Fifty years since the first human in space...

Yuri Gagarin on board Vostok 1 April 12th 1961

Agent Triple P was very much a child of the Space Race: the first piece of music we remember was Telstar by the Tornados from 1962 (incidentally the first single by a UK group to make it to number one in America) which celebrated the first AT&T communications satellite of the same name. Even though we were too young to remember it we can’t let this week pass by without noting the achievement of Yuri Gagarin in becoming the first person in space on April 12th 1961.

Gagarin during flight training in 1955

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was born on 9th March 1934 in Klushino, west of Moscow. The village was occupied by the Germans during World War 2 and one of his brothers and his sister were taken to Germany and forced to work as slave labourers by the SS, although they both returned home after the war. In 1950 after working as an apprentice at the Lyubertsy Steel Plant in Moscow he was transferred to a technical college in the Volga river port city of Saratov. He joined the local air cadet force and learned to fly, being recommended for the Military Pilot’s School at Orenburg in 1955. He made his first jet flight in 1957 in a MiG-15. Posted to the grim Luostari airbase in Murmansk, nearly 200 miles inside the Arctic circle, when mysterious recruiting teams arrived from Moscow looking for volunteers to fly a new secret craft he and his new wife Valya, who had just given birth to a baby daughter, thought that anything had to be better than Luostari.

The Vostok 1 spacecraft just before the historic flight

He found that he had joined the new cosmonaut squad and underwent intensive training. His diminutive size (he was 5’2”) helped in his selection, given the tiny capsule being developed. Eventually the choice as to who would become the first human in space came down to two out of the twenty trainees: Gagarin and Gherman Titov. The authorities thought that Titov was too middle class and as Gagarin’s parents both worked on a collective farm (although they were far from the peasants that the Soviets made out) he got the nod.

Vostok 1 on the launch pad in Kazakhstan

On April 12th at 7.10 am Gagarin climbed aboard the tiny spherical Vostok 1 capsule on top of Sergei Korolev’s R-7 launcher. Gagarin’s bravery cannot be in doubt as the launcher had failed on 25 of its 60 preceding flights; not exactly a sure thing!  He literally was going where no man had gone before!

Let's go!

After an hour’s delay to re-fit the capsule’s hatch everything proceeded normally, with the cool as a cucumber Gagarin’s heart rate being measured at just 64 beats per minute. Koralev, on the other hand, had to take heart medication as he was having chest pains.

Vostok 1 launch

At 9.07 the engines were ignited and, with a cry of “poyekhali!” (let’s go!) from Gagarin, Vostok 1 was blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome’s Site No 1. Ten minutes later Gagarin became the first human in orbit. In the next hour Gagarin circled the earth moving from East to West and crossing Siberia, the Pacific, the tip of South America, then over Central Africa, Egypt and Turkey.

The landing procedure did not go so well and after the rockets fired to begin the descent, over Angola, the service module which was supposed to separate from the capsule remained attached by wires. This affected the stability of the craft and it was only once Vostok 1 was over Egypt that the wires connecting the two parts of the spacecraft burnt through so that the service module was jettisoned and the correct landing pattern was achieved.

The capsule after landing

As was planned. Gagarin was ejected from the capsule at 7km above the ground and made a separate parachute drop from the capsule. They both came down to earth in the Saratov region, ironically not very far from where he had made his first flight. Gagarin was met by a terrified farmer and his daughter and had to explain that although he had indeed, as they feared, come from outer space he was a Russian like them!

The track made by the Vostok capsule on landing

The authorities soon flew in by helicopter to collect him where he was greeted with a deserved hero's welcome.

Gagarin, still in his flight suit, is greeted by Soviet soldiers

He spent the next few years touring the world as the Soviets felt that he was too valuable a propaganda instrument to risk on another space flight, much to Gagarin’s disgust.  Although he was a popular ambassador, memorably once refusing to sit under an umbrella in an open-top drive in Manchester despite torrential rain so that people could see him, the years on the road took their toll on him. 

Gagarin meets Gina Lollobrigida at the Moscow Film Festival

He turned to alcohol and women to get himself through the long tours away from home and his frustration at being unable to fly again.

Gagarin his wife and Khrushchev read the newspaper accouts of his flight

It was only when Nikita Khrushchev was replaced as premier by Leonid Brezhnev in 1964 that Gagarin was allowed to go back to work; helping out on the new Soyuz spacecraft. Gagarin found a huge number of technical problems in the craft but the KGB wouldn’t let these be reported in case it interfered with the planned launch of Soyuz 1 which was designed to occur on May Day 1967, to celebrate 50 years since the Russian Revolution. Soyuz 1 took off as scheduled but the parachute system on the capsule failed on re-entry resulting in the death of Gagarin’s friend, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov.


Gagarin was determined to get back into space although Komarov’s death meant that the authorities had essentially banned any possibility of this. In order to improve his flight reflexes, however, Gagarin started training flights again. It was on one of these, in badly deteriorating weather, on 27th March 1968 that he and his instructor Vladimir Seryogin flying a two seater MiG-15UTI had a fatal crash. The exact causes are still unknown but an official enquiry, whose documents were only declassified in 2003, believed Gagarin had made a rapid movement in the plane; possibly to avoid a weather balloon.

Celebrations at the monument marking the landing point of Vostok 1 on April 12th 2011

Yuri Gagarin was only thirty-four years old when he died but his achievement will live on forever.

Yuri Gagarin (1934-1968) First Human in Space: April 12th 1968
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