Fifty years ago today, Gherman Titov became the second man to go into orbit. The first was Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union on 12 April 1961. Titov was also Soviet, and flew aboard the Vostok-2 mission.
While Gagarin launched into enduring fame and became one of my personal heroes, Titov has been largely forgotten. That’s a shame, because his flight included a number of records and advanced our knowledge of conditions in zero gravity.
Unlike Gagarin’s single-orbit flight, which was largely to see whether the Soviet Union could get a man into space, Vostok-2 on 6 August 1961 was intended to test how well someone could deal with zero gravity for 24 hours. Major Titov was chosen for the task. He was only 25 years old and is still the youngest person ever to have gone into space.
It didn’t all go well. Early in the flight Titov became space sick and while trying to eat lunch on his sixth orbit around the Earth he threw up. The effects of this in a small capsule in zero gravity must have been unpleasant to say the least. Titov was made of tough stuff, though, and took the manual control of the capsule for a time and also snapped a picture of the Earth from space, the first human being to do so. Ten-and-a-half hours into the flight he felt good enough to fall asleep.
That’s probably the most amazing part of the story. I can’t imagine actually falling asleep when Earth is shining outside my window. Perhaps the adreneline rush finally wore off and Titov conked out due to sheer exhaustion. He slept for eight hours. When he woke up he still didn’t feel a hundred percent but was able to keep his breakfast down. After 17 orbits he reentered the atmosphere and safely landed.
One interesting footnote to the flight is that the Soviets made all the radio frequencies between Vostok-2 and ground control public, so that the whole world could listen in as the capsule passed overhead and could track it using directional antennae. This kept anyone from claiming the flight was faked. Conspiracy theorists have been saying ignorant things about the space program for a long time now.
For more information and some cool images, check out the great website Space History Notes and their article on Vostok-2.