On 12 April 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (USSR, now Russia) became the first human to orbit the Earth. When Vostok 1 (“Orient 1”) unceremoniously ejected the national hero back to Earth 108 minutes after it launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Gagarin – promoted from Lieutenant to Major during the flight – emerged into a brave new world… one in which space was no longer considered beyond our frontiers. Man would no longer be confined to Earth. Gagarin’s safe landing, one of the most important milestones in our history, marked the true beginning of the space race and was the earliest of many significant firsts in the story of our conquest of space.

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was born in Klushino in the oblast of Smolensk, USSR, on 9 March 1934 to humble stock: his father was a carpenter, his mother a milkmaid. He studied in vocational school to be a foundry worker, but in his teenage years entered the Soviet air cadets, where he had his first taste of flying, in a biplane. In 1955, when he was drafted into the Army, he was quickly assigned to the Air Force, where he upgraded to MiG jets, thus propelling him along his journey to becoming the world’s first spaceman.

It came as no surprise when the accomplished pilot caught the attention of the Soviet space agency in 1960 and was shortlisted for the Vostok programme. The project was in direct competition with the USA’s Mercury programme, which aimed to send a human into orbit; the US, reeling from the Soviet’s recent success after putting Sputnik 1 (the first artificial satellite) into orbit in 1957, was desperate to gain ground in the space race.

Twenty men were identified by the Soviet Space Programme as possible candidates for the job of denying the Americans’ their dream. When asked anonymously who their second choice would be after themselves, all but three of the shortlisted pilots chose Gagarin. So it was, then, that on 10 April 1961, the 27-year-old was selected to pilot Vostok 1. Such was the secrecy of the mission, however, the final choice would not be widely known until the flight was underway.

After a fitful night’s sleep, the 1.57-m (5-ft 2-in) Gagarin squeezed into Vostok 1 at around 04:00 Universal Time (UT) and began the pre-launch checks. The Soviets had not enjoyed consistent success in their space missions – only 50% of launches had been successful to date – so it is a testament to Gagarin’s faith in his commanders that his pulse rate was recorded at a calm 64 beats per minute. 

With a cry of “Poyekhali!” (“Let’s go!”) from Gagarin, Vostok 1 finally lifted off at 6:07 UT. In just 10 minutes, the Vostok-K (8K72K) rocket carrying its precious payload reached orbital altitude and then detached, leaving Gagarin and his 2.3-m-wide (7-ft 6-in) capsule to complete the epic journey around the planet, reaching a maximum altitude of 303 km (188 miles). Vostok remained under automatic control for the entire 1-hour 48-minute flight, leaving Gagarin free to report his observations and reactions.

The 4.7-tonne (10,361-lb) spherical Vostok was not designed to land while manned, so at 07:55 UT, with 7 km (23,000 ft) between Gagarin and the Earth, the hatch ejected, followed two seconds later by Gagarin, who parachuted to safety… although about 280 km (175 miles) short of the planned landing zone. Fortunately, Soviet officials had hastily painted the letters CCCP on Gagarin’s helmet just one hour before his flight, partly for the glory of the nation watching on television but also in the event of the pilot landing somewhere unexpected and being mistaken for a spy.Once recovered, Gagarin was named a Hero of the Soviet Union and became an instant superstar. He would also never again be risked as a cosmonaut in the space programme. Instead, he was motorcaded through Moscow and sent on a world tour to promote Soviet supremacy in space, becoming known the world over for his generous spirit and beaming smile. On his return, he was stationed at the cosmonaut training base, Star City, where fulfilled various roles, although none of which could satisfy his craving to return to the skies.

To ward off a deepening depression, Gagarin resolved to become a fighter pilot. On 27 March 1968, while on a routine training mission, he and his senior flight instructor were killed in an air crash near Moscow. He was given a state funeral, and his ashes were buried in the wall of the Kremlin. His tragically early death was mourned across the planet, and Gagarin became immortalised as a pioneering man of legend.

His name lives on in numerous memorials and statues; songs were written about his bravery, and spacecraft, schools, cities and entire regions – including that of his birthplace – officially adopted the name Gagarin. The Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin took his medals to the Moon, where they remain, and more than 50 years later, school children everywhere know the name of the man who became the first human being in space.

Gagarin’s achievement opened up what would be popularly called the “final frontier”. We could not have asked for a more brave and humble ambassador for our planet than the smiling milkmaid’s son.

Where does space begin?

The atmosphere becomes ever thinner with altitude, so there is no distinct boundary between Earth and space. However, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) use the “Kármán Line” as their official demarcation. It is located 100 kilometres (62 mi) above sea level.

First earthlings in space

Yuri Gagarin may have been the first human in space, but he was not the first earthling in space. Microbes aside, that honour fell to fruit flies deliberately placed on board a V-2 rocket by American scientists on 20 February 1947 and sent to an altitude of about 110 km (68 miles). Various other creatures followed:

14 June 1949 – Albert II: a rhesus monkey that became the first primate in space

31 August 1950 – the US launched the first mice in space onboard a V2