This year marks the 55th Anniversary since Yuri Gagarin became the first human to make it through our little blue planet’s atmosphere and out into space.

For many years, the United States and the Soviet Union competed to be the first nation to push the boundaries of human exploration and venture into Space. The Russian team eagerly developed the Vostok spacecraft to beat the USA into space by 1961 and sent a prototype, the Vostok 3KA-2 up, carrying a life-sized dummy named Ivan Ivanovich and an unsuspecting dog called Zvezdochk. The prototype was a success finally leading to the Vostok vessel being ready to carry a human being. This year marks the 55th Anniversary since Yuri Gagarin became the first human to make it through our little blue planet’s atmosphere and out into space. 

Senior Lieutenant Yuri Alexyevich Gagarin was born on March 9, 1934 in the village of Klushino. From a young age, he was interested in flying, making his first solo flight in 1955. Several years later, he became one of more than 200 Russian Air Force fighter pilots selected as cosmonaut candidates. In 1960 he was finally chosen for the Soviet Space Programme and the elite training group Sochi. This group underwent vigorous physical and psychological training before Yuri was selected as the first launch cosmonaut choice. His short stature of only 1.57 metres may have been an advantage; he was the ideal size for the small Vostok cockpit.

On April 12, 1961 at 9:07am Moscow time, the Vostok 1 spacecraft launched, with Gagarin aboard. At the time it wasn’t understood how weightlessness would affect a human so the small capsule had very few onboard controls, most of the tasks were completed remotely from the ground. Gagarin orbited Earth once, reaching a maximum height of 327 kilometres during the 108-minute trip. In his post-flight report, he recalled his experience “if you were hanging in a horizontal position in straps. You feel as if you are suspended.”

While over Africa, the engines fired to bring him back to Earth. When re-entering the atmosphere, Gagarin experienced forces up to eight times the pull of gravity, yet remained conscious. There were no engines on the Vostok 1 to slow its re-entry so at about seven kilometres up, Gagarin ejected and parachuted to Earth.

He returned as an international hero and became a national treasure, awarded with many medals and titles, including the nation’s highest honour “Hero of the Soviet Union”. Yuri easily gained attention from the public, not only with his momentous achievement but with his winning smile. Russia was hesitant on risking such a popular public figure by allowing him back into Space, so Gagarin made test flights for the Air Force instead.

While test-piloting a MiG-15, on March 27 168, Gagarin was tragically killed in a crash near the town of Kirzach. The cause of the crash is uncertain and has been subject to much speculation. He left behind his wife, Valentina Ivanova Goryacheva and two daughters, as well as legendary status as the first man in space.

Since 2001, the date of his space flight has been commemorated annually as ‘Yuri’s Night’, an international celebration of his achievement and all milestones in space exploration. The Apollo 11 crew, when first landing on the moon in 1969, honoured Yuri by leaving a memorial satchel containing medal commemorating Gagarin.

Although he lived a short life, Gagarin’s unprecedented journey set a new pace in the Space race. His courage, expertise and commitment to space exploration will continue to be recognised as a pivotal well recognised and will continue to be for generations to come.

Want to learn more about the Space race and Yuri Gagarin? Come along to our Yuri’s Night celebration on April 12th.