On April 12th 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel in space. With the singular success of the North American Space Agency we sometimes forget that it was the Russians, the Soviets, who were the first to shake off gravity’s chains.
Gagarin was born in the rural area to the west of Moscow. His father was a carpenter on a communal farm but Yuri had no intention of continuing the family trade. He decided to attend a technical school and later trained as a metalworker.
Aviation fascinated him and he learned to fly at a local school. After qualifying as a pilot he joined the Soviet Air Force who were quick to see that they had an exceptional young man in their ranks.
His peerless flying skills means he was soon taken off normal duties and became a test pilot, trying out all sort of new aircraft.
Gagarin had heard that there was a secret space program being planned by the Soviet government and he volunteered for it. This caused quite a stir, as nobody had ever volunteered for such a dangerous program before.
He excelled in all areas and his instructors found he was man who “…submits useful suggestions at meetings. Always sure of his resources… very difficult, if not impossible to upset… Stands out among his colleagues thanks to his great scope of active attention, bright mind and quick reaction”.
He was a Soviet Superman waiting to fly. He didn’t have to wait long.
At seven minutes past nine on April 12th 1961 on a chilly Kazajstan morning his spaceship Vostock 1 was launched into the blue sky and the human race was launched into the Space Age.
The flight lasted about 90 minutes and the Lieutenant Gagarin who took off became the Major Gagarin who landed: he was promoted ‘in the field’. Did they think he wouldn’t survive the landing?
Naturally, Yuri Gagarin became an overnight celebrity and toured the world as an example of Soviet success. But fame did not sit easily with a man who was only at home in the skies and, over time, Gagarin began to have drink problems. In October 1961 he seriously injured himself on a drunk fuelled holiday.
In 1968 he tried to requalify as a fighter pilot. His plane crashed on a routine flight. Nobody is sure why but a post mortem showed no trace of alcohol. Gagarin had cheated gravity in the most spectacular way once. He was not to get a second chance.