(updated August 17 2013)
Few events influenced humanity so much as the feat Yuri Alexseyevich Gagarin achieved in April 1961, when he became the first human to reach outer space and completed an orbit in his Vostok Spacecraft – what also turned out to be his only flight into space. A victory for the Soviet Union over the United States which was heavily investing resources into the space race itself, they endowed upon Gagarin the highest of honours, the “Hero of the Soviet Union” medal. It was to be one of dozens of honours, medals and titles he was about to receive.
Yuri Gagarin didn’t have an easy upbringing. Like many millions of his generation, his family suffered during the Nazi occupation in WWII. Not only was their residence taken over by a German officer and the family ended up little in a tiny hut they built on their own land, but his two older siblings were deported to Poland for slave labour (they did luckily return alive after the war in 1945). Perhaps it was coincidence, perhaps it was his destiny when he was selected for further training at the Saratov Industrial Technical School (where he studied tractors), but who could have expected this youth to become the legend that he is today when he volunteered for weekend training as a Soviet air cadet at a local aeronautics club. It is there where he learned to fly, while earning some money on the side as a dock laborour.
After graduating from that technical school in 1955, Gagarin got drafted and was sent to an Air Force Pilot School where he flew the MiG-15 solo by 1957 – the same type of craft that would also play a role in his tragic end – and graduated (and married) the same year. It was in 1960 when after a rigorous selection process, Gagarin was chosen with 19 other pilots for the Soviet space program. He also ended up in the elite training group known as the Sochi Six, from which the first cosmonauts for the Vostok program would be chosen. When it came to the final selection, it was to be between him and Gherman Titov to be the first human to go into space. Of course much of this was to do with their performance during training sessions – Gagarin was extremely clever having no issues with higher mathematics and celestial mechanics – but perhaps not so often talked about was that Gagarin came in at a diminutive 1m57 or 5ft2, and space was at a premium in the Vostok capsule.
Another interesting fact was that in an anonymous vote amongst him and his peers to see who they would think should get the honour of being the first person to launch into space, Gagarin was the favourite with over 80 percent of the vote. A footnote that would transcend its boundaries when after his historic flight he became the icon the Soviet Union needed to promote their space achievements across the world. With his broad smile, Gagarin won over the hearts of millions in many countries he traveled to. In fact, he became so important to the Soviet Union that in the end Gagarin got banned from training for and participating in any further spaceflights. More on that next time in part 2, so stay tuned!
“Circling the Earth in my orbital spaceship I marveled at the beauty of our planet. People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty — not destroy it!”
– Yuri Gagarin (1934 – 1968)