Yuri Gagarin was the very first human to travel into space. He was born on 9 March 1934 Klushino near Gzhatsk, a small town west of Moscow near Smolensk in the Soviet Union (USSR). The town was renamed Gagarin in 1968 to honor Yuri Gagarin. He was the third of four children, and the elder sister helped in raising him while his parents worked. Gagarin’s teachers described him as intelligent and hard-working and given to occasional mischief. During the war his mathematics teacher flew in the Red Army Air Force, which presumably made some substantial impression on young Gagarin.
As the son of a carpenter on a kolkhoz (collective farm), Gagarin had little aspiration of becoming a national hero known around the world. He attended an agricultural school, and after starting an apprenticeship in metalworks he was sent to the Saratov Industrial Technical School, where he studied to qualify as a factory worker. It was simply because of his interest in flying that his future career was set. While he was still there, he joined the “Aero Club”, and learned to fly a light aircraft, a hobby that increasingly began to take up a good deal of his time.
After being encouraged by his flying-club colleagues, Yuri joined the Soviet Air force at Orenburg Pilot’s School in 1955. It was here that he met Valentina Gorycheva, whom he married in 1957, after gaining his pilot’s wings in a Mig-15. He completed his training and graduated with honours from the Soviet Air Force Academy in the same year, and then, for two years was posted near Murmansk in the Arctic region as a pilot. In 1959 he decided to try to join the Soviet space programme.
During a selection process in 1960 Gagarin was amongst the first class off 20 cosmonauts, who were selected for the Soviet space programme in Moscow. The prospective cosmonauts were subjected to a punishing series of experiments designed to test their physical and psychological endurance, as well as training relating to the upcoming flight. For two years the group trained, always aware that the United States also was attempting to put the first man in space. Out of the chosen 20, the choice for the first to launch was between Gagarin and Gherman Titov, as a result of their excellent performance in training, as well as their physical characteristics – space was at a premium in the small Vostok cockpit. Gagarin was only 1,57m (approx. 5 feet 2 inches) tall.
Gagarin did not have much warning that he was to be the cosmonaut chosen to make the historic flight. In early April 1961, the State Commission for Space Flight made its final selections. Less than two weeks later Gagarin was in the remote central Asian region of Kazakhstan, where Baikonur, the Soviet launch site, had been built. On 12 April 1961, settled in the tiny four and-a-half ton Vostok 3KA-2 capsule on top of the giant R-7 rocket with its twenty-four engines, Gagarin was launched into space – the first human being to escape the gravity well of our planet, and to make an orbit (a full circling) around the globe.
Gagarin in space
Gagarin space capsule (Vostok 1) orbited earth one time at an altitude of 187 3/4 miles (302 kilometres) for 108 minutes at 18,000 miles an hour. He was the first man to see that the earth was indeed round, indeed mostly water, and indeed magnificent. During the orbit he could see the Russian steppes (dry, treeless land with harsh temperature extremes), out across the Pacific Ocean and North America, above the Atlantic Ocean and Africa. When he approached the USSR again, his craft re-entered earth’s atmosphere and Gagarin landed by parachute after escaping the space capsule near Vostok.
While in orbit Gagarin was promoted “in the field” from the humble rank of Senior Lieutenant to Major. In only lunar landing modules, space shuttles, and enormously complex space stations would replace a few years Gagarin’s relatively unsophisticated spacecraft. But more than forty years ago the whole world was in awe by his brief record setting circling of the world. Gagarin’s flight did not last very long. It was less than two hours but is seen as one of the greatest feats in human history, and it ignited a space race between the USA, which had hoped that Alan Shepard would be the first man to orbit the earth, and the USSR. This rivalry only ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.
Following the historic space flight, Gagarin spent months travelling the world as a celebrity. He visited Europe, England, and North America, though not the United States. When he returned to the USSR he was honoured with several awards, including the Order of Lenin. He was made Hero of the Soviet Union and Pilot Cosmonaut of the Soviet Union. He was then appointed as head of training of the Soviet Union’s cosmonauts. The publicity appeared to gradually wear him down, and Gagarin began to drink heavily. This was compounded by marital difficulties. During October 1961 he injured himself severely in a drunken holiday escapade while escaping with a young nurse in the Crimea.
In 1964, he was named deputy director of the Star Town Training Centre where his country’s space programme was headquartered. From 1964 to 1968, Gagarin participated in the Soviet space program in several capacities including designing for reusable spacecraft. He assisted in training the first Soviet women cosmonauts, and was on the command control team for several space flights. In 1967 he was chosen to be backup command for the Soyuz 3 mission scheduled for the following year. The Soyuz capsule’s parachute failed during its reentry, and it crashed, killing Vladimir Komarov.
On 27 March 1968, Colonel Gagarin was killed in an airplane (MiG-15) crash along with his instructor. It was a training flight of a two-man jet aeroplane, a routine procedure Gagarin had performed many times before. At the time of his death, Gagarin was in training for a second space mission.