One of the most important heroes of modern times, the first man in space, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, spent a large part of his life as a hardworking student, before being thrust into international superstardom when he was launched into space on April 12 1961. Here’s all you need to know about the ‘Columbus of the Cosmos’ Yuri Gagarin.
By Louise Whitworth, april 2014.
The son of peasantsIt is popularly said that Gagarin was born the son of peasants. His parents did indeed work on a collective farm in the village of Klushino close to the town of Gzhatsk (now named Gagarin in his honour) in the Smolensk region. Despite their humble background they were both educated and his father was a skilled carpenter. As a youth Gagarin left home to do an apprenticeship in an ironworks. Whilst there he was selected for further training and was invited to study at the Saratov technical college. As a hobby in Saratov he joined the aeroclub and learnt how to fly light aircraft. When he left the technical school he enrolled at the Orenburg Pilot’s school just as the Soviet Union began to accelerate its work on its groundbreaking space programme.
Soviet space dogsAs the cold war reached freezing point, the USA and the Soviet Union entered the space race both hoping to be the first nations to conquer space. In 1957 the Soviets, led by the extraordinarily talented rocket scientist Korolyev, launched the first manmade satellite (sputnik) into orbit. This was soon followed by the first animal in orbit, Laika the dog. Laika sadly never returned to earth but in 1960 the heroic dogs Belka and Strelka successfully orbited the earth for a day and returned safely, laying the final grounds for the first human space flight.
From 2,000 to 1Over 2,000 Russian military pilots were considered for the first human space flight. Only 200 of these made it through to the next round of testing and of them only 20 were selected for intensive training. After passing through rigorous physical and psychological testing two men remained as candidates to fly in Vostok 1 - Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov. In the end Gagarin was chosen due to his small stature (5 foot 2, perfect for the tiny Vostok capsule) and due to his mental stability and political clout as the son of peasants (Titov on the other hand was the son of teachers).
Titov didn’t miss out though and was the second man to orbit the earth in the Vostok 2. Titov also holds his own firsts as the first human to sleep in space and the first to experience ‘space sickness’ (a form of motion sickness experienced by about half of all astronauts/cosmonauts).