Shortly after 6am on 12th April, 1961, everything changed. Launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin begun his explosive journey to where no human had ventured before.
Passing out of the Earth’s atmosphere, Gagarin became the first human in history to travel into outer space.
Although Yuri Gagarin is a household name, the famed cosmonaut came from very much a humble background. Born in the town of Klushino in 1934, Gagarin’s parents worked on a collective farm.
During the Second World War, the village of Klushino was invaded and occupied by German forces, who wrought havoc on the village and its population. German troops are recorded as having burned down the local school – which brought Gagarin’s education to a temporary halt – and occupied the Gagarin household.
During his early adulthood, Gagarin worked as an apprentice foundryman at a steel plant and, in 1955, applied to join the Soviet Air Forces.
Upon joining the air force, Gagarin trained as a pilot and spent several years in the service before being selected to train for the Soviet space programme.
During this period, the United States and Soviet Union were locked in the Space Race, with both contending to be the world’s foremost space-faring nation.
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Aboard the Vostok 1 capsule, Gagarin completed one orbit of the planet in 108 minutes before returning to a new world. One where the stars had edged ever closer, where the dream of human space exploration had become a reality.
“The feeling of weightlessness was somewhat unfamiliar compared with Earth conditions. Here, you feel as if you were hanging in a horizontal position in straps. You feel as if you are suspended,” Gagarin recalled in his post-mission report.
The success of the Vostok 1 mission was a monumental victory for the Soviet Union. For the United States, it marked a humiliating episode in the Space Race – a humiliation it intended to prevent from ever happening again.
Overnight, Gagarin became an international celebrity and was lauded as a hero, earning the highest honour in the USSR, the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.
Gagarin may have been the first human to journey into space, but he certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Less than a month after Gagarin’s iconic mission, American astronaut Alan Shepard became the second person – and first American – to journey into outer space as part of the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission. Shepard would eventually cement his place in history as one of the few people to walk on the Moon.
For the USSR, it wouldn’t be long till another cosmonaut made history. On 6th August 1961, Gagarin was followed by Gherman Titov, who holds the title of being the first human to sleep in space.