“I come from the cosmos.” These are the words that cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin is said to have spoken to a farmer and her daughter who were frightened by this strange creature decked out in an orange spacesuit as he made his way towards them.
The scene unfolded on April 12, 1961. That morning, for the first time in history, a human being took off into space and came back safe and sound. We were in the middle of the Cold War, and the space race represented a very special way for the protagonists to dominate their American adversary.
A man of the people
In this context, the choice of Yuri Gagarin was not insignificant.
He was born in 1934 into a poor family living in the village of Klushino, over 150 kilometers west of Moscow. During the Second World War, members of his family experienced the ravages of Nazism.
In 1949 he moved to his uncle’s home in Moscow, where he learned the trade of welder and trained to fly at the amateur flying club in the town of Saratov. He later enrolled as a cadet at the flying training school in 1955.
Becoming an astronaut
His life took an important turn in 1959 when the Soviet government was recruiting its first cosmonauts. The emphasis was on smaller-sized young pilots. As luck would have it, Yuri stood only 1.57 meters tall. He would be one of the 20 candidates chosen.
Gagarin stood out through his charisma and his knack for quickly mastering the different aspects of cosmonaut training. He was selected with two colleagues and underwent intense training for carrying out the first manned space flight.
And it was finally Gagarin who was chosen for the job. His modest origins, which embodied “the ideal of equality” in the Soviet Union, no doubt worked in his favor.
A risky space flight
But a manned space flight doesn’t come without risks. Until spring 1961, the test flights of the craft Vostok, aboard which Gagarin would travel into space, experienced quite a few failures. Those in charge estimated the chances of the flight’s success to be fifty percent.
Notwithstanding, Gagarin was calm and collected for this historic mission. The launch took place at 9:07 in the morning, Moscow time. After eleven minutes, Vostok 1 broke away from the third stage of the launcher. Yuri Gagarin left his mark on history by becoming the first human being to travel in space.
The flight went as planned, and Gagarin admired the beauty of our planet from the heights of his space capsule.
After 108 minutes in orbit, reentry maneuvers began. But a problem arose when the reentry module, in which the cosmonaut was located, did not detach from the service module containing no longer useful flight equipment. The capsule started to gyrate, endangering the cosmonaut’s life. Gagarin remained calm in his seat. Fortunately, everything worked out for the best after ten minutes when atmospheric pressure separated the stubborn cables and ejected the service module. The cosmonaut ended his journey as the capsule was lowered by parachutes.
Following his space flight, the Soviet government conferred on Yuri Gagarin the title of national hero, the highest distinction in the USSR at the time.
Gagarin would never do another space flight. He met his death in 1968 in a plane crash during a training exercise.
In 2011, the United Nations General Assembly designated April 12 “International Day of Human Space Flight” in tribute to Gagarin’s flight.