30 Amazing Facts about Yuri Gagarin, the First Human in Space

Facts about Yuri Gagarin

The Soviet Union accomplished a remarkable space exploration feat on April 12, 1961. At about 9:00 am that day, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into space aboard Vostok 1 spacecraft. Reaching a maximum altitude of about 327 km (203 mi), Gagarin circled the earth within 1.5 hours. After completing his orbital flight, Gagarin landed safely on earth, and rose to instant prominence as a hero.

The Soviets had demonstrated their technological know-how by dealing a big blow to the Americans. Following this, the space race kicked off, paving way for future space  explorations and immense rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Here are 30 amazing facts you need to know about Yuri Gagarin, the first man to feel the emptiness of the outer space above our atmosphere.

Yuri Gagarin was a carpenter’s son

Born in Moscow, Russia, on March 9, 1934, Gagarin rose from carpentry backgrounds and climbed astronomical heights. His father Alexey Ivanovich Gagarin was a carpenter, while his mother Anna Timofeyevna Gagarina took a profession in agriculture. Gagarin placed third among his siblings Valentin, Boris and Zoya (his sister).

Soviet Air Force Man

Yuri Gagarin

When he was 16, around 1950/51, Gagarin worked as an apprentice moulder in a steel plant in Lyubertsy, close to Moscow. Along the line, he took evening classes as a 7th grader in a local school. Graduating from 7th grade and foundry apprenticeship, he obtained extra training at the Saratov Industrial Technical School.

While at Saratov, he took flight lessons in order to realize his dreams of flying aircraft. After his course, Gagarin joined the  Soviet Air Force school in Orenburg. By 1957, he had graduated from the military flight school.

Selected from the Lot

While serving as fighter pilot in the Soviet Air Force, Gagarin was recruited in a selection process that was meant to send the first human into space. Air Force pilots were targeted for the space mission because of their flight experience with high acceleration and exposure to enormous pressures.

Endorsed by Fellow Candidates

Together with 19 others pilots, Gagarin’s name popped up in the astronaut (cosmonaut) training program. The potential candidates were tested to determine their mental, physical, emotional, and technical fitness for the mission. Having passed the test, Gagarin luckily became the best choice to be launched into space. When his fellow candidates were asked to vote for the best candidate apart from themselves, all voted for Gagarin — except 3 cosmonauts.

Yuri Gagarin possessed extraordinary qualities

Even though any of the 20 select cosmonaut candidates could have landed the chance to go to space, Yuri was outstanding among them. His good personal traits distinguished him in so many ways: Gagarin was described as physically fit, modest, intelligent, sharp in memory, good at math, attentive, responsible, emotionally stable, and good in general.  In all, his great strengths earned him the selection to go to space.

He was 27 years old when he went to space

No one would have expected a 27-old-year Air Force pilot to make history by entering into space; but that was exactly what Yuri Gagarin did on April 12, 1961. He had a full blast orbiting the earth while knowing that he would be remembered throughout history.

A Powerful Rocket Shot Him into Space

Launch of the Vostok 1

Yuri Gagarin facts | the launch of the Vostok 1 spacecraft

According to Sir Isaac Newton’s law of gravity, all objects are pulled to the center of the earth by gravity. In order to escape the earth’s gravitational pull, the Soviets used  a powerful rocket engine. That wasn’t a technological problem for the Soviets; they indeed launched Gagarin by using the most advanced rocket of the era.

Autopiloted Spacecraft

According to NASA (The National Aeronautics and Space Administration), Gagarin’s flight was autopiloted. Since the effects of low gravity on a human-controlled spaceflight wasn’t understood before the launch, Gagarin’s spacecraft was also controlled by the ground mission teams. He was only given a manual with instructions on how to override the autopilot, as part of emergency procedures.

Orbited the Earth at a Tremendous Speed

Hovering over the earth at an altitude of 327 km (203 mi), his capsule was flying at a very high orbital speed of 27400 km/hr (17025 mi/hr). In order not to be pulled back to the earth by gravity, the spacecraft had to be moving that fast enough. After completing his orbit, Gagarin steered back to earth and landed in Russia around 10:55 am.

Spent 1.5 Hours in Orbit

Having spent 1 hr, 29 minutes in space, he had finished circling the earth. How to land back safely on Earth was now the daunting task. Unfortunately, Gagarin’s capsule had no landing mechanisms to facilitate a peaceful landing with the spacecraft, so he had to deploy a parachute when he descended to 7 km (4 mi) above the earth.

Controversial Landing

Ejecting from the capsule, he engaged his parachute and safely touched down in Russia. Despite his marvelous achievement and safe landing, Gagarin’s mission didn’t happen without controversies. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) commented that according to official standards, Gagarin’s mission didn’t qualify to be termed as a spaceflight, simply because he didn’t land with the Vostok 1 capsule.

The Soviets Hid Some Truths

The FAI argued that for a mission to be regarded as a spaceflight, the astronauts must land with the spacecraft. But this view didn’t take away the fact that Gagarin was the first man to enjoy space and orbit the earth. Moreover, the Soviets didn’t first acknowledge that Gagarin landed with a parachute. The world only learned the details of the flight after a decade or so.

Space Race Ignited After Yuri’s Mission

After the Soviet Union’s great space exploration achievement, the space race between the US and the Soviet Union got more intense. America tried to catch up fast, more resources were pumped into the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Following Gagarin’s space tour in April 1961, America sent Alan Shepard into space, just a month after Yuri’s mission. The two space, and nuclear, powers kept the race going by delving deep into space research and exploration. Russia came to a standstill when the US NASA’s Apollo mission landed American astronauts on the moon and safely returned them to earth in 1969.

From Space Race to Space Cooperation

Apollo-Soyuz Project was a rare corporation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. | Picture: From left to right: Donald Deke Slayton, Thomas Patten Stafford, Vance Brand, Alexei Leonov, and Valeri Kubasov

At a point in time, the US and the Soviet put aside their rivalry and differences and came together as cooperative partners under the umbrella of space exploration. The first joint space project between the US and the Soviets was Apollo-Soyuz Test Project; it opened the gates for further cooperation between the two superpowers. In 1994, there was also the U.S.-Russia Shuttle-Mir project.

Yuri’s Mission Had an Impact on the ISS

By 1998, construction of the International Space Station (ISS) had begun. The ISS is an orbiting global science laboratory that’s currently operated by 5 space agencies; ESA (European Space Agency), NASA (United States),  CSA (Canadian Space Agency), Roscosmos (Russia), and JAXA (Japan).

Yuri Gagarin’s Launchpad is Still in Use Today

The launchpad that Gagarin used is still active today. Today, US and Russian astronauts take their ISS spaceflight from the same launchpad at Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet Union member.

10 Days of Food

The Soviets strapped Gagarin to a rocket and lifted him into space without knowing what would happen next. As part of their emergency supplies, Gagarin’s 5 ton capsule was stocked with food provisions that could feed the astronaut for 10 days . The idea was that, if the spacecraft experienced an engine failure, Gagarin could feed himself for 10 days, so that his altitude would naturally reduce and allow him to land back.

Vostok Emergency Procedure

In case of any emergency, he was required to receive the override codes from earth. Knowing how that could be dangerous, the designer of the spacecraft (Sergei Korolev) ignored protocol and secretly gave the emergency codes to Gagarin before his lift off. However, everything worked according to plan, so the pilot didn’t need to override the capsule.

Global Hero

Yuri Gagarin Facts | Warsaw, 1961

By daring himself and going beyond the horizon to the outskirts of our sphere, Gagarin returned to earth a global hero. He was highly revered at home and abroad. The Soviets saw him as their proud space pioneer— they would do anything to protect him. Yuri traveled across nations and shared memories of his accomplishments while calling for the need for humanity to invest into the future of space.

Protection from Destruction

After his return to earth, the Soviets valued Gagarin to a high extent. He was given top appointments in the Cosmonaut Detachment and in Soviet legislative bodies. Knowing that he was priceless and irreplaceable, the Soviets excused Gagarin from taking part in space launches. This was meant to protect his young life from being claimed by a space accident. However, Gagarin didn’t fear for himself. He preferred to continue test-piloting military aircraft. That was where he met his untimely end.

Wore a Multicolored Spacesuit

As part of his main safety gear, Gagarin wore a bright orange spacesuit. The spacesuit provided oxygen for him to breath. His helmet had an inscription “CCCP”. This inscription was added for easy identification of Gagarin as a Soviet national when he landed at any geographical region.

Removed His Shoes Before First Entering the Spacecraft

Out of respect for Soviet customs, Gagarin humbly removed his shoes when he was entering into the newly manufactured Vostok capsule for the first time. For his kind demeanor, the spacecraft’s chief designer (Korolev) was very much impressed.

The Rocket Was Actually a Missile

To some extent, a missile launched Gagarin into space. The Soviets reconfigured a missile known as the R-7, aka Semyorka, and adapted it as a rocket to carry the spherical Vostok spacecraft.  In Russian, Vostok translates to “east”. Before taking off, Gagarin was heard saying “poyehali”, meaning “let’s go”.

After World War 2, the United States of America and Russia developed missiles to defend themselves. In what would spiral into the Cold War, long range ballistic missiles became the order of the day. Germany had even used rockets towards the end of World War 2. All in all, missiles had a huge influence on space launch systems.

Attended a UN Press Conference

Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman to go in space) attended a United Nations Press conference in 1963.

Yuri Gagarin

Picture: Valentina Tereshkova -the first woman to go in space

Narrowly Escaped Death in 1967

Gagarin escaped his untimely demise by the skin of his teeth on April 24, 1967 when the Soyuz 1 mission ended up in a tragic accident, killing cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. Gagarin was a reserve commander for that doomed mission. Due to design flaws, the Soyuz spacecraft experienced a parachute failure during the descent.

A Flight Disaster Killed Yuri Gagarin

Ashes of Yuri Gagarin were interned in the Kremlin Wall in Red Square

About a year after the Soyuz 1 mission disaster, Gagarin was destined to face doom on March 27, 1968. On that day, an MiG-15UTI fighter plane took off from a Russian air base with Gagarin and Vladimir Seryogin sitting at the controls.

The plane tumbled out of the skies and crashed, killing Gagarin and his co-pilot. The Soviets wept and mourned bitterly as they laid his ashes in the Kremlin wall in Red Square.

Dead But Not Forgotten

After serving his country so well, Gagarin passed away in the most painful way. But his memories and legacies still live on. Each year on April 12, space societies observe Yuri’s Night to commemorate his historic achievement.

Left Behind a Wife and 2 Daughters

Yuri Gagarin's wife

Yuri Gagarin and his wife, Valentina Ivanovna Goryacheva, at the Bolshoi Theater, Moscow, September 1964.

Gagarin married Valentina Ivanovna Goryacheva and had 2 daughters (Yelena Yurievna Gagarina and Galina Yurievna Gagarina) with her before his death.

Awarded the Order of Lenin

Order of Lenin

As appreciation for Gagarin’s success, Nikita Khrushchev’s administration honored him with Order of Lenin and declared Gagarin a Hero of the Soviet Union. A perfect name for a great achiever. To top up his honors, Gzhatsk (Gagarin’s hometown) was renamed after him.

Controversies Surround His Fatal Crash

It’s true to say that Gagarin was killed in an air accident in 1968. Investigations into the actual cause of the accident have stated that the pilots dodged foreign objects such as birds, or weather balloon, and couldn’t recover from the tailspin.

Others opined that Gagarin developed bad drinking habits which could have affected his flight control abilities. Or maybe the pilots were taking pictures and lost focus on their controls. The chain of rumors surrounding his demise also spoke about suicide, or a possible cabin depressurization, which would have deprived the pilots of oxygen, leading to unconsciousness.

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