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Yuri Gagarin, first human in space

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Apr 12, 2012, 7:00 UTC, Updated Apr 12, 2015, 16:22 UTC

Sen—On April 12, 1961, Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space. He completed a single orbit of Earth during a flight that lasted 108 minutes from launch to landing.

The Soviet Union's human spaceflight project was called the Vostok ("east") programme. Gagarin's mission was simply named Vostok at the time, but later designated Vostok-1. 

"Poyekhali" ("Let's go") said Gagarin as his spacecraft launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 6.07 UTC.

Gagarin's flight reached orbit at an altitude of about 327 km and travelled at a speed of 27,400 km per hour.

There were some very serious technical failures during the flight. The rocket's second stage put the capsule into a higher and potentially deadly orbit, because in case of a braking engine failure, the orbit was too high for a natural reentry of the capsule within a survivable time for Gagarin.

After completing the first orbit of Earth it was time for the Vostok craft to return to Earth.

In fact, there was a serious technical glitch during a braking maneuver involving a pressurized propellant leak, which led to severe and uncontrollable tumbling of the spacecraft which delayed the normal separation of the descent and service modules. 

Fortunately, Gagarin and his spacecraft managed to survive these technical challenges and make it back to Earth. Gagarin landed around 300 km short of the planned landing site, probably as a result of the higher than planned orbit during his mission.

At 7.55 UTC Moscow informed the world via radio that Gagarin had landed safely. Many reports of Gagarin's flight record that he had problems with the umbilical cables between the service module and descent module during reentry, but his detailed report to engineers describing technical problems during his mission did not mention any issue with these cables. The post-flight report signed by Feoktistov matched Gagarin's description and never mentioned any correction measures relating to cable connections. It seems that Boris Chertok in his memoirs by mistake attributed the situation on Titov's Vostok-2 mission—when an umbilical cable between the two sections failed to cut until the searing heat of reentry melted the wires—to Gagarin's, and then the story made it into the English language media from where it gradually became a mission 'fact'.

After his flight Gagarin became a national hero and international celebrity, visiting many countries during a world tour between April 25 and Aug. 1961. 

Yuri Gagarin with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan

Yuri Gagarin with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The UK was one of many countries visited by Gagarin during his world tour.

Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin was born on 9 March 1934 in a village called Klushino in the Soviet Union. After school and qualifying as a metal worker he pursued his interest in flying and joined the Orenburg Military Aviation School, signing up as a pilot with the Soviet Air Force in 1956. In Oct. 1959, Gagarin and 19 other military pilots from the Soviet Air Force were selected for cosmonaut training at a purpose built site later named Zvezdny Gorodok (which translates as 'starry town' but which is now known as "Star City") near Moscow. Gagarin began his cosmonaut training in January 1960.

Two cosmonauts had been shortlisted for the first flight, the other was Gherman Titov. Two days before the launch, Gagarin was informed he had been chosen.

Titov had to wait, but he did become the second person to orbit Earth when, on August 6, 1961, he flew aboard Vostok-2. Orbiting the Earth 17 times Titov, at the age of 25, remains the youngest person ever to fly in space and the first to sleep in space.

But it was Gagarin who got first orbit.

Before boarding the spacecraft, 27 year old Gagarin recorded a message for the world:

"Dear Friends, known and unknown to me, my dear compatriots and all people of the world. In the next few minutes a mighty spaceship will carry me off into the distant spaces of the universe. What can I say to you during these last minutes before the start? All my life now appears as a single beautiful moment to me. All I have done and lived for has been done and lived for for this moment. It is difficult for me to analyse my feelings now that the hour of trial for which we have prepared so long and passionately, is so near. It's hardly worth talking about the feelings I experienced when I was asked to make this first space flight in history. Joy? No, it was not only joy. Pride? No, it was not only pride. I was immensely happy to be the first in outer space, to meet nature face to face in this unusual single-handed encounter. Could I possibly have dreamed of more? Then I thought of the tremendous responsibility I had taken on: to be the first to accomplish what generations of people dreamed of: to be the first to pave the way for humanity to outer space. Can you name a more complex task than the one I am undertaking? This is a responsibility, not to one, not to many, and not to a collective group. This is a responsibility to all the Soviet people, to all of humanity, to its present and future. I know I have to summon all my will power to carry out my assignment to the best of my ability. I understand the importance of my mission and shall do all I can to fulfill the assignment for the Communist party and the Soviet people.

"Only a few minutes are left before the start. I am saying goodbye to you, dear friends as people always say goodbye to each other when leaving on a long journey."

Yuri Gagarin

Yuri Gagarin enjoys time with his daughters Elena and Galina.

Gagarin's space flight has been re-created by filmmaker Chris Riley. "First Orbit" recreates Gagarin’s historic flight as he himself would have seen it. First Orbit used footage collected in collaboration with the European Space Agency and the International Space Station to depict Gagarin’s view during the 108-minute flight, complete with recordings of Gagarin during the flight and an original score by composer Philip Sheppard.

VIDEO: watch "First Orbit" a recreation of Gagarin's space flight

Gagarin did not fly in space again. Soviet authorities, keen to protect their hero, banned him from further space flights. Grounded from space, he worked for the Soviet space programme and trained other cosmonauts at Star City. He remained a member of the the Soviet Air Force and achieved the rank of Colonel in 1963.

In 1965 he was permitted to re-enter the cosmonaut selection pool and was chosen as a back-up for the first Soyuz flight—a flight which ended in a fatal crash.

Although he had been protected against the risks of spaceflight, Gagarin was killed aged just 34 when, on March 27 1968, his MiG plane crashed during a training flight. He was survived by his wife, Valentina, and his two daughters Elena and Galina. His ashes were buried in the walls of the Kremlin on Red Square, Moscow.

Yuri Gagarin's life and achievement is celebrated around the world on April 12 each year at "Yuri's Night" parties. Furthermore, in 2011 the United Nations declared April 12 "International Day of Human Space Flight" by a General Assembly resolution “to celebrate each year at the international level the beginning of the space era for mankind, reaffirming the important contribution of space science and technology in achieving sustainable development goals and increasing the well-being of States and peoples, as well as ensuring the realization of their aspiration to maintain outer space for peaceful purposes.”