Yuri Gagarin's parents were peasants on a collective farm in the village of Gzhatsk. Gagarin thus represented the ideal of the "new communist man." Gzhatsk is now called "Gagarin City" after the cosmonaut.
The people of the Soviet Union called Gagarin, the "Columbus of the Cosmos."
The First Space Flight
Sergei Korolev was the Soviet Union's chief rocket designer. He selected Gagarin to be the first cosmonaut to orbit the Earth. Gherman Titov was chosen as the backup.
Gagarin's spacecraft was called Vostok 1. He said that Vostok 1 was "more beautiful than a locomotive, a steamer, a plane, a palace, and a bridge -- more beautiful than all of these creations put together."
The booster rocket for the spacecraft was called A-1. The booster had three stages.
The launch site was the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which is located near the city of Tyuratam in Kazakhstan, close to the Aral Sea.
Gagarin made a single orbit of the Earth on April 12, 1961. His flight lasted 1 hour and 48 minutes. The apogee was about 203 miles above sea level. The orbital speed was approximately 17,000 miles per hour.
During the flight, Gagarin monitored onboard systems, ate, drank, and watched the Sun rise over North America. Sergei Korolev asked over the radio, "How do you feel?" Gagarin replied, "I feel fine. How about you?"
After the flight, Gagarin reported, "I could clearly discern the outlines of continents, islands and rivers. The horizon presents a sight of unusual beauty. A delicate blue halo surrounds the Earth, merging with the blackness of space in which the stars are bright and clear cut."
During reentry, the Vostok capsule was supposed to separate cleanly from its equipment module, but the two remained tethered by an umbilical line. The Vostok spacecraft tumbled at a rate of 30 degrees per second. As a result, Gagarin experienced an acceleration of 10 G. The tumbling continued until the umbilical cord finally burned through.
As part of the flight plan, Gagarin exited the spacecraft at an altitude of about 20,000 feet and then parachuted to the ground. He landed near Saratov in the Volgograd region.
The Soviet government apparently kept this parachute detail secret for many years. The Soviets sought to give an impression that the Vostok spacecraft made a soft landing with Gagarin still inside. The Federation Aeronautique International required that a pilot land with his vehicle in order to claim a complete flight for the record books.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev congratulated Gagarin after the flight, declaring: "You have made yourself immortal because you are the first man to penetrate space."
Gagarin replied: "Now let the other countries try to catch us."
After the flight, Gagarin visited 28 countries. He attended banquets, gave speeches, and answered fan mail.
Gagarin also supervised training for women cosmonauts, which led to Valentina Tereshkova's flight in June 1963.
Gagarin died in an airplane crash on March 27, 1968. He was on a training flight in a MiG-15 aircraft.
- Tom Harpole, "Saint Yuri," Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., Dec 98/Jan 99.