There was no fanfare and no countdown. On April 12, 1961 with a “Let's go!”, Yuri Gagarin left Earth, assuring his place in history. The first spaceman was an exceptional individual who came from humble beginnings, and whose life ended all too soon.
Gagarin was born in Klushino - about 100 miles west of Moscow - on March 9 1934, the third of four children. Both Yuri's father, who was a carpenter, bricklayer and farmer, and his mother, a milkmaid, worked on a collective farm. In October 1942 the Nazis occupied Klushino, and an officer took over their house. The family lived for the rest of the occupation in a ten-foot square mud hut behind the house. In 1943 the occupiers took Yuri's two older siblings away. Although they survived, they weren't reunited with the family for two years.
Education and a dream
Survival, not formal education, had characterized the war years. But four years after it was over Yuri finally completed sixth grade. Although his favorite subject was math, he also read widely, both literature and the work of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935). Before the first plane of the Wright brothers got off the ground, Tsiolkovsky was working out how to get rockets off the planet.
Smart and inquisitive, Yuri wasn't going to be satisfied with being a carpenter like his father. At sixteen he went to live with an uncle, and became an apprentice foundryman at a steel plant near Moscow. He also enrolled in evening classes to complete seventh grade. After passing his vocational and academic courses with distinction, he got a place on a four-year course at the Industrial Technical School in Saratov, some 840 km (450 mi) to the south of Moscow.
Yuri dreamed of being a pilot, and in Saratov he was able to join a flying club. He approached flying with the thoughtfulness and care that characterized his approach to everything, and his instructor said “He'll make a wonderful pilot.”
Military and marriage
Soon after graduation in 1955, Gagarin was drafted into the army. They sent him to a military aviation school. In the following year, after attaining the rank of Aviation Cadet Sergeant, he was allowed to fly. He also met Valentina Goryachev whom he married when he completed his aviation course in 1957. Within two years he was a Senior Airman with the rank of First Lieutenant.
But Gagarin had set his sights higher than the air – he was dreaming of space. Not only was he one of twenty pilots accepted for cosmonaut training in January 1960, he was in the first training group that went to Star City in March. An air force doctor gave Gagarin a very positive evaluation, noting among other things, that he had a
high degree of intellectual development; fantastic memory; prepares . . . painstakingly for his activities and training exercises; handles celestial mechanics and mathematical formulae with ease.The final choices for the first launch were Gagarin and Gherman Titov.
Sergei Korolev, the mastermind behind the Soviet space program, said of Gagarin, "During the days of preparation for the launch, when everyone had more than his share of concerns, apprehensions, and anxieties, he alone seemed to keep calm. More than that: he was full of good spirits and beamed like the Sun."
First orbit and international hero
Gagarin's craft Vostok 1 was launched from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. When Korolev told Gagarin “Everything is all right,” instead of responding with the formal command, the exuberant cosmonaut said "Лоехали!" (Poyekhali!—Let's go!).
Vostok orbited once, and as we know now – but didn't then – the first spaceman parachuted back to Earth. The spacecraft landed with its own parachute. The rules of the International Air Sports Federation said they had to land together to qualify for the altitude record. Moscow's official story was that they had. It wasn't actually possible for Vostok 1 to make a controlled landing.
Gagarin was not only feted in the Soviet Union and allied countries, but he also went on many tours abroard in Europe, South America and Japan. He was a great ambassador for the Soviet Union, smart and congenial, and famous for an engaging smile "that lit up the Cold War".
Although Gagarin was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, he longed to return to space, but was deemed too valuable to risk. Yet in 1965 he was allowed to enter mission training as a backup cosmonaut. He also enrolled in the Zukovsky Institute of Aeronautical Engineering and worked on the design of reusable spacecraft.
In 1967 Gagarin was chosen as the backup for his good friend Vladimir Komarov for the Soyuz 1 mission. This might have been the first step of a return to space, but it turned out to be a death sentence for Komarov. The spacecraft was far from ready for launch, but politicians wanted the mission to take place. Even Gagarin's protests about the launch were ignored. On April 23, 1967 one of the many flawed systems failed, and Komarov was killed. The ban on Gagarin's returning to space was reinstated, but it may not have seemed a bad idea this time.
In February 1968 his aerospace engineering thesis was accepted and he graduated with honors. Sadly, he didn't survive his friend Komarov by long. On March 27, 1968, during a routine training flight in a MiG, Gagarin and his flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin died in a crash. Weather conditions were poor. Another aircraft, at a lower altitude than its pilot realized, broke the sound barrier near the MiG. The turbulence created sent the MiG into an uncontrolled spin.
Gagarin and Seryogin were buried within the walls of the Kremlin. Gagarin left a wife and two daughters, and was mourned by friends and admirers worldwide. Every year since 2001 Yuri's Night has been celebrated internationally as a tribute to all who've advanced the exploration of space.