Yuri Gagarin, incredibly, didn’t carry a camera on the world’s first spaceflight. Neither did Alan Shepard nor Gus Grissom, whose 15-minute suborbital shots followed Gagarin’s April 1961 launch by three weeks and three months, respectively. The American astronauts were photographed during their missions, but only by automated cameras mounted in the Mercury capsule.
So it was left to the fourth person in space, Gherman Titov, to become the first true extraterrestrial photographer. His Vostok 2 flight happened 50 years ago tomorrow.
Titov’s mission is memorable in many respects. Only 25 at the time, he is still the youngest person ever to launch into space. He had been Gagarin’s understudy for Vostok 1, which lasted a mere 108 minutes, but on his own flight Titov took space travel to the next level. He stayed up for a full day, 17 orbits, enough time to really experience the new environment.
It made him sick—Titov was the first person to suffer the malady now known as “space adaptation syndrome.” But the view gave him great joy. As Francis French and Colin Burgess write in their 2007 book Into That Silent Sea:
Titov’s life was steeped in a profound love of literature, and his words have a power that other spacefarers have rarely matched, before or since. His recollections are both poetic and succinct. “I had the feeling that our Earth is a sand particle in the universe,” he wrote , “comparable to a particle of sand on the shore of the ocean. It was strange to have a black dome above me and our earthly blue sky below. The Earth flashed as a multi-faceted gem, an extraordinary array of vivid hues that were strangely gentle in their play across the receding surface of the world…framed in a brilliant, radiant border. The colors were extraordinary—vivid, yet tender—and the light streaming through the cabin carried a strange shade as if it were filtered through stained glass.”
Titov used a 35-mm Konvas movie camera to shoot scenes out the window of his Vostok capsule. Some of the photos appear in an exhibit that opened at Moscow’s FotoSoyuz gallery this week, titled “50 Years of Space Photos.” (Here’s a link to the website, translated by Google).
Were he alive today (he died in 2000 at the age of 65), Titov would no doubt marvel at the HD video streamed routinely by cosmonauts from the International Space Station—a building-size structure he could scarcely have imagined when circling Earth in his small and lonely capsule, half a century ago.
Here’s a short video profile of Titov (in Russian) from the Roskosmos space agency: