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For the USA's Mercury flights, a number of tracking stations were installed around the globe. John Glenn's first orbital flight was tracked with them, plus a number of ships.

Tracking stations used in John Glenn's flight

(Tracking stations used in John Glenn's flight - source)

Yuri Gagarin's flight went mostly over the oceans:

Yuri Gagarin's flight ground track

(Yuri Gagarin's flight ground track - source)

It seems that for most of the orbit the tracking could be done from strategically located ships in international waters in the Pacific and the Atlantic ocean. Another large portion of the orbit went over USSR territory, so that was not an issue either. But how about the part over the African continent? Did the USSR have/need a tracking station there? Was the lack of friendly states an issue in tracking Gagarin's flight and thus a orbit design constraint?

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    $\begingroup$ The key event was deorbit burn of Vostok-1, to make sure 1) it will not be in the orbit too long beyond survival and 2)it will land on USSR territory. The burn was made over South Atlantic, and the telemetry from tracking ships confirmed the trajectory is within limits (although Gagarin landed not in designated point finally). So I would not be surprised if Vostok-1 wasn't tracked over Africa. It wasn't crucial for the mission success. I've found some info about Soviet tracking ships (in Russian) in the time of Vostok-1 flight, but I can't find any info about african stations. $\endgroup$ – Heopps Nov 25 '19 at 12:36
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    $\begingroup$ niskgd.ru/pages/qa.htm - some info about USSR tracking ships, including Vostok-1 flight. (in Russian) $\endgroup$ – Heopps Nov 25 '19 at 12:46
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    $\begingroup$ novayagazeta.ru/articles/2009/04/10/… - a paper article with memoirs about Vostok-1 tracking (in Russian). $\endgroup$ – Heopps Nov 25 '19 at 12:50
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The Answer is on a page by Sven Grahn.

No ocean going tracking ships were used. Only ground stations on the territory of the USSR.

In the other answers some russian sources about the use of tracking ships were found, so the information from Sven Grahn may be partialy wrong.

Short waves were used for long distance (5000 km) transmission even beyond line-of-sight, 9.019 MHz and 20.006 MHz for AM voice and 19.995 MHz for the simple on-off keyed telemetry.

enter image description here

A graphic by Sven Grahn.

VSN are the VHF (143.625 MHz) ground stations, Z1-3 are the HF (short wave) stations. Kedr is the call sign used by Gagarin.

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  • $\begingroup$ The Krug system was used to observe the first satellites. Probably for the first manned ships. Because during the flight, short-wave communication was used. globalsecurity.org/intell/world/russia/krug.htm $\endgroup$ – A. Rumlin Nov 25 '19 at 12:36
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    $\begingroup$ Well, according to my info tracking ships were used during Gagarin's flight. I can't find documents, but there are many gazette papers and blogposts about it (in Russian), and, well, currently it doesn't seems to me that all of them are faked... See my comments to the question. $\endgroup$ – Heopps Nov 25 '19 at 13:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Heopps From the page by Sven Grahn "The dependence on HF was necessary, because the Soviet Union did not yet possess an ocean-going fleet of tracking ships" $\endgroup$ – Uwe Nov 25 '19 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ Wait. 143GHz frequency? That's basically infrared, right? $\endgroup$ – Tomáš Zato - Reinstate Monica Nov 26 '19 at 11:25
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    $\begingroup$ @TomášZato 143 MHz or 0.143 GHz but not 143 GHz. $\endgroup$ – Uwe Nov 26 '19 at 12:23
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Ships were used to receive telemetry.

Work in the ocean took place on February 12, 1961. At this time, preparations for the launch of the world's first manned spacecraft Vostok were completed. At the Control Center, a decision is made to use a tracking ships for telemetric monitoring of the onboard equipment of the spacecraft. On April 12, 1961, the tracking ships located on the space flight path in the Atlantic Ocean successfully received telemetric information on the operation of the Vostok spacecraft onboard systems and scientific information on the life of the cosmonaut.

Работа в океане состоялась 12 февраля 1961-го. В это время завершалась подготовка к запуску первого в мире пилотируемого космического корабля «Восток». В Центре управления принимается решение использовать корабельные измерительные пункты для телеметрического контроля за работой бортовой аппаратуры космического аппарата. 12 апреля 1961 г. корабельные измерительные пункты, расположенные на трассе космического полёта в Атлантическом океане, успешно приняли телеметрическую информацию о работе бортовых систем космического корабля «Восток» и научную информацию о жизнедеятельности космонавта.

КОМИССАРЫ КОСМОСА

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  • $\begingroup$ Did the tracking ships receive only signals from Vostok or did they transmit speech to Vostok? $\endgroup$ – Uwe Nov 26 '19 at 17:08
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    $\begingroup$ Only data reception. $\endgroup$ – A. Rumlin Nov 26 '19 at 17:52
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I've found that language barrier problem exists. There are many info in Russian that have no proper translations in English.

There were space tracking ships too.

Information that USSR had not them at the time is not correct, the first ships were equipped in 1959-60.

Sources: 1. http://niskgd.ru/pages/qa.htm

quotes:

Первые 6 судов, что начали работу до 1967 года, выглядели, как обычные торговые, грузовые суда. Суда, построенные начиная с 1967-го, существенно от них отличались. Их внешний вид явно выдавал необычность назначения и тем привлекал к себе публику в портах захода.

The first 6 ships that began work before 1967 looked like ordinary merchant ships. Ships built since 1967 differed significantly from them. Their appearance clearly betrayed the unusual nature of the destination and thus attracted the public in ports of call.

...

Этот флот начал создаваться в 1959 г. по инициативе С.П.Королёва в связи с подготовкой к запускам первых автоматических межпланетных станций типа "Марс" и "Венера", а также пилотируемого космического корабля "Восток".

This fleet began to be created in 1959 at the initiative of S.Korolyov in connection with preparations for the launch of the first automatic interplanetary stations of the Mars and Venus type, as well as of the Vostok manned spacecraft.

  1. Newspaper article https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2009/04/10/43224-gde-teper-kosmonavt-yuriy-gagarin

longread quote:

Для управления полетом космических аппаратов (КА) был создан командно-измерительный комплекс, включающий в себя Центр управления полетами (ЦУП) и большую сеть наземных измерительных пунктов (НИПов). Но для обеспечения хорошей связи космических аппаратов с Землей в любое время суток территории страны было недостаточно. После запуска первого искусственного спутника Земли расчеты баллистиков показали, что из 16 витков, которые делает за сутки космический аппарат, 6 проходят над океанами. Их называли «глухие точки», с территории СССР они были «невидимы», а значит, полет проходил вслепую, без возможности управления. У нас не имелось островов и баз в другом полушарии, для того чтобы оборудовать там НИПы. Решением проблемы стали научные суда, способные обеспечить связь Земли с космосом почти в любой точке океана. Впоследствии благодаря использованию космического флота все 6 труднодоступных витков стали видимы.

Рождение космического флота — 1960 год. По планам С.П. Королева в октябре этого года должны были состояться первые пуски дальних космических аппаратов к Венере и Марсу. По его инициативе в срочном порядке телеметрической аппаратурой оборудуют три судна-сухогруза «Долинск», «Краснодар» и «Ворошилов» (позднее переименован в «Ильичевск»). 1 августа «Краснодар» и «Ворошилов» из Одессы, а затем «Долинск» из Ленинграда выходят в Атлантику для обеспечения контроля вторых стартов (когда с первой космической скорости объект разгоняется до второй, чтобы лететь к дальним планетам). В 1961 году все три судна работали по первому пилотируемому полету вокруг Земли.

12 апреля 1961 г.

— Каждое из судов было оснащено двумя комплектами радиотелеметрических станций «Трал», способных принимать и регистрировать десятки параметров с бортов космических объектов, — вспоминает Василий Васильевич Быструшкин (ветеран Великой Отечественной войны. В 1961 году — начальник экспедиции плавучего телеметрического пункта в Атлантике, оборудованного на теплоходе «Краснодар». Непосредственный участник обеспечения полета Гагарина, главный представитель заказчика по строительству специализированных судов Морского космического флота; лауреат Государственной премии СССР). — До того времени эти станции изготавливались только в автомобильном варианте, а для морских условий их не успевали доработать по срокам. Поэтому автомобильные кузова с размещенной в них аппаратурой, но, разумеется, без шасси, опускали в трюмы теплоходов и крепили там по-морскому. Суда получили координаты рабочих точек в акватории Гвинейского залива Атлантики и должны были отследить работу бортовых систем на участке посадки. «Краснодар», на котором я был начальником экспедиции, назначался главным в составе комплекса, так как на его борту были наиболее опытные специалисты. Южнее по трассе, в полутора тысячах километров, получил рабочую точку теплоход «Ильичевск». Точка работы «Ильичевска» позволяла ему первым зафиксировать прием телеметрии, если бы вдруг на борту программа посадки включилась с опережением. Теплоход «Долинск» занял свое рабочее место севернее острова Фернандо-По (вблизи Камеруна). Его зона радиовидимости позволяла зафиксировать работу бортовой телеметрии в случае задержки времени включения тормозной двигательной установки (ТДУ). Такая расстановка судов позволяла с запасом по времени вести прием телеметрии от начала включения системы бортовой ориентации до конца работы ТДУ при входе космического корабля в плотные слои атмосферы. До 12 апреля проходили ежедневные тренировки операторов, и только антенные устройства станций «Трал» в связи с требованиями режима секретности продолжали оставаться в разобранном виде зачехленными брезентом. Погода в районе работы в этот день (12 апреля) не отличалась от других дней года на экваторе, яркий солнечный день, штиль. Судно медленным ходом идет курсом на юго-запад, антенны выставлены по целеуказаниям. Через час после старта с «Востока» приняли устойчивый сигнал. Система ориентации космического корабля (КК) на посадку работала нормально. Операторы станции «Трал» точно зафиксировали продолжительность работы тормозной двигательной установки. Телеграммы оперативных донесений срочно переданы в Москву, через две-три минуты от начала приема телеметрии они были в ЦУПе. Посадка «Востока» проходила по заданной программе, и из наших донесений было видно: корабль должен приземлиться в расчетной точке. Но в душном трюме судна еще долго кипела работа: в фотолаборатории продолжали проявку многометровых отрезков кинопленки. Еще сырую, не высохшую до конца ленту дешифровщики просматривали на столах, анализировали параметры работы бортовых систем корабля для передачи в ЦУП второго потока телеметрических измерений. На судне царила атмосфера радости и гордости за новый успех в освоении космоса. Первый помощник капитана к этому моменту успел вывесить огромный транспарант: «Да здравствует первый в мире космонавт Юрий Гагарин!» — и торжественно провел импровизированный митинг.

translation (slightly edited google, sorry):

To control the flight of spacecraft (SC), a command and measurement complex was created, which includes the Mission Control Center (MCC) and a large network of ground-based measuring points (NIPs). But to ensure good communication of spacecraft with the Earth at any time of the day, the territory of the country was not enough. After the launch of the first artificial Earth satellite, ballistic calculations showed that of the 16 turns that a spacecraft makes in a day, 6 pass over the oceans. They were called "dead spots", from the territory of the USSR they were "invisible", which means that the flight went blindly, without the possibility of control. We did not have islands or bases in the other hemisphere in order to equip NPCs there. Scientific ships capable of providing the Earth’s connection with space almost anywhere in the ocean became the solution to the problem. Subsequently, thanks to the use of the space fleet, all 6 hard-to-reach turns became visible.

The birth of the space fleet - 1960. According to the plans of S.Korolyov in October of this year, the first launches of spacecraft to Venus and Mars were to take place. On his initiative, three dry-cargo vessels “Dolinsk”, “Krasnodar” and “Voroshilov” (later renamed "Ilyichevsk") were equipped with telemetry equipment urgently. On August 1, "Krasnodar" and "Voroshilov" from Odessa city, and then "Dolinsk" from Leningrad, leave for the Atlantic to control second launches (when the object accelerates from the first space speed to the second to fly to distant planets). In 1961, all three vessels operated on their first manned flight around the Earth.

April 12, 1961

“Each of the vessels was equipped with two sets of Tral radio-telemetric stations capable of receiving and recording dozens of parameters from spacecraft,” recalls Vasily Vasilyevich Bystrushkin (WWII veteran. In 1961, he headed the expedition of a floating telemetry station in the Atlantic, equipped on ship “Krasnodar.” A direct participant in the provision of Gagarin’s flight, the main representative of the customer for the construction of specialized ships of the Marine Space Fleet , Laureate of USSR State Prize). - Until that time, these stations were manufactured only in the automotive version, and for marine conditions they did not have time to finalize them on time. Therefore, automobile bodies with equipment located in them, but, of course, without a chassis, were lowered into the holds of motor ships and fastened there in the sea. The ships received the coordinates of the working points in the waters of the Gulf of Guinea of ​​the Atlantic and were supposed to track the operation of the on-board systems at the landing site. "Krasnodar", where I was the head of the expedition, was appointed the main member of the complex, since there were the most experienced specialists on board. Farther south along the track, one and a half thousand kilometers, the "Ilyichevsk" motor ship got an operating point. The point of work of "Ilyichevsk" allowed him to be the first to fix the telemetry reception, if the landing program had started ahead of schedule on board suddenly. The motor ship Dolinsk took its place of work north of the island of Fernando Po (near Cameroon). Its radio-visibility zone made it possible to record the operation of on-board telemetry in the event of a delay in the activation of the braking propulsion system (TDU). This arrangement of vessels allowed us to receive telemetry with a margin of time from the start of turning on the onboard orientation system until the end of the TDU operation when the spacecraft entered the dense layers of the atmosphere. Until April 12, daily training of the operators took place, and only the antenna devices of the Tral stations, in connection with the requirements of the privacy regime, continued to remain unassembled with sheathed tarps. The weather in the area of ​​work on that day (April 12) did not differ from other days of the year at the equator, a bright sunny day, calm. The ship is heading in a slow course towards the south-west, antennas are set for target designation. An hour after the start from the Vostok-1 received a steady signal. The spacecraft orientation system (SC) for landing worked normally. The operators of the Tral station accurately recorded the duration of the braking propulsion system. Telegrams of operational reports were urgently transmitted to Moscow, two to three minutes after the start of telemetry reception they were at the MCC. Landing of the Vostok-1 was carried out according to a given program, and from our reports it was clear: the ship should land at the calculated point. But in the stuffy hold of the vessel, work was still in full swing for a long time: in the darkroom, the development of multi-meter segments of film was continued. The decoders looked at the raw, not yet completely dried up tape on the tables, analyzed the operation parameters of the ship's on-board systems for transmitting to the MCC a second stream of telemetric measurements. An atmosphere of joy and pride reigned on the ship for a new success in space exploration. The first assistant to the captain by this time managed to hang out a huge banner: “Long live the first cosmonaut in the world, Yuri Gagarin!” - and solemnly held an impromptu rally.

There are many other links, all in Russian 1 2 3

All of them give the same years for the first tracking ships - 1959-60.

About the page by Sven Grann http://www.svengrahn.pp.se/histind/Vostok1/Vostok1X.htm

I can't say currently what part of communication was made by land-based stations or by ships. But at least the claim that USSR hadn't the ships at the moment is incorrect.

About mp3 file of Gagarin's voice communication, I can confirm that link quality was rather poor - as native Russian speaker I hardly can recognize words. I would suppose the telemetry acquisition required more robust link that could be provided by ships.

Stenogram of Gagarin's voice communication in Russian can be found here, but not all the entries have timestamps.

It can be noticed in the stenogram that from 10.18 to 10.55 (landing moment) there is no communication (all times are Moscow timezone). So for that part of OP's question - yes, it looks like there was no communication over Africa.

As I said in comment above the key event was deorbit burn of Vostok-1, to make sure 1) it will not be in the orbit too long beyond survival and 2) it will land on USSR territory. The burn was made over South Atlantic, and the telemetry from tracking ships confirmed the trajectory is within limits (although Gagarin landed not in designated point finally).

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    $\begingroup$ This is great additional info! $\endgroup$ – Ludo Nov 26 '19 at 21:04
  • $\begingroup$ If the ships received HF shortwave signals only using an omnidirectional antenna they could not measure the azimut and elevation angles. If they received VHF signals at 143 MHz or 2.1 m wavelength a directional antenna was possible but very large for a ship. So no "tracking" of orbit was possible using HF only. $\endgroup$ – Uwe Nov 28 '19 at 14:26
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According to this source (in Russian; includes communication log and post-flight debriefing) the only ground stations that are listed as those that were communicating with Gagarin were located in USSR. This leads to conclusion that there were no other tracking stations located elsewhere.

The list of the stations:

  1. Located at launch site (Baikonur). Communication via VHF. From 7:10 till 9:30 Moscow time. (Liftoff at 9:07)

  2. Novosibirsk. Planned for 9:22 till 9:39. No signals were received from the spacecraft. Comms via shortwave (HF)

  3. Alma-Ata. Planned for 9:52 till 10:02. No signals were received from the spacecraft. Comms via shortwave (HF)

  4. Khabarovsk. Communication from 9:21 till 10:11. Comms via shortwave (HF)

  5. Moscow. Communication from 10:13 till 10:18. HF.

The communication was brief and mostly consisted of reporting the instruments indications and estimation of the pilot's physical condition (i.e. "feeling well", "in good mood", "flight goes as planned" etc.)

The flight was fully automated, and although he had ability to do so (in case of automation failure), Gagarin didn't operate anything manually whilst in orbit.

As a side note, this source (in Russian) claims that at 9:26 US station located at airbase on Aleutian Islands in Alaska managed to acquire and decode TV signal from the spacecraft.

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