April 12 was already a huge day in space history twenty years before the launch of the first shuttle mission. On that day in 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, making a 108-minute orbital flight in his Vostok 1 spacecraft.
Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin (9 March 1934 – 27 March 1968) was a Soviet pilot and cosmonaut. He was the first human to journey into outer space, when his Vostok spacecraft completed an orbit of the Earth on 12 April 1961.
Gagarin became an international celebrity, and was awarded many medals and titles, including Hero of the Soviet Union, the nation’s highest honour. Vostok 1 marked his only spaceflight, but he served as backup crew to the Soyuz 1 mission (which ended in a fatal crash). Gagarin later became deputy training director of the Cosmonaut Training Centre outside Moscow, which was later named after him. Gagarin died in 1968 when the MiG-15 training jet he was piloting crashed.
Yuri Gagarin – Early life and education
Yuri was born on March 9, 1934 in Klushino, a small village 100 miles west of Moscow. His father was a cabinetmaker, carpenter, bricklayer, and farmer, and his mother was a milkmaid. Together they worked on a kolkhoz or collective farm. By Soviet social standards, his heritage was impeccable. He was the third of four children. During the war, the Nazis threw his family out of their home and took away two of his sisters. Yuri helped his parents dig a dugout where they lived untill the war was over, then the family moved to Gziatsk.
When he was a teenager, he witnessed a Russian Yak fighter plane make a forced landing in a field near his home. It was just returning from battle, its wings bullet-ridden. When the pilots emerged covered in medals, he was extremely impressed. As he later recalled,
Career in the Soviet Air Force
After graduating from the technical school in 1955, the Soviet Army drafted Gagarin. On a recommendation, Gagarin was sent to the First Chkalov Air Force Pilot’s School in Orenburg, and soloed in a MiG-15 in 1957. While there he met Valentina Ivanovna Goryacheva, a medical technician graduate of the Orenburg Medical School. They were married on 7 November 1957, the same day Gagarin graduated from Orenburg. Post-graduation, he was assigned to the Luostari airbase in Murmansk Oblast, close to the Norwegian border, where terrible weather made flying risky. He became a Lieutenant in the Soviet Air Forces on 5 November 1957; on 6 November 1959 he received the rank of Senior Lieutenant.
Career in the Soviet space program
In 1960, after much searching and a selection process, Yuri Gagarin was chosen with 19 other pilots for the Soviet space program. Gagarin was further selected for an elite training group known as the Sochi Six, from which the first cosmonauts of the Vostok programme would be chosen. Gagarin and other prospective candidates were subjected to experiments designed to test physical and psychological endurance; he also underwent training for the upcoming flight. Out of the twenty selected, the eventual choices for the first launch were Gagarin and Gherman Titov due to their performance during training sessions as well as their physical characteristics – space was limited in the small Vostok cockpit, and both men were rather short. Gagarin was 1.57 metres (5 ft 2 in) tall.
In August 1960, when Gagarin was one of 20 possible candidates, an Air Force doctor evaluated his personality as follows:
Modest; embarrasses when his humor gets a little too racy; high degree of intellectual development evident in Yuriy; fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his sharp and far-ranging sense of attention to his surroundings; a well-developed imagination; quick reactions; persevering, prepares himself painstakingly for his activities and training exercises, handles celestial mechanics and mathematical formulae with ease as well as excels in higher mathematics; does not feel constrained when he has to defend his point of view if he considers himself right; appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends.
Vostok 1 – The first human in space
On 12 April 1961, aboard the Vostok 3KA-3 (Vostok 1), Gagarin became both the first human to travel into space, and the first to orbit the earth. His call sign was Kedr (Cedar, Russian)
In his post-flight report, Gagarin recalled his experience of spaceflight, having been the first human in space:
The feeling of weightlessness was somewhat unfamiliar compared with Earth conditions. Here, you feel as if you were hanging in a horizontal position in straps. You feel as if you are suspended.
Following the flight, Gagarin told the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that during reentry he had whistled the tune “The Motherland Hears, The Motherland Knows” . The first two lines of the song are: “The Motherland hears, the Motherland knows/Where her son flies in the sky”. This patriotic song was written by Dmitri Shostakovich in 1951 (opus 86), with words by Yevgeniy Dolmatovsky.
After Vostok 1
After the flight, Gagarin became a worldwide celebrity, touring widely abroad. He visited Italy, Germany, Canada, Brazil, Japan, Egypt and Finland to promote the Soviet Union’s accomplishment of putting the first human in space. He visited the United Kingdom three months after the Vostok 1 mission, going to London and Manchester.
In 1962, he began serving as a deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union and was elected to the Central Committee of the Young Communist League. He later returned to Star City, the cosmonaut facility, where he spent seven years working on designs for a reusable spacecraft. He became a Lieutenant Colonel of the Soviet Air Forces on 12 June 1962, and received the rank of Colonel on 6 November 1963. Soviet officials tried to keep him away from any flights, being worried of losing their hero in an accident. Gagarin was backup pilot for his friend Vladimir Komarov in the Soyuz 1 flight, which was launched despite Gagarin’s protests that additional safety precautions were necessary. When Komarov’s flight ended in a fatal crash, Gagarin was permanently banned from training for and participating in further spaceflights.
Gagarin had become deputy training director of the Star City cosmonaut training base. At the same time, he began to re-qualify as a fighter pilot.
Yuri Gagarin – Death
On 27 March 1968, while on a routine training flight from Chkalovsky Air Base, he and flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin died in a MiG-15UTI crash near the town of Kirzhach. The bodies of Gagarin and Seryogin were cremated and the ashes were buried in the walls of the Kremlin on Red Square.
Gagarin was survived by his wife Valentina, and daughters Yelena and Galina. Yelena Yurievna Gagarina, Yuri’s elder daughter, is an art historian who has worked as the director-general of the Moscow Kremlin Museums since 2001. His younger daughter, Galina Yurievna Gagarina, is department chair and a professor of economics at Plekhanov Russian University of Economics in Moscow.
Legacy and tributes
Aside from his short stature at 1.57 metres (5 ft 2 in), one of Gagarin’s most notable traits was his smile. Many commented on how Gagarin’s smile gained the attention of crowds on the frequent tours he did in the months after the Vostok 1 mission success.
Gagarin also garnered a reputation as an adept public figure. When he visited Manchester in the United Kingdom, it was pouring rain. However, Gagarin insisted that the car hood remain back so that the cheering crowds could catch a glimpse of him. Gagarin stated, “If all these people have turned out to welcome me and can stand in the rain, so can I.” Gagarin refused an umbrella and remained standing in his open-top Bentley so that the cheering crowds could still see him.
Sergei Korolev, one of the masterminds behind the early years of the Soviet space program, later said that Gagarin possessed a smile “that lit up the Cold War”.
Gagarin was also honored by the American space program during Apollo 11 when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left a memorial satchel containing medals commemorating Gagarin and fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov on the surface of the Moon. On 1 August 1971, Apollo 15 astronauts David Scott and James Irwin left the Fallen Astronaut on the surface of the Moon as a memorial to all the American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts that died in the Space Race, with Yuri Gagarin listed among 14 others.
There were two commemorative coins issued in the Soviet Union to honour the 20th and 30th anniversaries of his flight: 1 ruble coin (1981, copper-nickel) and 3 ruble coin (1991, silver). In 2001, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, a series of four coins bearing his likeness was issued in Russia: 2 ruble coin (copper-nickel), 3 ruble coin (silver), 10 ruble coin (brass-copper, nickel), and 100 ruble coin (silver). In 2011, Russia issued a 1,000 ruble coin (gold) and 3 ruble coin (silver) to mark the 50th anniversary of his flight.
Yuri Gagarin statue in London, near Admiralty Arch.
Gagarin Raion in the Sevastopol city (Ukraine) was named after him during the Soviet Union.
In 2008, the Kontinental Hockey League named their championship trophy the Gagarin Cup.
In a 2010 Space Foundation survey, Gagarin was ranked as the #6 most popular space hero, tied with Star Trek’s fictional Capt. James T. Kirk.
In January 2011, Armenian airline Armavia named their first Sukhoi Superjet 100 in Gagarin’s honour.
On 14 July 2011, a copy of the Yuri Gagarin Statue from outside his former school in Lyubertsy was unveiled at the Admiralty Arch end of The Mall in London, opposite the permanent sculpture of James Cook.
Honours and awards
Jubilee Medal “40 Years of the Armed Forces of the USSR” (USSR, 1958)
Hero of the Soviet Union (14 April 1961)
Order of Lenin (USSR, 14 April 1961)
Hero of Socialist Labour (Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, 29 April 1961)
Hero of Socialist Labour, (People’s Republic of Bulgaria, 24 May 1961)
Order of Georgi Dimitrov (Bulgaria, 24 May 1961)
Order of the Star, 2nd Class (Indonesia, 10 June 1961)
Cross of Grunwald, 1st class (Poland, 20 June 1961)
Pilot-Cosmonaut of the USSR (27 June 1961)
The first Commander of the Order “Playa Giron” (Cuba, 18 July 1961)
“For achievements in aeronautics” (Brazil, 2 August 1961)
Order of the Southern Cross (Brazil, 3 August 1961) Order of the Flag of the Hungarian Republic, 1st class with diamonds (Hungary, 21 August 1961)
Honored Master of Sports of the USSR (1961, title obtained as a reward for a space flight)
Military Pilot 1st Class (1961, awarded the qualification of space flight)
Gold Medal of the British Society for interplanetary travel, 1961
Honorary suvorovets (Moscow Suvorov Military School, 1962)
Order of the Nile (Egypt, 31 January 1962)
Order of the African Star (Liberia, 6 February 1962)
Hero of Labour, (Democratic Republic of Vietnam, 28 April 1962)
Gold Medal of the Austrian Government, 1962
Honorary president of the Soviet-Cuban friendship society
Honorary Member of the Society, “the Finland-Soviet Union”
Order of Karl Marx (German Democratic Republic, 22 October 1963)
Jubilee Medal “Twenty Years of Victory in the Great Patriotic War 1941–1945” (USSR, 9 May 1965)
Medal “For Impeccable Service”, 3rd class (Soviet Union, March 1966)
Honorary member of the International Academy of Astronautics (1966)
Order of Klement Gottwald (Czechoslovak Socialist Republic)
Jubilee Medal “50 Years of the Armed Forces of the USSR” (USSR, January 1968)
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Gold Medal “for outstanding work in the field of interplanetary communications” (USSR)
Medal of de Lavaux (FAI)
Gold medal and diploma “Man in Space”, the Italian Association of Space
Gold Medal “For outstanding difference” and the Royal Aero Club Diploma, Sweden
Medal of Columbus (Italy)
Gold Medal of Saint-Denis (France)
Gold Medal Award “for courage” of the Fund Matstsotti (Italy), 2007
Yuri Gagarin was elected an honorary citizen of the following cities:
USSR: Kaluga, Novozybkov, Klintsy, Novocherkassk, Lyubertsy, Sumqayit (in modern-day Azerbaijan), Smolensk, Vinnytsia, Sevastopol, Saratov, Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Tyumen
Bulgaria: Sofia, Pernik, Plovdiv
Cyprus: Famagusta, Limassol
Czechoslovakia: Trencianske Teplice
He was also awarded the golden keys to the gates of the cities of Cairo and Alexandria (Egypt).