First Human Orbits the Earth

Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth, furthering the efforts of space exploration by the Soviet Union and initiating the so-called space race between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Summary of Event

Yuri Gagarin, born in Gzhatsk in the Smolensk region of the Soviet Union, studied at the Saratov flight school and eventually joined the Soviet air force in 1956. In 1959, Gagarin volunteered to be a cosmonaut, before a call was made for air force test pilots between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five to volunteer. The initial screening for cosmonauts was made in October of 1959. Gagarin was chosen as one of the first twenty cosmonaut candidates on his twenty-sixth birthday. Not even his wife, Valentina, was allowed to know of the highly secretive project. Space program, Soviet;Vostok 1
Astronauts and cosmonauts
Vostok 1
[kw]First Human Orbits the Earth (Apr. 12, 1961)
[kw]Human Orbits the Earth, First (Apr. 12, 1961)
[kw]Earth, First Human Orbits the (Apr. 12, 1961)
Space program, Soviet;Vostok 1
Astronauts and cosmonauts
Vostok 1
[g]Europe;Apr. 12, 1961: First Human Orbits the Earth[06900]
[g]Soviet Union;Apr. 12, 1961: First Human Orbits the Earth[06900]
[c]Space and aviation;Apr. 12, 1961: First Human Orbits the Earth[06900]
[c]Science and technology;Apr. 12, 1961: First Human Orbits the Earth[06900]
Gagarin, Yuri

On March 14, 1960, the cosmonauts went into training. They were, at first, housed in a building at Khodynskoye Field at the Frunze Central Airfield. Lectures began with aviation medicine, but the twenty cosmonauts soon began to lose interest, and discussions were added on spacecraft design and orbital theory. Only six of the candidates were chosen for physical training, because of the limited training space and equipment. These cosmonauts underwent survival training, jet flight piloting, parachuting, centrifuge and isolation chamber training, physical fitness exercises, and education in spacecraft design and function.

On April 3, 1959, official approval was given for a piloted launch. Two individuals had been selected from the six who trained: Gherman Titov and Gagarin. One week later, on April 10, the two were informed that Gagarin was to be the first person in space. Titov underwent all of the procedures leading up to the actual launch, however, in case Gagarin should be unable to fly.

Approval for flight leading to human space travel was made as early as November, 1958. The design of the spacecraft Vostok 1, which began in 1959, was done in a parallel manner. Thus it was that while the prototype was complete in March, 1959, the advanced design model was completed in May of 1960. The first landing test was performed during the early part of 1960. The design team was headed by Sergei Korolev, with Alexei Ivanov, Yevgeni Alexandrov, and Noraiv Sisakazan. When complete, the craft would contain 15,000 meters (49,000 feet) of electrical wiring, 240 valves, and 6,000 transistors.

Vostok 1 was constructed in two parts. The upper part was a 2.5-meter (8-foot) sphere, weighted on one end with heat shielding. This added weight automatically tilted the sphere with the heavy end down, in preparation for the heat of reentry. The cosmonaut lay on the couch in this upper part, surrounded by three small windows, television cameras, film cameras, a two-way radio system, control panels, life-support systems, and food and water dispensers. Food and water were provided for ten days, as insurance against retro-rocket failure. (The low orbit would naturally decay in ten days if the retro-rockets did not take the spacecraft out of orbit.) Two antennae sat atop the capsule.

The lower portion of the spacecraft was the TDU-1 (Braking Engine Installation) retro-rocket system. It had a forty-five-second ignition time and carried about 275 kilograms (600 pounds) of fuel. Amine/nitrous oxide self-igniting propellant was used to produce 1,615 kilograms (3,560 pounds) of thrust. Small round tanks of compressed air were attached to the area between the two parts of the spacecraft. The entire capsule, with cosmonaut payload, weighed 4,725 kilograms (10,416 pounds).

Unlike U.S. spacecraft, which are mounted vertically onto the launch pad, the Vostok 1 was mounted horizontally and raised, intact, to the vertical. The “A” rocket booster, with strap-on A-1 boosters, put the capsule into an orbital apogee of 327 kilometers (203 miles) and a perigee of 181 kilometers (113 miles). The strap-on tanks fell away 119 seconds after launch. After 156 seconds, a protective shroud around the capsule was jettisoned. The booster core burned out after 300 seconds (5 minutes), and orbital insertion occurred at 676 seconds (11 minutes, 16 seconds) following launch.

The Vostok launch system differed greatly from the early American system. The cosmonaut was ejected with his seat from the capsule at 7,000 meters (22,965 feet); he separated from the seat at 4,000 meters (13,125 feet). Both the cosmonaut and the capsule descended by parachute. The capsule had a landing velocity of 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) per second, producing a possible 100 gravities of deceleration. The cosmonaut sustained half of the velocity, 500 meters (1,640 feet) per second. This ejection system was necessary because the descending combined weight would have required a huge parachute and probably another set of retro-rockets to assist in a soft landing. The added weight of this equipment would have prevented the launch.

Front page news: Yuri Gagarin, the first human to orbit Earth.


A series of Korabl-Sputnik Sputnik program
Space program, Soviet;Sputnik program (spaceship-satellite) test launches were made during 1960 and 1961. Sputnik 1 was the world’s first artificial satellite. Sputnik 2 carried the world’s first live space traveler, a dog named Laika. Unfortunately, the spacecraft could not be recovered, and Laika died by injection after seven days of travel. The third craft, Sputnik 3, launched on May 15, 1960, was an electrical analog, carrying heavy instrumentation. It carried no heat shield and was reported to have been a planned nonrecovery. Sputnik 4, launched on July 23, reportedly carried no biological experiments. It did not reach orbit, and the spacecraft was not recovered. In fact, when the retro-rockets were fired for reentry, the capsule was facing away from Earth, and the spacecraft went into a higher orbit, where it stayed for four years. Later research indicates that a dummy cosmonaut possibly was the payload.

On August 19, Strelka and Belka, the world’s first recovered cosmonaut dogs, were launched aboard Sputnik 5, along with rats, white mice, flies, plant seeds, fungi, chlorella algae, and a spiderwort plant. Counterparts of each experiment were maintained on Earth to compare for possible damage from space travel. These biological experiments underwent a one-day orbit, after which the animals were ejected to land safely within 10 kilometers (6.25 miles) of their land target. Toward the end of 1960, on December 1, Sputnik 6 was launched. Pchelka and Mushka were the two dogs on this disastrous flight. A lower orbit was used, similar to that projected for piloted flight. A new solar orientation system was used, instead of the infrared attitude control used previously. Unfortunately, the capsule did not reenter at the proper angle, and the spacecraft was burned. Sputniks 7 and 8 were satellite probes sent to Venus. Venera 1 did not perform as planned and was reported to be a one-day orbiting Sputnik 7. Venera 2 (Sputnik 8) succeeded in its interception of Venus.

Beginning in 1961, three human-rated spacecraft were delivered to the launch site. The first two launches were made with dogs. Sputnik 9 was launched on March 9 with the dog Chernushka and other specimens. After a complete orbit, the craft and specimens were recovered. Another dog, named Zvezdochka, was launched on March 25 aboard Sputnik 10, and was again successfully recovered after one orbit. These two flights, called Vostok A and B, had been preparatory to Vostok 1, the launch of the first human into space.

Gagarin was awakened almost four hours prior to his 9:07 a.m. launch. Only one hitch marred the launch; it was corrected by opening the hatch and resealing it. Gagarin was literally only a passenger in the spacecraft. The controls were locked, and he would control the craft only in case of an emergency. An envelope containing the combination to the locked controls was in the craft for that purpose. Gagarin sent greetings to the nations of the world as he orbited past and kept the ground control apprised of his physical condition. He tried to eat paste-type space food from squeeze tubes and to drink water, as an experiment. Vostok’s flight objective was to check the mechanics and the effects of space travel on humans. It was enough that Gagarin was in the spacecraft. He landed at 11:05 a.m., 26 kilometers (16 miles) southwest of Engels in the Saratov region of the Soviet Union.


Yuri Gagarin proved that humans could be launched into space, orbit the earth, and be safely recovered. It was a colossal feat, and a necessity before the course of space exploration could be set by any nation. The courage and determination displayed by this act impressed the entire world, especially when Gagarin’s gentle personality and lack of ego were noted. His attitude set a new standard, which astronauts and cosmonauts alike have maintained during the years of spaceflight.

Gagarin’s flight spurred both the United States and the Soviet Union to pursue aggressively more ambitious projects. The U.S. space program had lagged under the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was not convinced that humans belonged in space. Gagarin’s flight made the American public and Congress take a hard look at the world and at the leadership position of the United States. The next president, John F. Kennedy Kennedy, John F.
[p]Kennedy, John F.;space program , announced the goal of landing on the Moon not long after being encouraged and prompted by the Vostok 1 flight. In fact, the reason given by staff members recommending the lunar program was to increase the prestige of the United States. Suddenly, funding was available, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), with its strong skills in organization and administration, was allowed to forge ahead with plans to put a human on the Moon. The American public aligned firmly behind the grand vision of President Kennedy, and the huge amounts of funding remained in place for technological developments.

The Soviet Union had experienced an extraordinary tragedy attempting to launch a satellite under pressure from government entities at the same time the Vostok flights were being readied. Several men died, including an outstanding scientist. The project directors refused ever again to allow political pressures to force a disregard for safety precautions during launch. This, however, did not stop the progress of the Soviet space program but taught the Soviets that caution was needed in the years ahead. The Soviets responded to the unofficial American challenge, and the space race was on. When the large launch vehicles planned for use in launching a lunar mission kept failing, the program was abandoned in favor of space station development.

The world’s first transnational telecast, featuring interviews with Gagarin, was watched avidly by peoples of all nations. Gagarin became a world celebrity overnight and had difficulty finding privacy anywhere. Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev used the amazing flight to try to sway the world toward his ideology and to show the United States that Soviet technology was superior. What he accomplished, however, was the unification of the American people behind the U.S. president and behind the U.S. space program. This gave a tremendous boost to American technological developments and opened up the field of space to the world. The entire world suddenly acquired a real hero in Gagarin, and it responded accordingly. Gagarin’s feat of courage appealed universally to the best of humankind and has reserved him a place in history among all nations. Space program, Soviet;Vostok 1
Astronauts and cosmonauts
Vostok 1

Further Reading

  • Clark, Phillip. The Soviet Manned Space Program: An Illustrated History of the Men, the Missions, and the Spacecraft. New York: Orion Books, 1988. A large-format, color-illustrated book, with more detailed information concerning the history and development of the various Soviet space programs. Also gives brief biographies of the cosmonauts and their missions.
  • Cole, Michael D. Vostok I: First Human in Space. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow, 1995. Presents six milestones in space exploration in brief yet dramatic narratives with a wealth of detail.
  • Doran, Jamie, and Piers Bizony. Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin. London: Bloomsbury, 1998. A good account of the trials and tribulations of Gagarin’s life before and after his famous orbit of Earth.
  • Dzyubenko, Galina, comp. The Man from a Legend: A Collection of Essays. Moscow: Progress, 1988. An unusual collection on the lives of well-known Soviet leaders. Gagarin is the first to be described. A fascinating portrayal.
  • Harpole, Tom. “Saint Yuri.” Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine (December, 1998/January, 1999). A laudatory exploration of Gagarin’s life and accomplishments from a respected institution.
  • Hart, Douglas. The Encyclopedia of Soviet Spacecraft. New York: Bison, 1987. This book, with spacecraft listed alphabetically, is accompanied by large color photographs and diagrams. Provides basic flight information and flight objectives on each mission.
  • Harvey, Brian. Race into Space: The Soviet Space Programme. Chichester, England: Ellis Horwood, 1988. The subheadings in this book make research a pleasure. Appendix includes a chronology of major events and a record of Soviet space missions.
  • Johnson, Nicholas L. Handbook of Soviet Manned Space Flight. San Diego, Calif.: Univelt, 1980. An excellent resource for more detailed research on the design of Vostok 1, variations between missions, and the launch vehicles used for Gagarin’s mission. Covers Vostok through Soyuz, including the Salyut space station and the Progress cargo ship.
  • Siddiqi, Asif A. Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003. An award-winning book that offers a comprehensive and detailed history of the Soviet space program, from its earliest days, including Gagarin’s orbit. An essential resource.

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