Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin

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Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin


Soviet Cosmonaut

When Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was born in 1934, his parents had no way of knowing that he was destined for a unique place in world history: the first human to travel in space. His father, a carpenter by trade, left the collective farm where the family lived in Gzhatsk, about 100 miles from Moscow. Gagarin senior chose to join the Russian army when his not-yet-famous son was seven years old. He wanted to protect his family from the German invaders and insisted that his wife take Yuri and his two older siblings away from the battlefront. There was no place near Moscow where Yuri could be accepted in elementary school, so instead he enrolled in a trade school in nearby Lyubertsy. When he graduated in 1951, he had a degree in metal working but had become interested in aviation.

While he was continuing his education at an industrial school in Saratov, he began to take flying lessons. His teachers were quick to spot his unusual abilities, and he was soon moved to the cadet school in Orenburg, which would lead to a post in the Soviet air force. He completed his flight education in 1957 and immediately joined the air force, where other opportunities soon appeared for him.

The Soviets were deep into research and developments that would allow man to leave Earth and its gravitational force to explore space. When Gagarin became aware of this program, he was quick to volunteer as an astronaut (a word found formerly only in science-fiction writings). The following year, the space program chose Gagarin and 19 other pilots for advanced flight training. When money became scarce, the total number was reduced to six.

On April 11, 1961, the Soviet government announced to the waiting world that Yuri Gagarin had been selected to pilot their spacecraft—Vostok I—and be the first human to enter outer space on the following day.

Stories are told and repeated with increasing drama about how all of Russia stayed up that night and worried about their new "favorite son." However, it was reported that the future space traveler slept well and, when questioned about his ability to relax, he was said to have replied: "Would it be right to take off if I were not rested? It was my duty to sleep, so I slept."

At 9:07 a.m. on April 12, 1961, the Vostok I took flight. The launch site was in Baikonur, an isolated plain in the southern part of the Soviet Union. Vostok took 1 hour 29 minutes or 1 hour 48 minutes (conflicting records) to orbit Earth and reached a top speed of 17,000 mph (27,359 kph). At the peak of its orbit, its altitude was calculated to be 187 miles (301 km) above Earth.

The Russian plan was to eject Gagarin from the Vostok at 4 miles (6.4 km) from Earth's surface—a plan they kept secret for some years since an unmanned landing would not qualify for various world records. Gagarin did, in fact, make it safely to Earth and his subsequent immortality. He appeared on television, and his journey was chronicled in newspapers all over the world. The Soviets raised monuments to honor him, named streets in various cities after him, and, after his death, renamed the town of Gzhatsk after its most renowned citizen, Gagarin.

His celebrity did not deter Yuri from taking an active part in training future Soviet cosmonauts. In 1968 he was flying with another pilot in a two-seat jet aircraft on a routine training flight when the plane crashed and killed both men. His ashes were placed in a special niche in the Kremlin wall. His life—though short—will be remembered for its achievement. He inspired Americans (political and otherwise) to actively join in the exploration of space and its possibilities of interplanetary travel and other resources.