Yuri Gagarin’s Journey Beyond Our World

Gp Capt Kumar Kirinde, SLAF [retd], as Compiler, …. whose preferred title was “Yuri Gagarin: First Human Being (Man) to go into Space”

Introduction: …. Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin (9 March 1934–27 March 1968) was a Soviet pilot and cosmonaut who became the first human to journey into outer space. Travelling in the Vostok 1 capsule, Gagarin completed one orbit of Earth on 12 April 1961. By achieving this major milestone in the Space Race he became an international celebrity, and was awarded many medals and titles, including Hero of the Soviet Union, his nation’s highest honour.

Gagarin family home in Klushino, Smolensk, Russia

Gagarin was born in the Russian village of Klushino, and in his youth was a foundryman at a steel plant in Lyubertsy. He later joined the Soviet Air Forces as a pilot and was stationed at the Luostari Air Base, near the Norwegian border, before his selection for the Soviet space programme with five other cosmonauts.

Following his spaceflight, Gagarin became deputy training director of the Cosmonaut Training Centre, which was later named after him. He was also elected as a deputy of the Soviet of the Union in 1962 and then to the Soviet of Nationalities, respectively the lower and upper chambers of the Supreme Soviet.

Vostok 1 was Gagarin’s only spaceflight, but he served as the backup crew to the Soyuz 1 mission, which ended in a fatal crash, killing his friend and fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. Fearful that a national hero might be killed, Soviet officials banned Gagarin from further spaceflights. After completing training at the Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy in February 1968, he was again allowed to fly regular aircraft. Gagarin died five weeks later when the MiG-15 training jet he was piloting with flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin crashed near the town of Kirzhach.

Gagarin as an air cadet






Early life

Gagarin’s parents were Aleksey Ivanovich Gagarin, a carpenter and Anna Timofeyevna Gagarina, a dairy farmer. He was the third of four children. He had an older brother, older sister and a younger brother.

[Gagarin’s wife was Valentina, a medical technician and they had two daughters. Yelena, born 1959, who went on to become an art historian and Galina, born 1961, who went on to become a professor of economics.]

Gagarin and his younger brother were enrolled at a crude school built in the town and run by a young woman who volunteered to be the teacher. They learned to read using a discarded Russian military manual. A former Russian airman later joined the school to teach math and science, his favourite subjects. He was also part of a group of children that built model airplanes. He was fascinated with flying crafts from a young age.

In 1950, aged 16, Gagarin began an apprenticeship as a foundryman at a steel plant and enrolled at a local “young workers” school for seventh-grade evening classes. After graduating in 1951 from both the seventh grade and the vocational school with honours in mold making and foundry work, he was selected for further training at an Industrial Technical School. There he studied tractors. During this time Gagarin volunteered at a local flying club for weekend training as a Soviet air cadet, where he trained to fly a biplane, and later a Yakovlev Yak-18. He earned extra money as a part-time dock labourer on the Volga River.

Soviet Air Force

In 1955, Gagarin was accepted to the Air Force Pilots School. He initially began training on the Yak-18 already familiar to him and later graduated to training on the MiG-15 in February 1956. Having completed his evaluation in a trainer aircraft, Gagarin began flying solo in 1957.

On 5 November 1957, Gagarin was commissioned a lieutenant in the Soviet Air Forces with  graduation from flight school.  He was posted to an air base close to the Norwegian border for a two-year assignment with the Northern Fleet. After expressing interest in space exploration following the launch of Luna 3 on 6 October 1959, his recommendation to the Soviet space programme was endorsed and forward by his higher authority. Gagarin was promoted to the rank of senior lieutenant on 6 November 1959 and three weeks after he was interviewed by a medical commission for qualification to the space programme.

Soviet space programme

Gagarin’s selection for the space (Vostok) programme was overseen by the Central Flight Medical Commission. The commission limited their selection to pilots between 25 and 30 years old. From a pool of 154 qualified pilots short-listed by their Air Force units, the military physicians chose 29 cosmonaut candidates, of which 20 were approved by the Credential Committee of the Soviet government. The first twelve including Gagarin were approved on 7 March 1960 with eight more were added later. Gagarin began training at an airfield in downtown Moscow on 15 March 1960.

Gagarin was a candidate favoured by his peers; when they were asked to vote anonymously for a candidate besides themselves, they would like to be the first to fly, all but three chose Gagarin. One of these candidates believed that Gagarin was very focused and was demanding of himself and others when necessary. On 30 May 1960, Gagarin was further selected for an accelerated training group, known as the Vanguard Six or Sochi Six, from which the first cosmonauts of the Vostok programme would be chosen.

The Vanguard Six were given the title of pilot-cosmonaut in January 1961. The commission was tasked with ranking the candidates based on their mission readiness for the first human Vostok mission. On 17 January, they were tested in a simulator on a full-size mockup of the Vostok capsule. Gagarin, Nikolayev, Popovich, and Titov all received excellent marks on the first day of testing.  On the second day, they were given a written examination following which the special commission ranked Gagarin as the best candidate for the first mission. He and the next two highest-ranked cosmonauts, Titov and Nelyubov, were sent for final preparations. Gagarin and Titov were selected to train in the flight-ready spacecraft on 7 April. Historian Asif Azam Siddiqi writes of the final selection:

“In the end, at the State Commission meeting on April 8, Kamanin (the head of the commission) stood up and formally nominated Gagarin as the primary pilot and Titov as his backup. Without much discussion, the commission approved the proposal and moved on to other last-minute logistical issues. It was assumed that in the event Gagarin developed health problems prior to liftoff, Titov would take his place, with Nelyubov acting as his backup.”

Readying for the launch

Rollout and Erection of Vostok 1 for the launch with Gagarin


Yuri Gagarin suits up for the launch


   Yuri Gagarin on the bus on the way to the launch pad with cosmonaut German Titov behind him. Titov was the back-up pilot who later became pilot of Vostok 2.                                          





Yuri Gagarin boarding Vostok 1 spacecraf

Gagarin entering his space capsule





 Yuri Gagarin strapped inside Vostok 1 capsule








Launch to space, orbit  and return to earth

On 12 April 1961, at 6:07 am UTC, the Vostok 3KA-3 (Vostok 1) spacecraft was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome. Aboard was Gagarin, the first human to travel into space.

      Launch of Yuri Gagarin and Vostok 1 on 12 April 1961 opens Era of Human Spaceflight

The radio communication between the launch control room and Gagarin included the following dialogue at the moment of rocket launch:

Korolev: Preliminary stage … intermediate… main… LIFT-OFF! We wish you a good flight. Everything’s all right.

Gagarin: Off we go! Goodbye, until [we meet] soon, dear friends.

The five first-stage engines fired until the first separation event, when the four side-boosters fell away, leaving the core engine. The core stage then separated while the rocket was in a suborbital trajectory, and the upper stage carried it to orbit. Once the upper stage finished firing, it separated from the spacecraft, which orbited for 108 minutes before returning to Earth in Kazakhstan. Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth.

Vostok 1 capsule (Digital art)                               Yuri Gagarin in orbit




Vostok 1 landing – here the reentry capsule of the Vostok 3KA-3 spacecraft (Vostok 1) is seen with charring and its parachute on the ground after landing south west of Engels, in the Saratov region of southern Russia. Gagarin ejected from the capsule at 7 km altitude and parachuted safely to the ground.





On his return to earth, at about 7,000 metres (23,000 ft), Gagarin ejected from the descending capsule as planned and landed using a parachute. There were concerns Gagarin’s spaceflight would not be recognized by the Fédération Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), the world governing body for setting standards and keeping records in the field, which at the time required that the pilot land with the craft. Gagarin and Soviet officials initially refused to admit that he had not landed with his spacecraft. Gagarin’s spaceflight records were nonetheless certified and reaffirmed by the FAI, which revised its rules, and acknowledged that the crucial steps of the safe launch, orbit, and return of the pilot had been accomplished. Therefore Gagarin is internationally recognised as the first human in space and first to orbit the Earth.

Yuri Gagarin statue at the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London and Bust of Gagarin at Birla Planetarium in Kolkata, India

Gagarin’s visit to Sri Lanka as the first human to go to space


 Gagarin’s Vostok 1 spacesuit and  his Vostok 3KA capsule and an effigy of him on display at the RKK Energiya museum in 2010






50th anniversary stamp of Ukraine and Russian ten-ruble commemorating Gagarin in 2001

Monument to Yuri Gagarin in Moscow – a 42.5-meter high pedestal and statue of Yuri Gagarin, the first person to travel in space. The pedestal is designed to be reminiscent of a rocket exhaust. The statue is made of titanium, a metal often used in spacecraft, and weighs 12 tons


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