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Yuri Gagarin & the First Orbit

Yuri Gagarin was the first human to ever enter space on top of a rocket, simultaneously becoming the first man to go into space and the first to ever go into orbit. Unfortunately, he made for a poor tourist, having no video camera on that first historic voyage. Fifty years later, one filmmaker is helping the world to see what Gagarin might have seen a half century ago.

[First Orbit Trailer]

Chris Riley, co-director of "In the Shadow of the Moon" has collaborated with the European Space Agency (ESA) to produce the experimental documentary "First Orbit" - a compilation of video shot from the International Space Station (ISS) and original Soviet video from Gagarin's flight.

"I just kind of suddenly thought 'Wouldn't it be great to film a view that Gagarin had?'" Riley said in a BBC interview. "I always remembered the sad reality of there not being any footage of it."

Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli - already an accomplished space photographer - was recruited to film Gagarin's journey from the newly-installed cupola aboard the ISS. Permission was obtained to use 15 minutes of the astronaut's time to set up and tear down the camera that filmed the same 90 minute orbit Gagarin would have seen.

"It became a maths problem," Riley said in his interview, describing the challenge of tracing the cosmonaut's original path. He had to consider the orbit, the inclination of the orbit and the differing altitudes.

The ISS cruises at an altitude that varies from about 219 to 221 miles above the Earth's surface. On his flight, Gagarin's altitude varied from 105 to 203 miles. Though Gagarin never flew quite as high as the ISS, the orbital altitudes were still pretty close, a difference of a few miles making little impact on the view from space.

Being close to the right inclination was another concern for the director. The orbital inclination is the angle between a reference plane - in this case, a flat disc defined by the equator - and an axis, like the one running from the North Pole to the South Pole through the center of the Earth. Spacecraft don't always orbit over the equator or pole-over-pole. Instead, they often orbit at a path that might go across the southern tip of South American and then back up across Egypt and into Siberia, as Gagarin did.

If you drew a line on a globe representing his flight path you would see that it crossed the equator twice, heading near each of the Poles but never quite reaching them. Gagarin was on an orbital inclination of 65 degrees, taking him near, but not quite to, each of the Poles. The ISS's inclination is nearer to 52 degrees, keeping it on a circular path around the Earth that sticks closer to the equator than Gagarin did.

Even so, the ISS's inclination was close enough to Gagarin's to allow the director to film almost exactly what Gagarin saw. Because the ISS's orbit varies, Riley had the chance to film the Gagarin orbit about once a week. But the director also wanted to film an orbit at the same time of day Gagarin would have seen on his flight. That orbit, it turned out, came around only once every six weeks.

Riley got his shot, and after some back and forth with the Russian government, got a copy of the audio from Gagarin's flight. The emotion in the cosmonaut's voice, Riley said, really makes the film come together.

Lastly, Riley was able to do it all for free, making the film free to the world. That was the plan from the beginning, Riley said, to give away the film "for all mankind" to celebrate the world's first manned flight into space.

The film premiers tomorrow, on the 50th anniversary of the Vostok 1 flight. It will be broadcast on YouTube when the clock strikes midnight at the International Date Line. It will also be broadcast at Yuri's Night events around the globe.

[Gagarin's Vostok 1 capsule on display at the RKK Energiya Museum near Moscow.]

For details on attending a Yuri's Night event, click here.
For details on how to watch the video on YouTube, click here.


  1. RE: 'Wouldn't it be great to film a view that Gagarin had?'

    - just a great thought.


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