It was the Soviet Union's own giant leap for mankind, one that would spur a humiliated America to race for the moon. It happened 50 years ago this Tuesday, when an air force pilot named Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. The 27-year-old cosmonaut's mission lasted just 108 minutes and was fraught with drama: a break in data transmission, glitches involving antennas, a retrorocket and the separation of modules. And there was an overarching question that science had yet to answer: What would weightlessness do to a human being?
"There were all kinds of wild fears that a man could lose his mind in zero gravity, lose his ability to make rational decisions," recalls Oleg Ivanovsky, who oversaw the construction and launch of the Vostok spacecraft that carried Gagarin. The flight was to be fully automatic, but what if weightlessness caused Gagarin to go mad and override the programmed controls? The engineers' solution was to add a three-digit security code that the cosmonaut would have to enter to gain command of the spacecraft. It proved unnecessary. The flight went off safely, and the handsome Russian with the big smile became a poster boy for the communist world.