First Man in Space
Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was born on this day in 1934 in Klushino, Smolensk, Russian SFSR.
On April 12, 1961, 27-year old Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth once in a Vostok spacecraft flight which lasted a total of 1 hour and 48 minutes, becoming the first human being to fly in space. Minutes after taking off from Baikonur launch center in the Soviet Union, he reported that he felt fine and that the craft was functioning normally, pausing to describe the Earth from a vantage point no human eye had ever experienced: "I can see the Earth's horizon," he said. "It has a very beautiful sort of halo, a rainbow . . ."
Reaction in the U.S. was a mixture of disappointment, for having been beaten into space by the Russians, and terror, for the thought of Russian spacecraft flying over America. Less than a week later, CIA-backed rebels invaded Cuba, but were decimated by Castro at the Bay of Pigs. Both events, occurring one after the other early in the administration of John F. Kennedy, stimulated a sense of Cold War panic across America, and inspired Kennedy's seemingly impossible prediction, shortly after Alan Shepard became the first American in space less than a month after Gagarin's flight, that the U.S. would reach the moon before the end of the decade.
Gagarin, however, gave the Soviet space program a human face. He had studied agricultural machinery and industrial technology before joining an amateur pilots club and learning to fly during the early 1950s. In 1957 he graduated from the Orenburg Higher Air Force School and flew with the Soviet Northern Fleet in the Arctic Circle before volunteering for the cosmonaut program and being selected as one of the first 20 cosmonauts in 1959.
After his historic flight, Gagarin became a worldwide hero, despite Western fears of the Soviet edge in the space race, and became commander of the cosmonaut team. Because of his value as a legend, the Soviet government grounded him from risky activities in June 1964, much to Gagarin's personal frustration. He had only just been restored to active duty in 1966 when his friend and colleague Vladimir Komarov died during the re-entry of Soyuz 1, a flight for which Gagarin had been assigned as back-up pilot. Squeamish Soviet authorities again grounded Gagarin until 1968, when Gagarin began to requalify himself as a jet pilot.
On March 27, 1968, Gagarin and his flight instructor Vladimir Seregin were caught in the vortex of another jet as they flew a MiG-15 and were thrown into a spin. Finding themselves in a steep dive of not much more than 1,000 feet to the ground, they had no chance to eject, and both pilots perished. A crater on the far side of the moon was named in his memory.