The start of the space race - Yuri Gagarin's 108 minutes in space
Lt. Gagarin was enclosed in a tiny spacecraft, the Vostok 1, over which he actually had no control, and his flight lasted 108 minutes, the time it took the craft to circle the earth and return to earth near the Volga port city of Engels, in Saratov Oblast. Gagarin floated to earth in a parachute, landing not far away.
The story goes that after he landed he nearly scared two Russian women to death - they thought he was an alien and were only persuaded after some time that he was in fact a fellow-Russian.
Gagarin's life and early, tragic, death
Yuri Alekseevich Gagarin was born on 6 March 1934 in the village of Klushino near Gzhatsk to Alexey Ivanovich Gagarin and Anna Timofeyevna Gagarina, workers on a collective farm. He was the third of four children.
During the Nazi occupation of the area during World War II a German officer commandeered the family's house and they were forced to live in a mud hut nearby. Gagarin's two older siblings were deported to Germany to be used as slave labour. They only returned to their village after the end of the war.
The town of Gzhatsk was renamed "Gagarin" in 1968.
In 1955 Gagarin joined the Soviet Air Force and in 1957 married Valentina Goryacheva. In 1959 he was promoted to the rank of Senior Lieutenant.
In 1960 Gagarin was one of 20 candidates chosen for the rapidly developing Russian space programme. When the group was asked to nominate candidates for the first manned flight all but three of the 20 chose Gagarin.
Gagarin was an appropriate choice as the crew space on Vostok 1 wwas extremely limited and Gagarin at 1.57 metres (5ft 2 in) would fit into more comfortaly than a taller person.
After his historic orbital flight Gagarin was engaged at the Cosmodrome in designing re-usale spacecraft.
In 1963 Gagarin was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel (Podpolkovnik) of the Air Force. He was the backup pilot for the ill-fated Soyuz 1 flight in which pilot Vladimir Komarov was killed.
In March 1968 Gagarin was killed in a MiG-15UTI which crashed, in somewhat questionable circumstances, while on a routine flight. He was not piloting the plane.
Gagarin's ashes were buried in the Kremlin's wall in Moscow.
The flight of Vostok 1
The Vostok 1 space capsule roared into an orbit more than 100 kilometres above the earth where it reached a velocity of 18000 kilometres per hour.
While in orbit and during re-entry Gagarin had no control over the space capsule. He was given an envelope with containing an override code for use should the automatic systems fail.
His post-flight report included this description of weightlessness 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."
A legend has grown that during the flight he said: "I don't see any God up here." Verbatim records of the flight radio transmissions have no such words.
After the flight Gagarin told Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev that during re-entry he had whistled a song composed by Dmitri Shostakovich in 1951: "The Motherland Hears, The Motherland Knows" of which the first two lines are: "The Motherland hears, the Motherland knows/Where her son flies in the sky ".
The race for space
I remember as a 12-year-old being woken by my parents to come outside in the early morning cold and dark to watch for a strange new appearance in the sky - the first human-made object to orbit the earth, Sputnik 1, the Russian satellite. We also turned on the radio to hear the beep-beep the satellite was emitting as it passed overhead.
I remember watching in fascination as this bright object moved steadily through the darkness, fascination, but as yet no realisation of the import of the object, of the intense reactions of people all over the world to this new phenomenon.
Sputnik 1 heralded the real beginning of the race for space, a race which was symbolically, at least, won by the United States when Neil Armstrong uttered those now famous words: "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed".
Between the beeps of Sputnik 1 and Armstrong's confirmation of the success of Apollo 11 lay not just 12 years, but billions of dollars and roubles in expenditure, not a few deaths, and huge amounts of anxiety and propaganda.
The race for space was not just a scientific endeavour. It was a propaganda show, a battlefield of the Cold War.
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2011