On 12 April 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (USSR, now Russia) became the first human to orbit the Earth. When Vostok 1 (“Orient 1”) unceremoniously ejected the national hero back to Earth 108 minutes after it launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Gagarin – promoted from Lieutenant to Major during the flight – emerged into a brave new world… one in which space was no longer considered beyond our frontiers. Man would no longer be confined to Earth. Gagarin’s safe landing, one of the most important milestones in our history, marked the true beginning of the space race and was the earliest of many significant firsts in the story of our conquest of space.
Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was born in Klushino in the oblast of Smolensk, USSR, on 9 March 1934 to humble stock: his father was a carpenter, his mother a milkmaid. He studied in vocational school to be a foundry worker, but in his teenage years entered the Soviet air cadets, where he had his first taste of flying, in a biplane. In 1955, when he was drafted into the Army, he was quickly assigned to the Air Force, where he upgraded to MiG jets, thus propelling him along his journey to becoming the world’s first spaceman.
It came as no surprise when the accomplished pilot caught the attention of the Soviet space agency in 1960 and was shortlisted for the Vostok programme. The project was in direct competition with the USA’s Mercury programme, which aimed to send a human into orbit; the US, reeling from the Soviet’s recent success after putting Sputnik 1 (the first artificial satellite) into orbit in 1957, was desperate to gain ground in the space race.
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