Yuri Gagarin: First Man in Space

Ukrainian postage stamp from 2011 commemorating the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic flight into space. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Ukrainian postage stamp from 2011 commemorating the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight into space. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

55 years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first person to travel into outer space.

Here are some things you may not have known about Gagarin and his flight.

Yuri Gagarin was born in 1934 near the border between Russia and Belarus. During World War II, his family was displaced from their home and forced to live in a mud hut for almost two years.

As a teenager Gagarin began training as an air cadet, while also working as a dockworker on the Volga River.

In 1960, he was selected among 20 candidates for the Soviet space program. During the selection process, all but three of his fellow candidates selected him as the candidate they would most like to see take the first flight. On April 8, 1961, Gagarin was chosen as the prime pilot of Vostok 1. Aside from his popularity with his fellow cosmonauts, one of the other main considerations was that was five-feet-two-inches tall. The tight fit of the cockpit made smaller candidates highly prized.

One additional precaution was made just before the launch, which happened less than a year after American pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union. Officials decided to paint “CCCP” on Gagarin’s helmet so local officials who spotted him after landing would know he wasn’t a foreign agent.

The launch of Vostok 1 was the 24th Soviet space flight, 12 of them had failed. On April 12, 1961, Sergei Korolev, known to the public only as “The Chief Designer,” was so nervous he suffered a panic attack at ground control. Gagarin, meanwhile had a recorded pulse rate of 64 beats per minute less than a half-hour before launch.

At 6:07 a.m. Universal Time, the rocket took off. The Chief Designer told Gagarin, “We wish you a good flight. Everything is all right.” Gagarin replied with “Let’s go!”

Ten minutes later, Vostok 1 reached orbit. After 30 minutes, Gagarin crossed into night, northwest of Hawaii. The orbit would take him southeast around most of South America, then northeast across the Atlantic and Africa. At 7:25 Universal Time, the automatic systems on Vostok 1 began preparing for re-entry. The service module, which was supposed to separate from the re-entry module, remained attached as the craft began hitting Earth’s atmosphere. The craft gyrated unexpectedly until the two modules separated over Egypt. The re-entry capsule then behaved as planned. At 7:55, the hatch was released and two seconds later, Gagarin was ejected from the capsule. Gagarin and the capsule came back to earth on separate parachutes. He landed about 175 miles west of the intended landing site.

Gagarin was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, the country’s highest honor. He eventually became a colonel in the Soviet Air Forces and remained in the cosmonaut rotation. In 1967, he was on the ground as the backup pilot for Soyuz 1, which crashed to earth when its parachute failed to deploy on re-entry. Gagarin was then removed from the list of cosmonauts.

A year later, Gagarin was killed when his MiG-15 crashed on a training flight. He was 34 years old.

Three weeks after Vostok 1’s successful mission, the United States had its first man in space when Alan Shepard and Freedom 7 were launched on a suborbital flight.

Our question,  Who was the first American to orbit the Earth?

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