Tuesday, 12 April 2011

First Manned Orbital Flight and Yuri Gagarin's Pencil

All sorts of things went wrong before the world's First Manned Orbital Flight performed on 12 April 1961 by Yuri Gagarin. The door of the spacecraft went wonky and had to be repaired; Gagarin's spacesuit was found to be too heavy and engineers had to strip away part of the Vostok's  internal apparatus to compensate and caused a short circuit in the process; the spacecraft blasted to 203 miles instead of 143 due to a fault in an engine. Well, it's a miracle Gagarin made it.

But Gagarin's mishaps were not over.  When he reached orbit the cosmonaut looked for his journal "to experiment with weightlessness." But darn it and confound it - the journal floated back to him without a pencil! The pencil which should have been attached to it was floating somewhere in Vostok in zero gravity and he couldn't find it. The opportunity of the humble pencil to make history was lost.

(Gagarin reached for the voice recorder but it soon run out of tape!)

A few months later Soviet cosmonaut Titov boarded Vostok II, well aware of the pencil mishap. He took the notebook labelled "Log Book of the Spaceship Vostok II" and with exaggerated care made sure that the pencil was indeed dangling from it and was securely fastened: "Yuri Gagarin did not attach his pencil firmly and lost it," he remembered.

New declassified archive documents on Gagarin's first orbital flight are published in a book in Russian on 12 April, see "How Yuri Gagarin's historic Flight was nearly grounded", The Guardian, 6 April 2011; "Vostok: Dawn of Human Spaceflight" in RussianSpaceWeb.com; "Russia: I am Eagle," TIME 18 August 1961. See Gagarin and his pen (photo signed with fountain pen ink).

Apparently it is an urban myth that the Americans spent millions building a pressurized gravity-free biro, while the clever Russians just used a pencil. Using a pencil carried the risk of the tip breaking off and getting into the cosmonaut's eyes or noses, or causing damage in electrical devices. See the forum discussion here.


  1. Great, thanks for this!
    Sharpening the pencil would also produce lots of bits that would start floating around ...or did he have a mechanical pencil?

  2. He actually did take a pencil and no, the eventual sharpening would have not been an issue as the sharpeners have a deposit.