Yuri Gagarin – Hero of the Soviet Union and First Ambassador to the Cosmos

on April 13, 2012 11:20 AM EDT

Yuri Gagarin
Gagarin in Sweden (Photo: wikipedia)

On 12 April 1961 marks the 51st anniversary of one of the most historic moments in human history. It was on this day in 1961, that Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to take a journey into outer space. Aboard his Vostok spacecraft, not only did Gagarin become the first person in space, he also was the first to orbit the Earth - something NASA didn't accomplish until its third manned Mercury mission, some nine months later.

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Gagarin became an international celebrity, and was awarded many medals and honours, including Hero of the Soviet Union, the nation's highest honour. Vostok 1 marked his only spaceflight, but he served as backup crew to the Soyuz 1 mission (which ended in a fatal crash). Gagarin later became deputy training director of the Cosmonaut Training Centre outside Moscow, which was later named after him. Gagarin died in 1968 when a MiG 15 training jet he was piloting crashed.

Yuri Gagarin was born in the village of Klushino near Gzhatsk (now in Smolensk Oblast, Russia), on 9 March 1934. The adjacent town of Gzhatsk was renamed Gagarin in 1968 in his honour. His parents, Alexey Ivanovich Gagarin and Anna Timofeyevna Gagarina, worked on a collective farm.

In his youth, Gagarin became interested in space and planets. After studying for one year at a vocational technical school in Lyubertsy, Gagarin was selected for further training at a technical high school in Saratov. While there, he joined the "AeroClub", and learned to fly a light aircraft, a hobby that would take up an increasing portion of his time.

In 1960, after the search and selection process, Yuri Gagarin was chosen with 19 other pilots for the Soviet space program. Gagarin was further selected for an elite training group known as the Sochi Six from which the first cosmonauts of the Vostok programme would be chosen. Gagarin and other prospective cosmonauts were subjected to experiments designed to test physical and psychological endurance; he also underwent training for the upcoming flight. Out of the twenty selected, the eventual choices for the first launch were Gagarin and Gherman Titov because of their performance in training, as well as their physical characteristics - space was at a premium in the small Vostok cockpit and both men were rather short. Gagarin was 1.57 metres (5 ft 2 in) tall, which was an advantage in the small Vostok cockpit.


In August 1960, when Gagarin was one of 20 possible candidates, an Air Force doctor evaluated his personality as follows:

    Modest; embarrasses when his humor gets a little too racy; high degree of intellectual development evident in Yuri; fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his sharp and far-ranging sense of attention to his surroundings; a well-developed imagination; quick reactions; persevering, prepares himself painstakingly for his activities and training exercises, handles celestial mechanics and mathematical formulae with ease as well as excels in higher mathematics; does not feel constrained when he has to defend his point of view if he considers himself right; appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends.

On 12 April 1961, aboard the Vostok 3KA-3, Gagarin became both the first human to travel into space, and the first to orbit the earth. His call sign was Kedr.

After the flight, Gagarin became a worldwide celebrity, touring widely abroad.

On 27 March 1968, while on a routine training flight from Chkalovsky Air Base, he and flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin died in a MiG-15UTI crash near the town of Kirzhach. The bodies of Gagarin and Seryogin were cremated and the ashes were buried in the walls of the Kremlin on Red Square.

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