Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space on 12 April 1961 – and the first to orbit Earth, in the Vostok 1 space capsule. On his return, he became an international celebrity, touring widely to promote this Soviet achievement.
However, this was the only time Gagarin flew in space. He was killed during a routine training flight for a potential second space flight in 1968, aged just 34 – never living to see man walk on the moon the following year.
2021 sees the 60th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s iconic flight. Here are 10 facts about this Soviet hero whose accomplishment transcended the fraught international politics of the time.
1. His family suffered at the hands of the Nazis
Gagarin was born on 9 March 1934 on a collective farm in the village of Klushino near Gzhatsk. His father Alexey was a carpenter, and his mother Anna a dairy farmer. Yuri was the third of four children.
Like millions of other Soviet families, the Gagarin’s suffered at the hands of the Nazis in World War Two. Klushino was captured on 18 October 1941 during the German advance on Moscow, and its school burnt down. A German officer took over the Gagarin residence, forcing them to build a tiny mud hut nearby (measuring 3 by 3 metres), where they spent 21 months until the occupation ended.
In retaliation for a German attempting to hang his younger brother Boris, Yuri committed acts of sabotage, pouring soil into recharging tank batteries and mixing the different chemical supplies required.
In 1943, Gagarin’s older siblings, Valentin and Zoya, were deported to labour camps in Poland. They escaped, but later found by a Soviet soldier and conscripted into helping the war effort.
Yuri was beaten for refusing to work for the Germans, and spent the remainder of the war in hospital, as a patient then an orderly. His mother also went there after a German soldier cut her leg with a scythe. Later, Yuri helped the Red Army find road mines buried by the fleeing German army.
2. He had always been fascinated by airplanes
After the war, the Gagarin’s moved to Gzhatsk. Yuri’s favourite subjects at school were maths and physics, taught by a former Russian airman. Although fond of pranks, Yuri was keen on his studies and enjoyed building model airplanes, ever since a Yakovlev fighter plane had made an emergency landing in his village during the war.
After completing an apprenticeship as a foundryman and at a local ‘young workers’ school, Gagarin was selected for the Saratov Technical College. While there, he joined the local ‘AeroClub’ and learned to fly light aircraft as a Soviet air cadet. (To earn extra money he worked as a part-time dock labourer on the Volga River).
3. A cushion helped him pass pilot school
In 1955, Gagarin attended the Orenburg Military Pilot’s School. Apparently, he twice-struggled to land a MiG-15 aircraft, nearly causing his dismissal. His commander gave Yuri another chance, giving him a cushion to sit on which meant he could see more clearly fom the cockpit, and was able to land successfully.
4. He was one of 20 pilots initially selected for cosmonaut training
After graduating in 1957, Yuri joined the Soviet Air Force as a lieutenant. Soon after marrying his wife, Valentina, Gagarin began a tour of duty as a fighter pilot at the Luostari Air Base. Luna 3 had been launched on 6 October 1959 – soon after Gagarin was promoted to senior lieutenant and expressed interest in becoming a cosmonaut.
A secret nationwide selection process commenced in 1960 to launch a man into space. The Central Flight Medical Commission limited their selection to pilots aged between 25-30 years old. To fit in the small Vostok capsule, candidates had to weigh less than 72kg and be no taller than 5 ft 7 (Gagarin was 5 ft 2).
From a shortlist of 154 qualified pilots, 20 were approved by the Credential Committee of the Soviet government. Allegedly, when asked to vote anonymously for a candidate besides themselves they would like to be the first to fly, all but three candidates chose Gagarin. Gagarin was selected for the elite training group, the ‘Sochi Six’ – the first cosmonauts of the Vostok programme.
Following physical and psychological endurance tests (including oxygen starvation, G-force tests and long stays in isolation chambers) Gagarin was selected as the best candidate. He and the next highest-ranked cosmonaut, Titov, were sent for training in the flight-ready spacecraft on 7 April.
5. His background may have helped his selection
While Titov came from a middle-class background, Gagarin was the son of humble workers – something the Soviet leadership may have sought to capitalise on as a demonstration that even those who came from modest families could succeed under Communism.
However others insist that Gagarin’s performance during the selection process was the more important factor.
6. He was in space for 108 minutes
On 12 April 1961 at 09:07 local time, Gagarin blasted off atop a 30m-high rocket from the Tyuratam Missile Range (now Baikonur Cosmodrome), aged just 27 – exclaiming “Poyekhali” (“Here we go!”) at the moment of launch.
Gagarin’s orbit of the Earth took 108 minutes, at a maximum altitude of 187 miles. No-one knew what effect zero-g would have, so it was decided that the spacecraft would be guided entirely by an automatic control system. Gagarin was given a sealed envelope containing codes allowing him to assume control of the spacecraft if ground-control was lost.
Gagarin was able to consume food through squeeze tubes, and kept mission control updated on his condition using a high-frequency radio and a telegraph key. One of the only statements attributed to Gagarin during his 1 hour and 48 minutes in space was:
“Flight is proceeding normally; I am well.”
Gagarin was also apparently struck by the view through the capsule’s window, commenting on Earth’s “beautiful aura” and the striking shadows cast by clouds on the Earth’s surface. After his return, Gagarin said:
“The feeling of weightlessness was somewhat unfamiliar compared with Earth. Circling the Earth in the orbital spaceship, I marvelled at the beauty of our planet”.
7. He landed using a parachute
Cables linking the spacecraft’s descent module to the service module failed to separate during Gagarin’s re-entry through the atmosphere, causing violent shaking. Gagarin parachuted to a safe landing near the Volga River before his capsule hit the ground.
Some reports stated Vostok 1 didn’t have engines to slow its re-entry and had no way to land safely anyway, hence Gagarin ejecting ‘as planned’.
For the mission to count as an official spaceflight, the pilot had to land with the spacecraft, so Soviet leaders indicated that Gagarin had touched down with the Vostok 1, not revealing he had ejected until 1971. After the flight, Gagarin gave a news conference in Moscow. Foreign news reporters were invited – with Communist Party representatives on-hand to make sure Gagarin’s answers didn’t stray off-message.
8. He became a cultural hero in the Soviet Union
Charismatic Gagarin became an international celebrity, signing autographs and touring the world.
Less than a month later, Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space, but the honour of being first had gone to the Soviet Union – a triumph for them, but a political and diplomatic setback for America in the developing space race, against the background of the Cold War. This major propaganda coup (along with the successful launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957), was used to claim technological might and ideological superiority.
Gagarin was awarded many medals and titles, including the Order of Lenin, and ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’, its highest honour.
9. He never made another spaceflight
Following his successful flight, in 1962, Gagarin served as a deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. He later returned to the Star City training facility, helping work on designs for a reusable spacecraft. He was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in June 1962, then colonel in November 1963.
Gagarin and his wife Valentina had two daughters, Galya and Lena. Fame and his relentless public schedule led Gagarin to struggle with drinking, but by the late 1960s he returned to his training.
Gagarin’s hero status meant officials tried to keep him away from flying aircraft, worried they might lose him in an accident. Hopeful of a return to space, in 1967, Gagarin served as back-up pilot for Vladimir Komarov on Soyuz 1. When Komarov’s flight ended in a fatal crash, Gagarin was ultimately banned from training for and participating in further spaceflights.
10. Different theories surround his death
On 27 March 1968 (and still hopeful for a second space flight), Gagarin flew a MiG-15UTI fighter in a routine training flight from Chkalovsky Air Base, with flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin. Their plane crashed in a forest near Kirzhach, killing them both. Gagarin was laid to rest in the wall of the Kremlin on Moscow’s Red Square, and his childhood town Gzhatsk was renamed in his honour.
An official investigation concluded Gagarin swerved to avoid a foreign object (a bird or weather balloon) which sent the plane into a tailspin, yet many aviation professionals viewed this as implausible. Suggestions theorised whether a cabin pressurisation valve had been left open leading to hypoxia, or whether Gagarin might have been drinking. More extreme theories mooted suicide or sabotage for political motives (with Brezhnev supposedly jealous of Gagarin’s popularity).
In 2013, Gagarin’s friend and fellow cosmonaut Alexei Leonov announced that a recently declassified report stated that a Sukhoi jet – flying below its minimum altitude – had passed within metres of Gagarin’s plane which triggered turbulence, sending the MiG into a spin.