Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space 60 years ago this month

April 18, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism.

Sixty years ago this month, a Russian named Yuri Gagarin shocked the world by leaving it – and then returning 108 minutes later.

Gargarin, a Russian cosmonaut, became the first human to escape the earth’s bounds by blasting into space aboard a Soviet Vostok spacecraft on April 12, 1961. Prior to the Soviet announcement of his flight, which was made before he had come back to earth, the world did not know that the Soviets even had a manned space program.

The world knew plenty about the space programs of both the Americans and the Soviets. In 1957 the Soviets put the first man-made object into orbit with their launch of Sputnik. During the 1950s, the Americans had made much of their space program, and it was generally believed that they were well ahead of the Russians in this area. The space programs of each nation had become symbols of their Cold War superiority.

Sputnik’s launch shattered American confidence and had deep political and cultural implications. Not only did the government accelerate the space program itself, but new initiatives in science and math education were begun at the high school and college levels.

Gagarin’s flight was yet another blow to American prestige and confidence. The U.S. space program had publicly announced the first class of seven astronauts, one of whom would be selected to be its first man in space.

The Soviets, on the other hand, had kept their manned to space program a secret – even from the 20 cosmonauts who had been selected for the program. These 20 men, a group that included Gagarin, were test pilots who believed they would be learning to fly a new kind of airplane.

Gagarin was 27 years old when he made his historic flight. Born in 1934, he lived with his family in an area that had suffered brutally from the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. In 1950 when he was 16 Gagarin move to Moscow to train for a factory job. His technical skills, however, led him into the Russian Flight Training Program.

Because the Americans had announced their intention of putting a man in space in May of 1961, the Russians accelerated their space program beyond their own technical capabilities. Thus, Gagarin flew into space with only a crude and minimum way of communicating with the Earth and with no real plan about exactly where he would land.

Most of his flight was uneventful. Re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere was where he had problems. His space capsule failed to separate properly, and he was nearly burned to death. It was only at the last minute that the proper separation occurred, and he was able to parachute safely to Earth. The problem then was that no one in Moscow knew exactly where he was.

By a sheer stroke of dumb luck, Gagarin landed in a potato field near the Volga River, a place with which he had some familiarity. A woman and her daughter were in the field at the time, and when they saw Gagarin walking toward them, they ran for their lives. Gagarin was able to make contact with Moscow, and the Kremlin announced that he had landed safely — without giving too many details, of course.

It was a Soviet triumph and another demonstration to the world that the Soviet Union was still ahead in the space race. Gagarin had orbited the earth once, and it would be the next February before American John Glenn became the first of this nation to surpass that feat.

Gagarin was treated like the hero he was. He traveled around the world, flashing a winning smile and making self-deprecating jokes. He was barred from coming to the U.S. by President John Kennedy, but elsewhere he achieved the status of a rock star.

The fame and adulation did little to enhance Gagarin’s personal life. When he went into space, he had a wife and two small daughters. His post-orbit touring left him with a reputation as a womanizer and alcoholic. He cleaned up his life enough to rejoin the Soviet space program but was considered too valuable an asset to the Soviets to go on another mission. The most they would allow him to do was to become a test pilot again.

That turned out to be too much.

In 1968 he died when the plane he was testing crashed. He was only 36 years old.

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