he and the Soviet engineers who built that first spaceship, Vostok 1, did is still incredible even today. What’s also incredible is the way that first mission to space came to an end, and how it involved a little girl protecting potatoes from a hungry calf.
That first trip into space lasted under two hours and covered a single full orbit of the Earth. It was just one orbit, sure, but that was still a colossal achievement, and it’s worth remembering that when America launched Alan Shepard into space less than a month later, his Mercury capsule made only a suborbital hop; it wasn’t until John Glenn’s flight in February 1962 that Americans made an orbital flight as well.
The Vostok spacecraft was a clever bit of engineering, designed in a way that handled the return to Earth differently from any spacecraft since. Specifically, after re-entry into the atmosphere, the cosmonaut ejected from the spherical return capsule and landed by parachute, separately.
This was a clever solution, because it meant that a complex soft-landing system for the heavy capsule didn’t need to be developed. The orb-shaped return module helped simplify the design, too, as it was specially weighted to always face the part with the most heat shielding into the proper re-entry position, without a need for complex steering or orientation mechanisms — it would just settle that way, no matter what.
This, of course, also meant that by not landing specifically with the capsule, the arcane rules of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) wouldn’t certify the flight as the official spaceflight and claim the international altitude record, so until 1971 the Soviet Union insisted that Gagarin landed inside the return capsule.
In old diagrams of the flight plan, you can see this claim, illustrated:
What his separate landing did allow, though, was the amazing interaction Gagarin had when he landed. A couple of things contributed to the circumstances of the landing:
First, the launch was not publicized, since if anything went wrong the Soviets didn’t want the world to know. As a result, it was a relative secret until everything was over.
Second, the landing wasn’t quite where the mission planners wanted. Due to a power supply failure to a set of antennae for the radio-controlled range and acceleration measuring system, the command to cut off the engines was very slightly delayed, resulting in an overflight of 83 kilometers/52 miles.
As a result, the Vostok capsule and Gagarin landed somewhere they didn’t really plan for. It was surrounded by people who had no idea what was going on didn’t know to expect people falling down from space.
That place was the Leninsky Put Collective Farm in Kazakhstan, and instead of being greeted by a trained crew of officials and workers ready to handle everything, he was greeted by a grandmother and a five-year old girl planting potatoes.
The grandmother was named Anikhayat Takhtarova, who helped Gagarin remove his helmet and gave him some milk.
The little girl, Rumiya Kudasheva, noticed “two red balls” in the sky, but grandma told her to stay focused on throwing potatoes into the holes her grandmother was digging.
Many years later, she recounted what happened next:
A little more time passed, and Rita had already forgotten about the strange balls in the sky, when suddenly the girl saw something huge and beautiful rise from the field.
It was an orange monster! - says Rita. - Suddenly he stirred, got up and went, and behind him on the ground dragged a huge parachute and ropes. I told my grandmother: “You didn’t want to watch, but now he is coming to us himself!”
When the helmet was removed from Yuri Alekseevich and his face became visible, the grandmother began to ask questions. There was no one else around - people rarely met on the field, and if they did, they usually came by car. The grandmother asked what he had come in. “On the ship!” - came the answer. “What ship? There is no water nearby!” - the grandmother was surprised. Then he said: “I am from the sky!” The grandmother did not believe it, and the man invited her to go to the booth so that she could be convinced of everything personally.
Rita wanted to go with them, but a calf came up to the bucket and began to eat potatoes.
-At that time, the potato was more important for us than Gagarin, we didn’t know who he was - I remained to protect it.
At that time, the potato was more important for us than Gagarin, we didn’t know who he was - I remained to protect it. They were gone for a long time, and when they returned, a crowd of collective farmers had already appeared. Apparently, they heard on the radio about the landing. They ran to us, they had hoes, pitchforks.
People ran up and surrounded them. I made my way through the crowd and saw that the alien was lying on the field, and the spacesuit was being removed from him. People untied and twisted something on his arms and legs. And when the spacesuit was unbuttoned, I was finally convinced that this was a man. You know, he was different from everyone else in that he constantly smiled, he had a smile from ear to ear. Then a helicopter flew for him, if I’m not mistaken, from the Saratov Helicopter School, and took him away.
Amazing! First human returns from space to find a confused little girl and suspicious farmers with pitchforks.
There’s a bit here in this movie dramatization of that first flight that shows the landing:
It looks like there was a documentary featuring Kudasheva and her story, based on these screenshots, though so far I haven’t been able to find it:
There’s just something about this whole scene that’s so incredible and comical and such a powerful symbol of the uneven way progress works — a man returns from space right into a farming scene that could have been happening any time for the past several centuries.
So, happy space-travel anniversary, Yuri Gagarin. And happy anniversary to Anikhayat Takhtarova and Rumiya Kudasheva, the first people to meet and assist someone who just came from space, and who was somehow less important than a calf trying to eat potatoes.