Born March 9th 1934 and although coming from a humble background, he gained the rank of senior lieutenant in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republic’s Air Force.
However, it was in 1960 that Gagarin's life would change forever when he was one of 20 pilots selected for the Soviet Space program. The selection process consisted of physical and psychological testing, as well as a detailed assessment of performance obtained in training, so life was not easy for the young cosmonaut candidate.
The long awaited answer to who would be chosen finally came and Gagarin found himself selected to participate in the first manned space mission in history. Besides his good performances in the selection process, other factors counted in his favour such as coming from a simple background with both parents being farmers, an important factor within the Soviet communist system. He had a flamboyant and charismatic personality, and more importantly Gagarin was short, measuring only 1.60m or 5 foot 3 inches tall – a crucial consideration when the spacecraft designed for the mission, Vostok-1, was compact and left little room to accommodate a pilot.
Vostok-1 launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on April 12th 1961, arrived in orbit and completed one lap around planet Earth before reentry, taking a total time of 1 hr 48 minutes. The flight of the space craft was fully automatic and the control panel locked. Gagarin did though have a code key with which to take control of the ship in case of necessity, though this did not turn out to be needed. However, not quite all went as planned with one service module failing to separate from the main sphere as intended, remaining attached by some wires. This caused some wild gyrations of the craft to take place upon reentry to Earth’s atmosphere, before the wires eventually burned through freeing the remaining sphere and allowing a smoother descent.
With just 7km to go before landing, Gagarin ejected from the sphere and landed safely by parachute. This fact was denied by the Soviet Union for many years, for fear of the flight not being recognised by the FAI, the world governing body for air sports. The rules of the day stated that astronaut and craft must come down together and thus the true facts were kept quiet until 1971.
Fifty years ago today Yuri Gagarin took less than 2 hours to write his name in the history books, forever to be remembered as the first person in Space, and heralded the beginning of a new relationship between mankind and his blue planet.