Happy Birthday

Yuri Gagarin, March 9, Russian cosmonaut
AP/TASS

Happy Birthday, Yuri Gagarin, “the Columbus of Outer Space”

March 09, 2010
by Shannon Firth
When he became the first man to orbit the Earth in 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin took the lead in the space race, shocking Americans, and making Russians proud. Years later, the world learned how dangerous his mission really was.

Yuri Gagarin's Early Days

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Yuri Alexyevich Gagarin was born in a small farming village west of Moscow on March 9, 1934.  During World War II, the family fled their home. The Nazis took two of his sisters, but the rest of his family hid underground in a bunker Gagarin helped build. After the war, he and his sisters were reunited.

As a teenager, Gagarin watched a fighter plane pocked with bullet holes land successfully nearby, an incident that left a deep impression on Gagarin. He later slept in a tent just outside the airfield for an entire summer. As an aviation cadet, he graduated with top marks and became one of 20 cosmonauts in the country. That same day, he married a nursing student, Valentina Ivanovna Goryacheva. They later had two daughters. In 1961, he was assigned to pilot the first manned spacecraft.

Notable Accomplishments

On April 12, 1961, the 108-minute Vostok 1 mission took off from a secret test site located in a remote area of Kazakhstan. Gagarin called out, “Poyekhali!” (“Let’s Go!”).

Once in space, Gagarin “saw with my own eyes the spherical shape of the earth. I must say that the view of the horizon is unusual and very beautiful.” He had the opportunity to experience extended weightlessness as he orbited the Earth once.

A YouTube video documents Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space and his welcome-home parade.

The Rest of the Story

Gagarin was welcomed home as a hero. In interviews, he spoke of the beauty of traveling beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.  He gave no indication that his journey was anything but calm and trouble-free.
However, 30 years later, the Soviet mission commander’s notes were auctioned off, and they revealed that Gagarin faced considerable danger during the mission. Before reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, the Vostok capsule was supposed to separate cleanly from its instrument module, but a series of malfunctions left the two tethered. Within minutes, the craft began spinning erratically. According to The New York Times, a back-up system eventually kicked in and the instrument module broke away, allowing a safe reentry.

After his mission in space and a subsequent world tour, Gagarin was eager to make a second trip, but he was now considered a national treasure, and the government did not want to risk losing him. Instead, he became deputy director at the cosmonaut training center. Unfortunately, he died at the age of 34 while flying a MiG-15 aircraft with an instructor, just seven years after his Vostok mission.
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