There’s something so intriguing about the idea of rocket travel- I often wish I could travel back to the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s when rockets were in their first days and humans were just beginning to experiment with them. Yuri Gagarin (the first human in space) is one of my idols and I envy all that he experienced in his ground-breaking achievements. I wrote the following story in late 2011 with Gagarin and his experiences at the back of my mind, and I hope that it captures the uncertainty and simultaneous exhilaration of a maiden rocket flight.
The morning was a cold one; I stepped out the door of the barracks to see a glistening layer of frost over the entire base. It covered the hangars, the command centre, the giant radar array, and even the rocket that I was slated to pilot at dawn. I have never been much of a morning person, so throughout the flight preparations I tried in vain to move launch time to maybe 1200, or 1300 hours. But for some reason, my flight engineers remained convinced- and adamantly so- that it had to be done early, before sunrise. So there I was, up at 0300 hours, steeling my nerves for the upcoming experimental flight.
As I moved swiftly across the deserted base, my footsteps crunching in the snow, I imagined how it might feel to blast off. That is, if we even achieved ignition. My gaze fell on the tall, thin, graceful rocket; and I noticed that my fellow airmen were readying it for launch. Sighing, I made my way to my comrades, and by 0350 hours I had been fully briefed and was strapped in and ready to go. Well, not quite ready- I could feel my adrenaline beginning to rise but despite my excitement, I dearly wished I had signed on for the cosmonautical physics program instead of the rocket one! I squinted at the multitude of switches and dials around me, with only a vague recollection of the function of each, when my attention was abruptly caught by the sound of a cough beside me. My commanding officer was peering through the escape hatch at me with a rather forced look of optimism. I must admit, it was not encouraging.
“You know what to do, then?” He said flatly. “In just half an hour and a few hundred miles you can bring her down into the Bering Sea. We’ll have rescue boats and a salvage ship waiting for you there.” With that, he gave me a rough pat on the shoulder and slammed the hatch shut. I heard the compression seals adjusting and knew that I was face-to-face with my fate. I could not pull out now. Gritting my teeth and shifting my weight so as to be as comfortable as possible in the event of death, I radioed in the appropriate message to Command.
“Comrade Flight Lieutenant Volkov of experimental rocket Slava, standing by and ready for launch. All systems green and boosters at 30%. Awaiting your mark.” I tried to keep my voice calm and controlled, but inside I was shaking. I knew that a manned rocket had never been successfully launched before, and I could feel the rumbling of the massive, flaming rocket boosters beneath me, just waiting to send me hurtling over Siberia at 8,000 miles per hour along with a few tons of volatile rocket fuel. The feeling I had as I sat there was horrible; the engines shaking me mercilessly and the deep rumbling of their power filling my ears.
I would have driven myself to hysteria, worrying and questioning, had Command not radioed back promptly: “Comrade Flight Lieutenant Volkov, you are cleared for launch. Set boosters to 100% and await countdown. Good luck, noble comrade!”
At that point I was not really thinking about anything at all- my brain was so frightened that it refused to work, but I was apparently aware enough to reach the booster power dial, because suddenly the rocket was seized by a rumbling of even greater power. Everything shook; I could feel the vibrations in my bones and my vision was blurry from the lack of stable objects upon which to focus.
“Ten,”- the first digit in the countdown surprised me. I had been very preoccupied with the new vibrations in the capsule. The countdown from Command continued:
At five I felt a bead of sweat drip down onto my cheek, and realized how warm it was becoming.
I glanced at the tiny window in the escape hatch, which, in the chill of the February morning, had been covered in frost. But this frost was no longer, and through its beads of condensation I saw that the horizon was just lightening up.
Here I braced myself and tried not to fear the worst. I figured I might as well check the inlet valve pressure to distract myself, but the gauge was jiggling too violently for me to read it. All the dials, switches, and fixtures in the capsule were shaking with a painful rattling noise, and the noise from the rocket boosters coupled with the rising heat made me feel as if I were sitting in the depths of a volcano about to erupt. Then the final countdown:
“…One. We have lift-off!”
And we did. The engine power I had felt before was nothing compared to what came next. A strange surge ran through the frame of the rocket, and then with a steady and deafening roar, it lifted off the ground. I had imagined previously that lift-off would be quite violent, but it wasn’t. It was the most glorious and liberating experience I have ever had. The rocket glided into the air with a smooth, controlled fury that was remarkable to witness, and as it gained speed and altitude I quickly lost my fear. It was exhilarating to be screaming through the sky, achieving a victory that none had ever achieved before. I sat still in wonder for several minutes, until the rocket cleared the highest layer of clouds. At once I was blinded by the flaming rays of the morning sun, which, due to my vast altitude, were now totally visible. I was awoken by their invigorating light, and so I checked my radar and navigation instruments as I had been instructed. The rocket was tracking well, and heading swiftly for the Bering Sea. The fuel load was, unsurprisingly, running low, but this did not concern me, as my journey was almost done.
For a moment I stared out at the fiercely shining sun over the clouds, and pictured where I was- roaring like a hypersonic bullet above the clouds, all alone but more blessed than anyone on the earth below; because they would never get to experience what I did. I laughed to myself, relishing the great privilege that I had. Then, noting my approximate position and the decreasing fuel of the rocket, I set booster power to 40% and double-checked all systems. Taking one last look out at the magnificent sunlit sky, I began my descent…back to earth, to success, and to the pages of history.