Yuri Gagarin was the first person in outer space. He was a Soviet pilot and cosmonaut. Yuri He was awarded the title of “Hero of the Soviet Union” and received other honors from over 15 countries.
Yuri was born 9 March 1934. Yuri Gagarin grew up in the small village near Moscow. His parents worked on a collective farm, his father also did carpentry and brick-laying work. During WWII, his home was occupied by German troops. His family lived in a mud hut that they built out back behind the house until the end of the occupation. Two of his siblings were sent to a work camp. Although the war was tough on his family, it began Yuri’s interest in flying. Many say that his fascination with flight began when he saw a Yakovlev fighter plane returning from battle.
At the end of the war, both siblings returned home. Yuri continued his education, focusing on physics and math. He entered trade school to become a foundry-man. Upon completion, he entered a technical school. During his last year, he joined a flying club. His first solo flight was at the age of 21. He began training in a Yakovlev Yak-18 two-seat trainer aircraft. People close to Yuri said that he was so excited to fly that he lived out of a tent on the outskirts of the air field.
Yuri entered the Soviet Air Force in 1955. He joined the Orenburg Aviation school. He trained on a Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG) -15 aircraft. During his time there he met Valentina Goryacheva. They were both interested in emerging technology, especially Sputnik and the future of space flight. Yuri expressed a strong interest in the space program.
Yuri graduated with top-honors and became a lieutenant. On the same day of graduation, he married Valentina. He was stationed at an Arctic Soviet Air Force base. While there, he successfully applied for cosmonaut training.
Once the space race began, competition was fierce. Yuri was part of the 200 person candidate pool. 19 men were selected to go through space training. Yuri then trained with the “Sochi Six” group, chosen for the Vostok program.
The training was rigorous, pushing recruits to their physical and mental limits. Many say that Yuri kept in good spirits during the training, often maintaining a great sense of humor after difficult testing. Yuri stood out due to his exemplary performance and attitude. One of the cosmonauts said of Yuri “never loses heart, a man of principles, bold and steadfast, modest and simple, decisive, a leader“. Yuri’s height was also an advantage, at 5’2”, he was able to easily fit into the Vostok 3KA space capsule. Yuri was chosen as the primary pilot only four days before launch.
The launch was set for 12 April 1961. The launch site was the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Right before launch Yuri famously said “Поехали! “, which translates to “Let’s Go! “ The flight lasted 108 minutes.
Why is the accomplishment so specific? The first manned space flight required for the spacecraft to be manned from launch through landing. The design of spacecraft was efficient at launch and travel, but manned re-entry provided a problem. Yuri actually used an ejector seat to leave the spacecraft 4 miles before touchdown. This fact wasn’t public knowledge until many years later. See: Space.com Infographic How the First Spaceflight Worked
Yuri Gagarin traveled around the world after completing the mission. He earned the honor of “Hero of the Soviet Union”. His travels took him to the America’s, Africa, Asia, and Europe – receiving medals and awards along the way. Watch: Yuri’s interview with BBC on 11 July 1961
Yuri was unable to go to space again, but continued flight as a fighter pilot. He died from a plane crash during a training flight. Details were released in 2011 that exposed the cause of the crash. A nearby aircraft flying below minimum altitude created turbulence that sent the trainer aircraft into an uncontrollable tailspin. The identity of the pilot has not been released.
To celebrate the life of Yuri Gagarin, since 2001 April 12 is known as Yuri’s Night. The Cosmonaut Training Center was named after Yuri. Yuri’s likeness is also featured on commemorative ruble coins. He was honored at the moon landing site and has a crater of the moon named after him.Each month, we research the events and people that have shaped aviation. Explore aviation history HERE