1958 — 1961
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In our post-revolutionary history, I know of no one who would have done as much to bolster Russia’s glory and its worldwide prestige, to demonstrate its will, perseverance, and versatile talents, as Korolev did.


In our post-revolutionary history, I know of no one who would have done as much to bolster Russia’s glory and its worldwide prestige, to demonstrate its will, perseverance, and versatile talents, as Korolev did.

What Had to Be Done to Send a Human Into Space and Take Him Back Safely:

  1. 01 To build a spacecraft
  2. 02 To find a way to return the cosmonaut to Earth and create a vehicle for this purpose
  3. 03 To make sure that a human can survive in space
  4. 04 To minimize the risk of flight
  5. 05 To pick out future cosmonauts and get them duly trained

The most important thing, a rocket capable of delivering a manned spacecraft into orbit, was not on the list. Korolev had already built such a rocket.

Work began in May 1958, six months after the successful launch of the Sputnik. Thousands of devices, mechanisms and systems that had never existed before had to be conceived and designed from scratch.


The R-7 was a two-stage rocket and was only just powerful enough to put into orbit a limited payload of about 100 kg.

The spacecraft with a human on board was estimated to weigh about 5 tons, so a third stage with its own engines had to be added to the rocket to make an orbital flight possible.

The rocket got its all too familiar elongated shape and a new name —


The spacecraft was designed to carry a single cosmonaut.

3D reconstruction
Vostok rocket
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Luna rocket being installed on the launch pad. The Luna, the predecessor of the Vostok, was a three-stage version of the R-7 rocket designed for delivering a payload into lunar orbit. 1959

Progress Rocket and Space Center in Samara. May 2021

How to Return Safely

The cosmonaut was to return to Earth in a reentry capsule, a metal sphere with an escape hatch.

The spherical shape was chosen by Korolev from a variety of options proposed by designers — cylinders, cones, and the like.

The reentry capsule contained a cosmonaut couch and an instrument panel with a small clockwork globe to display the location of the spacecraft above the surface of Earth.

Rocket module assembling facility at the Progress production site in Samara. 1960s

Deceleration Technique

Deceleration was performed by a retrorocket engine that was activated automatically. Upon engine firing, the reentry module began its descent to Earth. Had the engine failed, it would have taken the module ten days to work its way down due to natural orbital decay. Gagarin’s mission could have taken much longer than planned, so the spacecraft carried ten days of provisions to allow for survival.

In case of emergency, the cosmonaut could unlock the controls and fire the retro-engine himself by using a code that was placed in the onboard envelope. The code consisted of three digits that had to be punched in on a nine-button keypad in a set order. It was a safeguard measure to ensure that the cosmonaut acted rationally, not under stress or influence of weightlessness, isolation and loneliness. The cosmonaut was not supposed to know the code in advance, but Gagarin was told the code before the launch, presumably, by order of Korolev.

The reentry capsule had two small viewports, as well as two onboard cameras that filmed the cosmonaut throughout the flight.

Vostok spacecraft launch. 1960
Gagarin’s cabin in the Vostok reentry capsule
Gagarin’s reentry capsule after landing. 1961
Gagarin in the cabin of the Vostok during exams. 1960

Life in Space

In August 1960, the Vostok boost vehicle launched into orbit a spacecraft with a pressurized cabin on board that carried two dogs, Belka and Strelka  Belka («squirrel») and Strelka («little arrow»). The flight lasted more than 25 hours. Belka and Strelka completed 17 orbits and were recovered unharmed.

The flight got a huge amount of media publicity, and the dogs instantly became Soviet pop-stars. The day after the landing they participated in a press conference; their pictures featured on stamps, badges, postcards, and all sorts of products.

The successful flight and return of Belka and Strelka showed that a living being, meaning a human too, could stay long enough in space, as weightlessness, cosmic radiation, and gravity load appeared not to have an adverse effect on the main life functions.

Space dogs Belka and Strelka
Belka and Strelka in the space cabin
Return of Belka and Strelka. 1960
Belka and Strelka at a press conference. 1960
It was not a smooth ride

What the Odds Were

Out of 14 launches of the first version Vostok rocket, a half ended in accidents, one of those cost the lives of Chaika and Lisichka.

The second, improved version of the Vostok rocket performed three flights; the first ended in a crash, the other two went well. The probability of success for the fourth flight, the one with Gagarin on board, was about


That was the minimum possible risk at the time.

Sad Fate of Ivan Ivanovich

Emergency Escape

After the death of the dogs in the rocket explosion, Korolev concluded that it was necessary to develop an emergency escape system that could save the life of the crew at any moment of the flight.

A bailout system was introduced, but it was not expected to be fully effective until after 20 seconds into the flight. Much to the dismay of Korolev, it was not possible to save the crew in the first 19 seconds after liftoff, as the altitude would still be too low for the escape capsule parachute to be deployed. Proper launch escape systems were developed some time later.

The emergency escape system never got to be used during Korolev’s lifetime.

If it were necessary to bail out in case of an accident, the capsule with the cosmonaut would be ejected from the spacecraft through a hatch in the frame.

How the First Cosmonauts Were Picked Out, and How They Were Trained

Korolev believed that the best candidates for a spaceflight would be experienced fighter pilots of impeccable health and mental stability, not older than 30 years old, and no taller than 170 cm.

The selection commission chose

352 candidates

The interviewed pilots were told that they were being selected to perform test flights of newest airplanes.

By the end of 1959, the group was down to


That was the first Cosmonaut Team.

Training was very demanding. In addition to vigorous physical exercises, future cosmonauts were taught classes on a wide variety of topics such as medicine, biology, astronomy, geophysics, rocket space systems, and much more. The candidates went through exhaustive parachute training, experienced zero gravity in a free-falling plane, endured g-forces in a centrifuge, underwent oxygen starvation tests, stayed in a pressure chamber, trained the vestibular system, and the like.

Gagarin during training. 1960
Gagarin at a medical check-up. 1960

In June 1960, Korolev brought members of the Cosmonaut Team to the assembly plant where they first saw the spacecraft in which one of them was to fly.

We stood there like under a spell,
Gagarin said later

When Korolev invited them to get inside the spacecraft, Gagarin was the first to come forward. Korolev was pleasantly impressed to see Gagarin take off his shoes before climbing the ladder into the spacecraft.

Cosmonauts getting acquainted with the Vostok spaceship
Cosmonauts at the «Korolev’s» production plant in Podlipki. 1960

Progress Rocket and Space Center in Samara. May 2021

Why Gagarin Was Chosen

Gagarin  Gagarin scored good results in training and tests, but not the best. However, his personality traits noticeably distinguished him from the rest of the Team.

Gagarin was very outgoing, equally at ease with peers and superiors, courteous, considerate, and notably hard-working. He plainly radiated optimism, and his sense of humor never failed him.

After examinations in January 1961, the State Commission ranked the candidates and announced the order of flights. Gagarin was named the first.

The first cosmonaut candidate had to be approved by Khrushchev. However, everyone knew that the first to go would be the one chosen by Korolev.

Gagarin during mold casting for a custom contour couch in the Vostok spacecraft. 1960
Korolev and Gagarin during exams. 1960
Gagarin during preparation of the capsule and spacesuit adjustment. 1960
Gagarin and Korolev

Everything Is Ready. The Mission Is a Go

3D reconstruction
Vostok module
Drag to discover

Flight Schedule

Launch of the Vostok-1 rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome
Crossing the equator
Pacific Ocean
Atlantic Ocean
Gagarin’s landing

Before the Launch

Several weeks before the launch, psychologists suggested that Gagarin spend some time inside the actual spacecraft. The training simulator was an exact full-size replica of the Vostok module, but they believed that the real-life module would give Gagarin the feel of the spacecraft and better chances to fully fit in. It was considered an important element of the prelaunch fine tuning, and Korolev gave his permission.

Gagarin, wearing a spacesuit, spent the whole day of April 7 in the flight-ready Vostok spacecraft, in which he would fly his mission five days later. They called it «the final training session».

Before the launch


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3D reconstruction
Korolev at the Baikonur Cosmodrome after getting news of Gagarin’s successful landing.
Korolev near the Gagarin’s reentry capsule
Gagarin at the «Korolev’s» production plant in Podlipki. April 1961

What Korolev Himself Thought About It

Having returned to Moscow from the Baikonur launch site after Gagarin’s flight, Korolev told someone close to him, «I should have been the one to fly the mission. Too late for me, though, and they would not have let me anyway.»

Those who knew Korolev well, recalled that he always regretted he would not be able to go into space himself. He once asked Semyon Alekseyev, chief designer of space suits, to make, for old friendship’s sake, a spacesuit for him as well.

After the flight of Gherman Titov in 1962, Korolev once said to the members of the State Commission, «Listen, why don’t I fly there too?»

Everyone took it as a joke, but later on, after his death, a draft of his enrollment application for the space flight program was found. As sober and rational man as he was, he still hoped for a miracle.


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Based on recollections of cosmonaut Alexey Leonov; MD–PhD Adele Kotovskaya; cosmonaut Andriyan Nikolayev; and cosmonaut Georgy Grechko


My mind cannot possibly put up with the idea that he is no longer with us. So it seems that the door would suddenly open, he would walk in, concerned with a bunch of problems, a robust, heavy-built man with a big thinker’s head, and would immediately set about demanding, proving, arguing his point. Once done, he would calm down and break into his unique Korolevian radiant smile.

A military technician, who served in the 1940s at the Kapustin Yar proving ground where the R-1 and R-2 missiles were tested, recalled that at the appearance of Korolev, a civilian, everyone, soldiers and officers alike, rendered a salute to him.

About the project


Georgy Avanyan


Natalya Akulova


cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko


Elena Matza


Natalya Makarova


Pixeljam Studio
  • Art director:
    • Aleksander Grigorev
  • Developers:
    • Dmitry Udovichenko
    • Dmitry Orlov
    • Daniel Denisov



  • Producer:
    • Artem Patyn


Studio Lastik


  • Actors:
    • Valeria Dorokhova
    • Alexander Vladimirtsev
  • Director:
    • Gleb Dobrovolsky


Elena Kuklina


Julia Baklanova


Anna Ulyanskaya, Alla Chetaeva, Victor Koreshev, Georgy Kulikov, Vladimir Derevyanko, Alexei Taranin, Natalya Bogoyavlenskaya, Maxim Makarov, Svetlana Alexikova, Dmitry Anzhaparidze, Dmitry Koshelev, Danila Koshelev, Ivan Karyshev, Arthur Salikhov, Mikhail Tatyanin


Progress Rocket and Space Center in Samara for the filming opportunity

Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow for the filming opportunity on the territory of the Memorial House Museum of Academician Sergey Korolev in Ostankino


Russian State Archive of Scientific and Technical Documentation

Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive



Yaroslav Golovanov, Boris Smirnov, Evgeny Ryazanov


Documentary footage:

«Pilot Shabanov’s Flight Moscow-Berlin (1920-1930)», «The Country of the Soviets Turns 16. (1933)», " May 1 Celebration in Moscow (1923)», «Sovjournal No. 64/173 (1928)», «Aero March (1934)», «Aircraft Inventor Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1927)», «Into the Air Now! (1923)», «The Great Scientist of the Great People (1935)», «The Eastern Flight (1924)», «Socialist Village No. 3 (1935)», «Fighter Planes (1942)», «Airplane in the Service of Culture (1925)

Documentary films and stories (1960-1992):

«Korolev», «Conquerors of the Universe», «Columbuses of the Space Era», «Twenty-Five Years' Undertakings», «Documentary Filings of Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov» — footage of cosmonauts in the TV studio, footage of flight preparation of the first team of cosmonauts


  • Dmitry Zilmanovich. Friedrich Tsander, Pioneer of Soviet Rocketry. 1966
  • Cosmonautics. Soviet Encyclopedia article. 1968
  • Pyotr Astashenkov. Academician Sergey Korolev. 1969
  • Vadim Shavrov. History of Aircraft Designs in the USSR up to 1938. 1978.
  • Irina Strazheva. Tulips from the Cosmodrome. 1978
  • Creative Legacy of Academician Sergey Pavlovich Korolev. Selected works and documents. 1980
  • Yaroslav Golovanov. Road to the Cosmodrome. 1982
  • Mark Gallay. With a Man on Board. 1985
  • Boris Rauschenbach. Memoirs about Sergey Korolev. 1985.
  • Academician Sergey Korolev. Scientist. Engineer. Personality. Creative portrait in recollections of contemporaries. 1986
  • Valentin Glushko. Development of Rocket Building and Cosmonautics in the USSR. 1987
  • Yaroslav Golovanov. Korolev, Facts and Myths. 1994
  • Boris Chertok. Rockets and People. 1999.
  • Mikhail Rebrov. Sergey Pavlovich Korolev. Life and Singular Destiny. 2002
  • Anton Pervushin. Battle for the Stars. Space Rivalry. 2004
  • Natalia Koroleva. Sergey Korolev, My Father. 2007
  • Anton Pervushin. 108 Minutes That Changed the World. 2011
  • Anton Pervushin. Sergey Korolev’s Empire. 2017
  • Korolev. Horizon of Events 1947-1965. Tender Letters of a Stern Man. 2019
It was not a smooth ride

Twenty days before Belka and Strelka, another pair of dogs, Chaika («seagull») and Lisichka («little fox») were sent into orbit. Just after launch, one of the rocket’s side blocks exploded killing both dogs.

Lisichka was a favorite of Korolev. Shortly before the flight, as witnessed by several engineers, he took the dog in his arms and said to her,

I would love to see you coming back…
Lisichka and Chaika
Sad Fate of Ivan Ivanovich

On May 15, 1960, Soviet newspapers reported that the fourth Soviet satellite was launched into orbit. In fact, it was a test flight of an uncrewed prototype of the spacecraft that was built for human flight.

The spacecraft carried a dummy like the ones used in automobile crash tests. The dummy was dubbed Ivan Ivanovich and, according to those who worked on it, Ivan Ivanovich was a likeness of Korolev.

The prototype spacecraft lacked many modules and units, and, to compensate for the missing weight, a ton of iron bars were loaded on board.

The descent capsule with Ivan Ivanovich was supposed to return to Earth in four days, but, as a result of engine malfunction, the spacecraft moved into a higher orbit instead of dropping into atmosphere.

Two and a half years later, pieces of wreckage of the spacecraft and some iron bars fell onto the main street of the American town of Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

A few years later at an international space congress, the American delegation attempted, probably by way of joke, to give back the bars to the Soviet participants. The Soviet representatives refused to take them pretending they did not know what those bars were.

Gagarin and Korolev

On the eve of the launch on April 11, Korolev told General Kamanin,

After all, it’s a human that flies now… I mean, I’ve known him for quite a while… grown really close. He is like a son to me.

Kamanin was amazed; he had never heard Korolev speaking of anyone in that manner.

Korolev did not sleep on the night of April 11 to 12. In the morning, when saying goodbye to Gagarin beside the spaceship before liftoff, he hugged and kissed him on the cheek.

When the Vostok space module with Gagarin aboard entered orbit, Korolev drew on a cigarette offered by someone, although he had quit smoking long ago.

The rocket launched at 9:07 am Moscow time, and at 10:55 am Gagarin already landed in the Saratov region. Korolev got to see Gagarin again no sooner than in the evening. Gagarin recalled afterwards that Korolev’s eyes were full of tears.

Gagarin’s launch. April 12, 1961

Later Gagarin gave Korolev a signed photo of himself in a spacesuit, «To my dear Sergey Pavlovich Korolev — my space father — as a token of my sincere respect and gratitude».

Gagarin and Korolev. 1961
Gagarin, Nina Koroleva, and Korolev on vacation in Sochi. 1961

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