On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first person to travel in space. His country, the former Soviet Union had been developing a space program over the previous decade, in part spurred on by the desire to best its rival, the United States. The two countries were in the midst of the cold war and spaceflight had become an important symbol of national superiority.
Gagarin's historic flight was made on a Vostok spacecraft, which orbited Earth one time, in just one hour and forty-eight minutes. While in space, Gagarin communicated by radio. He described his view of Earth as follows: "It has a very beautiful sort of halo, a rainbow." Vostok 1 then re-entered the atmosphere and two miles above ground, Gagarin parachuted safely into a field.
The Soviet government insisted for decades that the mission had come off without a hitch. Pages from the flight log recently made public, however, show that such was not the case: the flight had nearly ended in disaster. The notes describe how the spacecraft spun wildly out of control on descent. The capsule in which Gagarin was riding was finally saved when it separated from the lurching rocket.
Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin was born in the Russian village of Klushino, in the marshy Smolensk region west of Moscow. Gagarin was the third of four children. His parents worked on a collective farm, where his father was a cabinetmaker, a carpenter, and a bricklayer. Neither of his parents had much formal education, but they worked hard to make sure Yuri would have one.
Gagarin grew up during World War II, a time when resources were scarce. His home town was invaded by Nazi German forces, and his house taken over by soldiers. As a result, the entire family had to dig a large hole, where they went into hiding. It was not enough, however, to keep the German soldiers from discovering them. They took away Gagarin's older brother and sister, who, along with many other young men and women of the village, were never seen again.
Gagarin's Career as a Pilot
After the war, Gagarin's family moved to the town of Gzhatsk, where he completed high school in 1949. Gagarin then enrolled in the Lyubertsy Agricultural Machinery School, where he was trained to work in an iron foundry. Two years later, he entered the Industrial Technical School at Saratov on the Volga. There Gagarin joined a flying club and became an amateur pilot, a move that changed the course of his life.
At the recommendation of an instructor, Gagarin was accepted to the Orenburg Aviation School in 1955. It was there, at a dance, that he met the woman who was to become his wife, Valentina Ivanovna Goryacheva, a worker at a telegraph office. On November 7, 1957, Gagarin graduated with honors and was given the rank of lieutenant. The next day, he put on his officer's jacket and proposed to Valentina. She accepted.
Gagarin then went off to the Arctic to train as a fighter pilot with the Soviet Northern Fleet. He was inspired by the successful 1959 flight of the Soviet satellite Luna 3, which orbited the moon. Soon thereafter he applied to be among the first group of cosmonauts and was approved. For more than a year, he was involved in testing and training for spaceflight. Because of his outstanding personal traits and physical capabilities, Gagarin was chosen to pilot the first Vostok mission into space.
For the five years following that flight, Gagarin was kept busy with public appearances in the Soviet Union and abroad, training the next group of cosmonauts, administrative tasks, and political activities. In 1966, Gagarin finally began to prepare himself for another space mission on board a Soyuz spacecraft.
The first Soyuz flight took place the following year. The cosmonaut on board, Vladimir Komarov, was killed during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. Gagarin, however, continued training for a later Soyuz mission, but he never went into space again. During a training flight on March 27, 1968, his jet spun out of control and crashed to the ground. Gagarin, at the age of thirty-four, and his flight instructor were killed.