It was fifty-two years ago today, on April 12, 1961, when the Soviet Union announced that Юрия Гагарин (Yuri Gagarin) had become the first person to travel into space when his spacecraft Восток (Vostok) which means “East” completed a full orbit of the Earth. His space capsule was launched from a pad at Baykonur, Kazakhstan.
He described being in space as: “The feeling of weightlessness is somewhat unfamiliar compared with Earth conditions. Here you feel like you are hanging in a horizontal position in straps. You feel like you are suspended.”
Gagarin was awarded the highest honours for the successful flight. Premier Nikita Krushchev publicly smothered him with kisses, went as far as to compare him to Christopher Columbus, and awarded Gagarin the highest award in the Soviet Union, Hero of the Soviet Union. He was honoured in a number of stamps and medals in the years following that achievement.
From the Russian archives: Yuri Gaganin was born on 9 March 1934 in Klushino, a small village 100 miles west of Moscow. His father was a cabinetmaker, carpenter, bricklayer, and farmer, and his mother was a milkmaid. Together they worked on a kolkhoz or collective farm. By Soviet social standards, his heritage was impeccable. He was the third of four children. During the war, the Nazis threw his family out of their home and took away two of his sisters. Yuri helped his parents dig a dugout where they lived until the war was over, then the family moved to Gzhatsk.
When he was a teenager, he witnessed a Russian Yak fighter plane make a forced landing in a field near his home. It was just returning from battle, its wings bullet-ridden. When the pilots emerged covered in medals, he was extremely impressed. As he later recalled, “We understood immediately the price that had to be paid for military decorations. We boys all wanted to be brave and handsome pilots. We experienced strange feelings such as we had never known before.”
After high school he attended a technical institute in Saratov. In his fourth year at school he was offered the chance to join a flying club and made his first solo flight in 1955. He was frequently praised for his ability to handle a plane and was given the highest recommendation upon his graduation.
In 1957 Gagarin graduated from an air force cadet school at Orenburg with the rank of Senior Lieutenant. It was in Orenburg where he met his wife, Valentina, a graduate of the Orenburg Medical school. The couple had two daughters, Elena, the eldest is today the director of the Kremlin Museum. Galina, the second daughter is a professor of economics in Moscow.
He made the 108 minute flight as a Lieutenant but retired as a Colonel. Gagarin died in a flight training accident on 27 March 1968. He was buried in the Kremlin wall.
His hometown of Gzhatsk has since been renamed as Gagarin in his honour. Gagarin is a town and administrative center of Gagarinsky District of Smolensk Oblast, Russia, situated on the Gzhat River, 240 kilometers northeast of Smolensk.