Russian cosmonaut whose 108-minute Earth orbital flight on April 12, 1961, represented humankind’s first space travel.
After a primarily vocational education, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin entered pilot training at the First Chkalov Orenburg Military School for Pilots. In the autumn of 1957, he graduated with high honors from Orenburg and joined the Soviet Air Force as a junior lieutenant. From late 1957 until the spring of 1960, he served as a military fighter pilot in the Arctic. In 1960, he was selected as a member of the first group of Soviet cosmonauts.
On the morning of April 12, 1961, Gagarin literally flew into history on board the spaceship Vostok 1, which launched at 9:07 a.m. Moscow time. The flight was automated for fear that the weightlessness of space might disable the pilot. A key was available in a sealed envelope in case it became necessary to take control in an emergency. In a preflight speech, Gagarin commented that he had always waited for this moment and that he was glad to “meet nature face to face, in an unprecedented encounter.” The rocket accelerated to a peak of 5 g’s, indicating that Gagarin felt five times his normal weight. Fourteen minutes after liftoff, Gagarin reported that the capsule had achieved Earth orbit. He then tested his food and water samples and reported no side effects to the weightlessness. During the 108-minute flight, he made one elliptical Earth orbit, the apogee of which was about 203 miles above sea level. The orbital speed was approximately 17,000 miles per hour. The payload included life-support equipment as well as communications equipment that relayed information on Gagarin’s condition. As planned, at about 20,000 feet, Gagarin ejected and descended under his own parachute and landed southwest of the Saratov region, near Smelovka, Saratskaya.
Following his historic flight, Gagarin received many honors in recognition of his Vostok mission. He was named a hero of the Soviet Union and was awarded the Order of Lenin and the K. E. Tsiolkovsky Gold Medal of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences. Later, a crater on the far side of the Moon was named after him. On March 27, 1968, Gagarin was killed in an accident while test piloting a MiG-15 aircraft near Moscow. The event caused a great deal of shock and spawned numerous conspiracy theories and rumors within the Soviet Union, whereas Western powers alleged that Gagarin had been drunk at the time. Two years after his death, he was posthumously inducted to the International Aerospace Hall of Fame.
Cole, Michael D. Vostok 1: First Human in Space. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow, 1995. A book presenting six milestones in space exploration in brief yet dramatic narratives containing a wealth of interesting detail. Harpole, Tom. “Saint Yuri.” Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine (December, 1998/January, 1999). An interesting study of a brave adventurer and explorer. Kennedy, Gregory P. The First Men in Space. New York: Chelsea House, 1991. An account of the pioneering roles of the first Soviet and American men in space.
Astronauts and cosmonauts
History of human flight
Russian space program
Russian Yuri Gagarin’s 108-minute flight on April 12, 1961, marked the first human voyage into space.