Today in 1961, Soviet Air Force pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to travel into space. This gave the Soviets the second of two big "firsts" in the space race, the other one being the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in October, 1957. Gagarin's flight made him a larger than life hero in the Soviet Union, a position of admiration and respect that he holds to this day.
Gagarin was born in the village of Klushino in the Soviet Union in March, 1934. His parents worked on a collective farm like millions of other Soviet citizens, a fact the Soviet government later made use of. To them, Gagarin was created to the play the role of a Soviet astronaut---born of peasants, schooled in the teachings of communism from a young age and honed like a blade by his nation's military. If the Soviet Union ever had an equivalent of the American dream, Gagarin was its poster boy.
Gagarin was just a child when Germany invaded his country in 1941, but he experienced the same hardships as the adults around him. His two older brothers were taken to Germany as conscript laborers; he would not see them again until after the war. Gagarin did well in school and came to admire his science teacher, a man who had flown in the Soviet Air Force during the Great Patriotic War. Although he probably did not know it at the time, he was at the beginning of the path that would lead to Earth orbit.
After completing his studies at a local technical school in 1955, Gagarin was accepted into military flight training at the Soviet Air Force Academy. Two years later, he had his pilot's wings and a wife, Valentina Goryacheva. The young airman's first assignment was at an airbase close to the Norwegian border, an area that was deadly for pilots due to the sometimes terrible weather conditions.
In 1959, Lieutenant Gagarin volunteered to become a part of the budding Soviet space program. The next year, he and 19 others became the first class of cosmonauts. The group was put through incredible tests, both physical and psychological, all intended to ensure that they had the "right stuff", the phrase American astronauts used to describe the mix of physical fitness, mental toughness and risk-taking ability necessary to make a person a successful space traveler. As the training progressed, two men began to stand out from the rest of the class: Gagarin and Gherman Titov. One of them would be the first man in space.
In the end, Gagarin received the assignment for several reasons. Physically, he was just right for the tiny Vostok capsule; he was only 5' 2" tall, had a slight build and was considered handsome. He had a friendly, outgoing personality, something that would come in handy after the flight when the first man in space would be expected to meet and greet people all over the world. As mentioned before, his upbringing helped, too. While Titov came from a family of means (at least by Soviet standards), Gagarin had grown up poor on a communal farm. The communists in Moscow loved a good poverty-to-glory tale, and thus Gagarin had the right back story.
At 9:07AM Moscow time on April 12, 1961, Gagarin roared into space atop a variant of the SS-6 ballistic missile. In orbit, he had no control over his capsule. This was by design, since Soviet scientists were worried that weightlessness could cause disorientation bad enough that Gagarin could compromise the mission. There was a sealed key in the capsule that would allow the cosmonaut to take manual control of the capsule, but it was not used.
Gagarin was back on solid ground 108 minutes later after making one orbit of the earth. Instead of landing with the capsule, he ejected from it while still seven kilometers up. This, too, was by design, since the parachute system on the Vostok did not slow the ship down enough to allow a human being to survive its contact with the ground. A woman and her grand-daughter were the first people to see the cosmonaut as he floated down. During the flight, he had been promoted---he left the Earth as a Senior Lieutenant, but returned as a Major.
Gagarin became an instant celebrity all over the world. The Soviets showed him off all over Europe, Asia and parts of the Americas. After a stint as a deputy to the Supreme Soviet, the nation's legislative body, Gagarin returned to work. He was not allowed to fly again, since his loss in an accident would be an embarrassment to the Soviet government. It is believed that Gargarin argued vehemently to be allowed to return to space, but it was not to be. On March 27, 1968, while flying a training mission intended to help him regain his status as a fighter pilot, Colonel Gagarin and his instructor died in a crash.
Today, many places and things are named after Yuri Gagarin: a city in Russia, a monument in Moscow, the Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, a crater on the far side of the Moon and an asteroid, just to name a few.
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