In 1961, for the first time, a man left earth and travelled into space.
Yuri Gagarin was born in 1934 to a peasant family in western Russia. He became interested in space in his early teens.
After graduating from pilot school he volunteered for the soviet space programme.
His friend and fellow cosmonaut Alexey Leonov said: “Yuri and I had a reputation of being light-hearted pilots. In some lectures we played Battleships,” he laughed. “Clearly we were very much alike in our nature.”
The Soviet Human Spaceflight Programme, also known as the Vostok, was an ambitious effort to confirm soviet leadership in space.
It was first established with the launch of Sputnik just three years earlier.
Design engineer for Gagarin’s Vostok-1 spacecraft, Valeriy Lubinskiy said: “They were not just important engineers and scientists – they were true visionaries who believed that the manned exploration of space and the planets was the ultimate goal and were eager to move in that direction.”
Although animals had been successfully launched into space 50 years ago, it was not known how a human would react to the weightlessness and isolation of a space flight.
Leonov explained: “It’s like dressing a man in a suit and shoving him into a blast furnace, saying, ‘Don’t worry, the suit will protect you.’ But nobody knows for sure if it will actually protect you or not. It’s exactly the same thing here. ‘Don’t worry, everything will be fine, we just don’t know what exactly it will be – it’s up to you to tell us when you return.”
The flight lasted only 108 minutes. But it proved that a space pilot could successfully operate the spacecraft, communicate with mission control and eat in orbit.
“He didn’t get to actually pilot the spacecraft, although he had all necessary controls to conduct a manual descent and landing,” said Lubinskiy, “just in case the automation couldn’t be used.”
Gagarin became famous around the world, opening the way for further space missions.
Shortly after his short but historic trip he said: “I feel somewhat uncomfortable in front of my friends that my flight lasted only one hour 48 minutes. But this, of course, was only the beginning, only the first scouting of Space.”