The biography of the first cosmonaut
Gagarin was born in the village of Klushino near Gzhatsk (now in Smolensk Oblast, Russia), on 9 March 1934.
The adjacent town of Gzhatsk was renamed Gagarin in 1968 in his honour. His parents, Alexey Ivanovich Gagarin and
Anna Timofeyevna Gagarina, worked on a collective farm. While manual labourers are described in official reports
as "peasants", his mother was reportedly a voracious reader, and his father a skilled carpenter.
Yuri was the third of four children, and his elder sister helped raise him while his parents worked.
Like millions of people in the Soviet Union, the Gagarin family suffered during Nazi occupation in World War II.
After a German officer took over their house, the family constructed a small mud hut where they spent a year and
nine months until the end of the occupation. His two older siblings were deported to Nazi Germany for slave labour in 1943,
and did not return until after the war. In 1946, the family moved to Gzhatsk
Career in the Soviet Air Force
In his youth, Gagarin became interested in space and planets. After studying for one year at a vocational technical school in Lyubertsy,
Gagarin was selected for further training at a technical high school in Saratov. While there, he joined the "AeroClub",
and learned to fly a light aircraft, a hobby that would take up an increasing portion of his time.
In 1955, after completing
his technical schooling, he entered military flight training at the Orenburg Pilot's School.
While there he met Valentina Goryacheva,
whom he married in 1957, after gaining his pilot's wings in a MiG-15. Post-graduation, he was assigned to Luostari airbase in
Murmansk Oblast, close to the Norwegian border, where terrible weather made flying risky.
He became a Lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force on 5 November 1957 and on 6 November 1959 he received the rank of
Career in the Soviet space program
In 1960, after the search and selection process, Yuri Gagarin was chosen with 19 other pilots for the Soviet space program.
Gagarin was further selected for an elite training group known as the Sochi Six from which the first cosmonauts of the Vostok programme
would be chosen.
Gagarin and other prospective cosmonauts were subjected to experiments designed to test physical and psychological endurance;
he also underwent training for the upcoming flight. Out of the twenty selected, the eventual choices for the first launch were
Gagarin and Gherman Titov because of their performance in training, as well as their physical characteristics — space was at a
premium in the small Vostok cockpit and both men were rather short. Gagarin was 1.57 metres (5 ft 2 in) tall, which was an advantage
in the small Vostok cockpit.
In August 1960, when Gagarin was one of 20 possible candidates, an Air Force doctor evaluated his
personality as follows:
Modest; embarrasses when his humor gets a little too racy; high degree of intellectual development evident in Yuriy;
fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his sharp and far-ranging sense of attention to his surroundings;
a well-developed imagination; quick reactions; persevering, prepares himself painstakingly for his activities and training exercises,
handles celestial mechanics and mathematical formulae with ease as well as excels in higher mathematics; does not feel constrained
when he has to defend his point of view if he considers himself right; appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends.
Soviet Air Force doctor,
Gagarin was also a favoured candidate by his peers. When the 20 candidates were asked to anonymously
vote for which other candidate they would like to see as the first to fly, all but three chose Gagarin. One of these candidates,
Yevgeny Khrunov, believed that Gagarin was very focused, and was demanding of himself and others when necessary.
Gagarin kept physically fit throughout his life, and was a keen sportsman.
Cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky wrote:
“ Service in the Air Force made us strong, both physically and morally. All of us cosmonauts
took up sports and PT seriously when we served in the Air Force. I know that Yuri Gagarin was fond of ice hockey. He liked to play
goal keeper... I don't think I am wrong when I say that sports became a fixture in the life of the cosmonauts. ”
In addition to being
a keen ice hockey player, Gagarin was also a basketball fan, and coached the Saratov Industrial Technical School team,
as well as being an umpire/referee.
On 12 April 1961, aboard the Vostok 3KA-3 (Vostok 1), Gagarin became both the first human to travel into space, and the first to orbit
the earth. His call sign was Kedr (Siberian Pine, Russian: Кедр).
In his post-flight report, Gagarin recalled his experience of spaceflight,
having been the first human in space:
The feeling of weightlessness was somewhat unfamiliar compared with Earth conditions.
Here, you feel as if you were hanging in a horizontal position in straps. You feel as if you are suspended.
Following the flight, Gagarin told the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that during reentry he had whistled the tune "The Motherland Hears,
The Motherland Knows" (Russian: "Родина слышит, Родина знает").
The first two lines of the song are: "The Motherland hears, the Motherland knows/Where her son flies in the sky".
This patriotic song was written by Dmitri Shostakovich in 1951 , with words by Yevgeniy Dolmatovsky.
Some sources have claimed that Gagarin commented during the flight, "I don't see any God up here." However, no such words appear
in the verbatim record of his conversations with Earth-based stations during the spaceflight. In a 2006 interview,
Gagarin's friend Colonel Valentin Petrov stated that the cosmonaut never said such words, and that the quote originated from
Nikita Khrushchev's speech at the plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU about the state's anti-religion campaign,
saying "Gagarin flew into space, but didn't see any god there."
Petrov also said that Gagarin had been baptised into the Orthodox Church
as a child, and a 2011 Foma magazine article quoted the rector of the Orthodox church in Star City saying,
"Gagarin baptized his elder daughter Elena shortly before his space flight; and his family used to celebrate Christmas and Easter
and keep icons in the house."
After the flight, Gagarin became a worldwide celebrity, touring widely abroad. He visited Italy, Germany, Canada, Brazil, Japan,
and Finland to promote the Soviet Union's accomplishment of putting the first human in space. He visited the United Kingdom three
months after the Vostok 1 mission, visiting the cities of London and Manchester, the latter of which has been fondly
remembered by locals.
In 1962, he began serving as a deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. He later returned to Star City, the cosmonaut facility,
where he spent seven years working on designs for a reusable spacecraft. He became Lieutenant Colonel (or Podpolkovnik) of the
Soviet Air Force on 12 June 1962 and on 6 November 1963 he received the rank of Colonel (Polkovnik) of the Soviet Air Force.
Soviet officials tried to keep him away from any flights, being worried of losing their hero in an accident.
Gagarin was backup pilot for his friend Vladimir Komarov in the Soyuz 1 flight, which was launched despite Gagarin's protests that
additional safety precautions were needed. When Komarov's flight ended in a fatal crash, Gagarin was ultimately banned from training
for and participating in further spaceflights.
Gagarin had become deputy training director of the Star City cosmonaut training base.
At the same time, he began to re-qualify as a fighter pilot.
Monument of Yuri Gagarin on Cosmonauts Alley in Moscow
On 27 March 1968, while on a routine training flight from Chkalovsky Air Base,
he and flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin died in a MiG-15UTI crash near the town of Kirzhach.
The bodies of Gagarin and Seryogin were cremated and the ashes were buried in the walls of the Kremlin on Red Square.
Gagarin was survived by his wife Valentina, and daughters Elena and Galina. Elena Gagarina, Yuri's oldest daughter,
is an art historian who works as a director-general of the Moscow Kremlin Museums since 2001. His youngest daughter,
Galina, is a department chair at Plekhanov Russian Economic University in Moscow.
The 50th anniversary of Gagarin's journey into space was marked in 2011 by tributes around the world.
A film entitled First Orbit was shot from the International Space Station, combining the original flight audio with footage of the
route taken by Gagarin. The Russian, American, and Italian Expedition 27 crew aboard the ISS sent a special video message
to wish the people of the world a "Happy Yuri's Night", wearing shirts with an image of Gagarin.
Swiss-based German watchmaker
Bernhard Lederer created a limited edition of 50 Gagarin Tourbillons to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's flight.
It is taken here