Heroes of Space: Yuri Gagarin

We’ve been a space-faring species for over half a century thanks to Yuri Gagarin, our first cosmic explorer


On a small unassuming Russian farm in what is now known as Smolensk Oblast on 9 March 1934, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was born to his parents Alexey Gagarin and Anna Gagarina. Although they lived comfortably, they suffered under Nazi occupation during World War Two and, following the war in 1946, they moved to the nearby town of Gzhatsk (renamed ‘Gagarin’ in 1968).

Gagarin (the man, not the town) had an interest in space, the planets and flying from an early age. After studying at the Saratov Techincal College, and learning to fly with the local “aero club”, Gagarin enrolled at the Orenburg Pilot School in 1955. Here he met Valentina Goryacheva, whom he married in 1957, and later that same year he became a lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force.

When he joined the Soviet space programme in 1960 he was immediately popular with both fellow pilots and the hierarchy. In the run-up to the first manned Soviet spaceflight, which was in direct competition with the Americans to get the first human into space, Gagarin’s focused and effervescent demeanour earned him the pilot’s position on the first flight. Of course his humble beginnings didn’t hurt his chances, as well as the fact that he was just 1.57 metres (5 feet and 2 inches) tall, which would enable him to fit comfortably into the cramped Vostok spacecraft.

At 9:06am on 12 April 1961 Vostok 1 lifted off with Gagarin on board, and nine minutes later he became the first human to travel into space and enter orbit around the Earth. He was so relaxed during the launch that he was even able to be jovial with ground control. When asked how he was doing he responded: “I feel fine. How about you?”

The orbit lasted 108 minutes before Gagarin returned to Earth, ejecting from the capsule seven kilometres (4.35 miles) above the ground and parachuting to Earth. Upon landing he reportedly came across a startled 6-year-old girl and her grandmother on a farm and said: “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 was paraded around the world including here, in Egypt. Image credit: Fyodor Nosov

The flight made him a global celebrity and he made numerous visits to countries across the world including Germany, Japan and England over the next few years. He was the recipient of many honours and awards including the prestigious Hero of the Soviet Union and the Order of Lenin. He revelled in the fame but was restricted from undertaking any more spaceflights, as the Soviets did not want to lose their famous cosmonaut. It was with great sadness, therefore, that Gagarin died almost 45 years ago on 27 March 1968 during a routine aircraft training flight at the age of just 34.

Gagarin’s legacy as the man who turned humanity into a space-faring species is remembered around the world through a number of tributes and events. Such was his stature that modern male cosmonauts even complete a bizarre ritual before launching: they ‘take a leak’ on the back tire of the bus taking them to the launchpad, just as Gagarin did before his flight on 12 April 1961.

Yuri Gagarin inspired an age of space exploration around the world that we are still living in today. The brave audacity of this man to conquer the ultimate unknown will forever be remembered for as long as we continue to reach for the stars.

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