YouTube premieres First Orbit, the story of man’s first journey into space

To coincide with the 50th anniversary of man’s first journey into space, the film “First Orbit“, a feature length film event that weaves historic audio recordings of the first Cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, with new footage of his orbital route, will premiere globally for free on YouTube at sunrise on 12 April and will be accessible from anywhere in the world.

In collaboration with the European Space Agency and the astronauts onboard the International Space Station, filmmaker Chris Riley has captured the magnificence of Gagarin’s original orbit.

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Filmed by astronaut Paolo Nespoli, “First Orbit” delivers breath-taking digital, full high-definition views of the Earth from above. The footage matches the orbital path of the International Space Station as closely as possible to that of Gagarin’s original route, allowing viewers to see incredible vistas of the Earth through the Space Station’s new giant cupola window.

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was a Soviet Cosmonaut who, on 12th April 1961, became the first human to journey into outer space, launching into orbit aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft. His call sign for the flight was ‘Cedar’ – meaning Siberian Pine. Ground Control referred to themselves as Dawn.

Director Chris Riley says “We have woven historic Vostok I mission recordings of Gagarin (subtitled in English) with new shots captured by Paolo Nespoli, and edited them to an original score by composer Philip Sheppard, creating a spellbinding film which I’m thrilled to be able to share with people around the world for free on this historic anniversary.”

In addition to the First Orbit film premiere release on and, the Yuri’s Night network is organising hundreds of parties across the world to watch the film on 12 April to celebrate the incredible achievement of Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man ever to travel into space.

First Orbit was made in collaboration with the European Space Agency and the Expedition 26/27 crews of the International Space Station. The film ‘First Orbit’ was created by matching the orbital path of the International Space Station, as closely as possible, to that of Gagarin’s Vostok 1 spaceship.

How the film ‘First Orbit’ was made

Whilst the film archive of Gagarin’s training, preparations and subsequent world tour extensively, footage of the flight itself hardly exists.

Chris had always wondered what Yuri’s view of the Earth had looked like and when a new giant-windowed cupola was added to the International Space Station in early 2010, he came up with the idea of filming a new view of what Gagarin would have seen fifty years earlier.

The International Space Station orbits the Earth approximately every 90 minutes, but doesn’t always follow the same route as Gagarin took. So to find out when filming opportunities might occur, the European Space Agency (ESA) teamed Chris up with German orbital mechanics guru, Gerald Ziegler.

Ziegler discovered that the International Space Station covered similar ground to Gagarin’s Vostok 1 spaceship every week or so. But to complicate things further, the film makers needed to film at exactly the same time of day that Gagarin made his flight; passing over Gagarin’s launch site, near the Aral Sea, at 06:07 UT and on into the night side of Earth overthe Pacific Ocean at 06:37, before emerging into sunlight again over the Southern Atlantic at 07:10 UT and passing across the whole African continent and the Middle East, returning to the ground at 07:55 UT, just north of the Caspian Sea.

Further calculations confirmed that opportunities to film this trajectory, with the correct sun angles, from the International Space Station at this exact time of day only came round every six weeks or so.

The second challenge was fitting these filming opportunities into crew time on board the Space Station. The astronauts have a busy schedule; conducting a packed programme of experiments, Earth observations and activities like sleep, exercise and meal times. This meant that accommodating the extra filming request for First Orit was yet another challenge for the ESA mission directors.

After a brief test shoot in November 2010, conducted by NASA’s Expedition 25 astronaut Doug Wheelock, European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli filmed most of the footage for the project in early January 2011. This new footage showed the Earth as Gagarin would have seen it almost exactly fifty years before.

Mission directors Roland Luettgens and Giovanni Gravili worked closely with the team to turn the filming opportunities Gerald Ziegler had identified, into precise technical notes which translated Chris’s camera directions into instructions for the crew.

What Paolo has recorded for ‘First Orbit’ is an eye-witness view of the Earth from space. “You can see scratches and blemishes on the windows”, says Chris, “and we’ve purposefully kept some of the moments when Paolo moves the camera in the film too, just to remind us that this footage has been recorded by human beings up there rather than unmanned robotic satellites.”

Paolo never appears in the film himself, but as the Space Station flies into the night side of the Earth over the north Pacific, viewers can catch a glimpse of him reflected in the window as he floats towards the camera to adjust it.

“Gagarin flew over a lot of ocean during his mission,” Chris reminds us, “and on the days Paolo filmed, there were some stunning cloud formations hanging over these deep blue vistas. But one of my favourite views from ‘First Orbit’ occurs as we cross the Sahara Desert and head up towards the Middle East. There’s the whole of North Africa and the glowing red Sahara and the winding dark Nile River laid out beneath us – just as Gagarin would have seen it as he made his final approach towards the landing site.

Completely coincidently, as Paolo filmed this final leg of the flight, the camera lost its focus on the Earth and started to blur the view – giving the illusion of descending back into the atmosphere as Vostok 1 did during re-entry. “It was perfect for the end of the film,” Chris reflects.

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