How Russia's Yuri Gagarin Became the First Man in Space Thanks to 'Steampunk' Contraption

Sixty years ago today, on April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made history by becoming the first human to travel into space.

Launching aboard the Vostok 3KA-3 spacecraft, Gagarin circled the Earth once over the course of a 108-minute flight before re-entering its atmosphere and landing safely around 16 miles southwest of Engels, in the Saratov region of what was then the Soviet Union.

Remarkably, this key milestone in the history of spaceflight was achieved with seemingly primitive technology by the standards of today. In fact, there were no actual computers in the modern sense—that is electronic, digital and reprogrammable computational devices—on board the spacecraft itself, MIT professor Slava Gerovitch, a leading expert on the history of the Soviet space program, told Newsweek.

While computers are an integral part of all modern spacecraft—and spacecraft launched later in the 1960s by both the Soviets and NASA were equipped with on-board digital, electronic computers—the closest thing to a computer on board the Vostok 3KA-3 spacecraft was a device called the Globus IMP (a Russian acronym for "Indicator of Flight Position") Navigation Instrument.

This device was actually a mechanical computer consisting of gears—hundreds of mechanical components—driven by an electric motor, Kevin Knuth, a professor of physics from the University at Albany, told Newsweek.

"It is more comparable to the Ancient Antikythera mechanism, or Charles Babbage's Difference Engine—developed in the 1820s—than it is to modern digital computers," he said. "One might call it steampunk, except there was no steam involved. The device is really a piece of art."

The Antikythera mechanism is an ancient Greek hand-powered, metal device that was once used to calculate and display information about astronomical phenomena. It is widely considered to be the oldest known example of an analog computer. The Difference Engine, meanwhile, was a mechanical calculating machine designed by Babbage, a 19th century British polymath, to produce mathematical tables.

Globus IMP, Yuri Gagarin, Russia, Getty
The inside of Vostok, in which Yuri Gagarin circled the globe in on April 12th, 1961. The Globus IMP can be seen beneath the label '2.' Getty Images

In the early 1960s, the Soviets were risk-averse and worked to have a "failure-free" space program, Knuth said.

In an article posted to his Computing in the Soviet Space Program website, Gerovitch wrote: "The political imperative to keep the Soviet space program 'failure-free' compelled the leaders of this program to choose the simplest, well-tested, most reliable technical solutions."

As a result, the Soviets decided not to equip the Vostok 3KA-3 spacecraft with electronic computers—which were still a relatively new technology at the time—in part because they did not fully trust them, according to Knuth. Electronic computers at the time also took up large amounts of space and required teams of technicians to maintain them.

But despite the fact that the Vostok 3KA-3 spacecraft did not feature any computers in the modern sense of the word, the mission was, remarkably, fully automated. The spacecraft was guided by automated controls and by operators on the ground at Soviet mission headquarters.

"Gagarin's entire flight was conducted in the automatic mode; he did not touch the controls," Gerovitch said. "Before Gagarin, a couple of test flights had been done with a mannequin on board, and the mannequin did just fine. The automatic control system used various analog control devices, which were hardwired to perform a fixed sequence of operations and adjusted their performance based on feedback from sensors."

Because the Soviets did not know how cosmonauts would react to weightlessness, they disabled the manual pilot controls. But they did provide Gagarin with a code in a sealed envelope, which would allow the cosmonaut to enable the pilot controls in the event of an emergency.

Without a computer onboard, the Globus instrument was used by Gagarin to confirm that the automated flight systems aboard the Vostok 3KA-3 were working

"The instrument indicated the position of the spacecraft [relative to our planet] by rotating a five-inch diameter globe of the Earth," Knuth said. "The globe was covered by a plastic dome, which had crosshairs etched into it indicating the position of the spacecraft.

"The instrument rotated the globe with two degrees of freedom (rotation and inclination.) The latitude and longitude was displayed with two rotary disks marked by degrees. There was a mechanical three-digit orbit counter. The control knobs were entirely mechanical."

The Vostok 1 mission was not entirely devoid of computers, however. For example, trajectory calculations for Gagarin's flight were done at the computation center of the Scientific Research Institute No. 4, the ballistics research center of the Soviet Ministry of Defense, on the M-20 computer, according to Gerovitch.

This instrument was the most advanced Soviet computer of the time, occupying more than 2,000 square feet and featuring 1,600 vacuum tubes. This device had a memory of just 90 kilobytes, which is around 180,000 times less than a typical 16 gigabyte iPhone 6, Gerovitch said.

Yuri Gagarin
Yuri Gagarin, the first human to travel into outer space, in a photograph from 1961. Getty Images/Bettmann/Contributor