Fifty-five years ago on 12th April 1961 Yuri Gagarin was launched into the Earth’s orbit and became the first spaceman. Cosmonauts Day in Russia honours Gagarin’s achievement and celebrates all cosmonauts who followed him into the vastness of space.
Gagarin came from very humble beginnings the son of a carpenter and dairymaid. World War II and the German invasion of Russia halted young Yuri’s education. He managed to catch up on his studies after the war and showed a determination to further his knowledge by leaving home. Living with an uncle in Moscow, he enrolled as a 15 year old into a technical high school at Lyubertsy and followed what seems to have been a vocational apprenticeship course (possibly foundation level) in steelworks (foundry man). On completing his two year course he undertook a further four years of study in the same field, and graduated in 1955 aged 21 a fully qualified steel cast-moulder.
Yuri had apparently hoped to be a gymnast and was given the opportunity of following his dream, but decided to complete his four year foundry course instead of attending physical training school. Had he not turned his back on his sporting dream, history would have been very different. For it was during his time at the Saratov Industrial Technical School that Yuri joined the Aero Club. His obvious natural abilities were recognised in the flying club and Yuri was justly rewarded with a recommendation for the Orenburg Military Aviation School. This led him into the Soviet Air-Force in 1956 and being picked for specialist cosmonaut training in 1959 (undoubtedly helped by his small stature of 5ft 2in or 1.57m).
The Soviets used space dogs initially to test the effects of space travel on living organisms, and the successful return of Belka and Strelka after an orbital flight of over 24 hours in August 1960 paved the way for Gagarin. The space sickness suffered by Belka on the fourth orbit of her mission most probably influenced the Soviets decision that man would initially do only one orbit of the Earth. A final orbital flight on 25th March 1961 with the dog Little Star and a mannequin (Ivan Ivanovich) successfully tested the ejector seat system Gagarin would use.
In the early hours of April 12th 1961 the Vostok spacecraft was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome with 27 year old Yuri Gagarin on board. His total flight time of 108 minutes included around 89 minutes in orbit where the speed reached in the region of 27,400 km per hour. Travelling some 327km above the earth Gagarin truly had a heavenly view of our planet and the stars, but all too soon the automated flight systems brought him back, to instant worldwide acclaim. Sadly, on March 27th 1968 just short of the seventh anniversary of this amazing achievement, the Soviets made the announcement of the untimely death of Yuri Gagarin in a training accident aged 34. His ashes are buried in the walls of the Kremlin where he is honoured to this day for his launch into immortality.
The Americans followed Yuri’s epic trip a few weeks later on May 5th, when Alan Shepherd aboard Freedom 7 completed the first-US manned SUB-orbital flight, duration fifteen minutes. Interestingly his mission had originally been scheduled for April, but NASA delayed it to complete more tests on the rocket. Had they been less cautious an American could have been the first human to technically enter outer-space? But Yuri’s pioneering travel ensured that the USA in the early days of the “space-race” was always playing catch-up.
You can listen to my hospital radio space themed tribute to Yuri Gagarin here: