From humble beginnings, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth in Vostok 1 on 12 April, 1961. The flight lasted a short 108 minutes and he would become a world hero afterwards. Sadly, his life was cut short in the years that followed.
Gagarin was born on 9 March, 1934, and was the son of a carpenter. When Gagarin was about seven years old, Nazis invaded the small Russian village Klushino his family lived in. They were thrown out of their home and were forced to live in a mud hut for nearly two years. Gagarin vandalized Nazi equipment where he could and, luckily, he was never caught.
While in school, Gagarin gravitated towards math and science. When he was older, he got an apprenticeship as a metal worker and received further education at a technical school in Saratov. It was here at a local club where Gagarin gained his first aircraft experience. What began as a hobby would soon become his fulltime career. In 1957, he joined the Soviet Airforce and became qualified to fly a jet.
Quickly making his way up the ranks, Gagarin stood out from the rest because of his skills and endurance. In 1960, he was secretly selected as part of a group of twenty pilots who would be trained to become the first Soviet cosmonauts.
Gagarin was put through rigorous tests that pushed him to the edge both physically and mentally. He handled everything he was asked to do with dedication and was further picked for an elite cosmonaut group known as the ‘Sochi Six’.
Gagarin and Gherman Titov were selected as the final two cosmonauts for the first human spaceflight. In the end, Gagarin was chosen because of his cool-under-pressure personality, flying experience and only being 157 centimetres tall made it easier for him to fit inside the cramped Vostok capsule.
The Soviet Union had previous space experience launching the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, and first animals into space but this was the first time a human was strapped inside a rocket. At 6:07 am on April 12, 1961, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Vostok 1’s engines roared to life and it and Gagarin headed skyward.
Vostok 1 orbited the Earth only once but for over twenty minutes of the flight ground stations lost contact with Gagarin. He kept himself entertained by watching water droplets, that had escaped from his drinking tube, float around the cabin.
Vostok 1 fired its automatic retrorockets and began re-entering the atmosphere. As it descended something went wrong. The crew capsule hadn’t separated from the equipment module like it was supposed to and the combined extra weight caused Vostok 1 to spin. Gagarin experienced forces of up to 8 Gs but, because of his jet pilot training and stamina, he managed to stay conscious. Eventually, the equipment module came free and the capsule righted itself.
At about seven kilometres above the Earth, Gagarin had a rough idea where he was over Russia and jumped from the spacecraft. He parachuted the rest of the way to the ground.
Near the town of Engels, a farmer and his daughter watched in surprise as the Vostok capsule smashed into the ground. This was followed by Gagarin and parachute landing shortly after. Still in his orange spacesuit, he approached the two. Gagarin later spoke about the encounter:
“When they saw me in my space suit, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet citizen like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!”
Gagarin became an international celebrity instantly. He was celebrated in Moscow with a 10-kilometre-long parade that was followed by an extensive world tour. At one point, he met with representatives of the United Nations but didn’t technically step foot on American soil. His aircraft landed in New York and then a helicopter took him directly to their headquarters.
In the years after Vostok 1, Gagarin served as a deputy to the Soviet of the Union and then returned to the space program in Star City. He became the Deputy Training Director and oversaw the schooling for cosmonauts. He spent the rest of his time helping to design reusable spacecraft.
Though he was assigned as cosmonaut backup on Soyuz 1, Gagarin was banned by Soviet leaders from ever flying in space again. They didn’t want to risk him being killed on a mission because he was a symbol of Soviet success and propaganda.
Sadly, Gagarin died at the age of 34 on 27 March, 1968. He was on a routine training flight with instructor Vladimir Seryogin when their jet crashed into the ground. The nation mourned for Gagarin and his cremated ashes were buried in a wall of the Kremlin.
Photo Credit: Britannica (https://cdn.britannica.com/22/115022-050-FA9D6901/Yury-Alekseyevich-Gagarin-1961.jpg)
This Soviet Cosmonaut Was the First Human in Orbit — Fueling the Space Race (https://edition.cnn.com/2021/04/12/world/space-race-yuri-gagarin-scn/index.html)
Vostok – Soviet Spacecraft Series (https://www.britannica.com/technology/Vostok-Soviet-spacecraft)
Yuri Gagarin: First Man in Space (https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/sts1/gagarin_anniversary.html)
Yuri Gagarin: The Spaceman Who Came in From the Cold (https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210409-yuri-gagarin-the-spaceman-who-came-in-from-the-cold)
Yuri Gagarin and Vostok 1, the First Human Spaceflight (https://www.planetary.org/space-missions/vostok-1)