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Yuri Gagarin: First Man in Space

April 12, 2016, 12:00 UTC+3

April 12, 2016 marks 55 years since the Soviet Union shook the world by sending the first cosmonaut into space

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Yuri Gagarin

Yuri Gagarin

© Valentin Cheredintsev/Fotokhronika TASS

Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, one of the founding fathers of astronautics, maintained that the first manned space flight would take place no earlier than 2017. As he addressed the festive May 1 procession in Moscow’s Red Square in 1935 with a message of greeting in a live broadcast, Tsiolkovsky said:

“In the Soviet Union we have many young flight enthusiasts – children who are fond of making flying models and building gliders and young people flying airplanes. There are tens of thousands of them in our country. They fuel my boldest hopes. They will help my discoveries materialize and train talented builders of the first interplanetary vehicle.”

A remarkable prophecy it was. Yuri Gagarin, who at that moment was a little more than twelve months old, would begin his aviation career as an amateur maker of aircraft models. Later, he would join an air club, then become a cadet at a school of military pilots, and eventually start flying fighter-planes… Tsiolkovsky was wrong only in one respect. The first manned space flight followed 56 years earlier than he had anticipated.

Gagarin – the man who ushered in the space era – is in focus of this special feature by TASS.




“The Russian troika is a legend, but will it be able to take you into outer space at least in 100 years from now?” A question like that is said to have been addressed to the Soviet delegation at a news conference of the International Astronautical Federation’s congress in Copenhagen in 1954.

In the meantime the Soviet Union was already making plans for the construction of the Baikonur space site in Kazakhstan. In February 1955, the Defense Ministry made a decision to create a test site for experiments with space rocket technologies. Two years later the world’s first-ever inter-continental ballistic rocket R-7 was launched successfully there.

From that moment on the events gained momentum with every passing day.

  • In 1959, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite to have heralded the start of a space race with the United States.
  • In 1959, a Soviet interplanetary probe became the first man-made device to have reached the Moon.
  • And in 1960, two test dogs, Belka and Strelka, returned back to Earth after a 25-hour orbital flight.


Each time I hear on the radio or read in the dailies about newly launched satellites, my heart jumps. So strong is my wish to fly. Don’t you have a chance to meet my request?


The United States, too, was hurrying with preparations for the first manned orbital mission.

In October 1959 seven astronauts who at the moment were in the process of training for the first manned space program Mercury wrote a memorandum with a proposal for establishing contact with their Soviet counterparts, NASA’s chief historian William Burry told TASS. The memo was signed by the members of the first space team: Scott Carpenter, Leroy Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard and Donald Slayton. The reasons behind their idea were not altruistic at all, but purely pragmatic ones: at meetings with Soviet counterparts they might obtain valuable information about the Soviet space program.

The memo’s signatories argued that the United States would hardly have anything to lose, because almost all details of the project Murcury were already well-known and received detailed media coverage. On the other hand, they said, the Russian space program was classified and any information they might obtain would be dramatically new.

That initiative met with no support from NASA or the White House. The Soviet Union, too, was unlikely to pull the veil of secrecy from anything that concerned preparations for putting a man in space. Even those selected for the first group of cosmonauts realized what they were being trained for only after a long while.

Nobody had the slightest idea what it was all about. Nobody was telling us in those days there will be a special team, a team of cosmonauts Boris Volynov A member of the first team of cosmonauts

In the spring of 1960 twenty trainees were put on the list of the first team of cosmonauts. And in the summer of the same year six candidates for the first flight were selected: Yuri Gagarin, German Titov, Andriyan Nikolayev, Pavel Popovich, Grigory Nelyubov and Valery Bykovsky.




The cosmonauts were to undergo a series of tests to prove they were apt for a still non-existent profession.

It is not romantics for the sake of romantics that should provide the groundwork for a final decision when the selection of the first Soviet cosmonauts is in progress. Space rejects such people. Patriotism, bravery, modesty, ability to instantly make sound decisions, willpower of iron, knowledge and love towards other people – these should be the basic traits of character.
Sergey Korolyov The founder of the Soviet space program

Before putting a man in space it was essential to see how the human body reacts to isolation, pressure fluctuations, anoxemia (lack of oxygen in blood), high temperatures (up to 70 degrees Celcius), zero gravity and high-G effects. Also, all candidates were to possess such qualities as the ability to overcome fear, work under pressure and retain the highest degree of concentration.

The experts and examiners had to take into account a variety of factors: pace of work, emotionality, nature of mistakes, and the degree of self-criticism. Great importance was attached to such quality as temperament. For instance, it was maintained that melancholic types were no good for space missions. Gagarin was identified as a sanguine.


An extract from Gagarin’s character reference

“Response to ‘newly-introduced’ factors (zero gravity, prolonged presence in the isolation chamber, parachute jumps and other effects) was invariably pro-active: quick orientation in the new environment and self-possession in various unexpected situations are noteworthy… Sense of humor and good-naturedness are one of the distinguishing character features.”


It is hard to decide who is to be ordered to face almost imminent death, but it is as hard to decide who of the two or three equally worthy candidates is to be made a world celebrity, destined to go down forever in the history of humanity.
Nikolai Kamanin The head of the first Soviet cosmonauts’ training program


Requirements for space travel hopefuls

Requirements in 1959

Under the Soviet government’s resolution of 1959 the first cosmonauts were to be selected from the contingent of fighter pilots with long flight records.
By the moment Gagarin started training for a space mission he had 230 hours in flight to his credit.
All candidates were men, no taller than 175 centimeters and having a body mass of 70-72 kilograms. The requirement stemmed from the room available within the re-entry capsule of the spacecraft Vostok.
Age – no more than 30 years.
Flawless health.
All those with chronic diseases or traces of surgeries were rejected.

Requirements in 2012

In 2012, the selection for vacancies in the team of cosmonauts was for the first time made open to all applicants.
Both men and women were free to apply.
Requirements: height from 150 cm to 190 cm, body mass: from 50 kg to 90 kg.
Age: under 33.
As before, the applicants should have no chronic diseases.
Traces of past surgeries are no longer a hindrance, provided post-operation rehabilitation is complete.
Some new requirements, including fluent English, have been added to the list.


On April 8, Yuri Gagarin was appointed the main pilot.





The Vostok spacecraft blasted off from the Baikonur space site at 09:07 Moscow time on April 12.

The flight lasted one hundred and eight minutes. The spacecraft orbited the Earth once.


The Earth was enveloped in a gentle, bluish aureole. The farther away from the surface, the darker it grew, changing shades to turquoise, dark blue, violet and eventually coal-black. With great thrill I was eyeing that new world, looking so unusual to me, trying to take a good look at and memorize everything. Through the portholes I saw amazingly bright, cold-looking stars. They were very far, incredibly far away; yet from the Vostok’s orbit they appeared to be larger than from the Earth. Yuri Gagarin


Malfunctioning of the braking system during re-entry caused the descent capsule land not in the designated area, but in the Saratov Region, near the village of Smelovka. The first two people Gagarin saw after the landing were the wife of a local forest ranger and her grand-daughter.


At 10:02 Moscow time TASS wired the report of the first manned space flight. Three versions of the report had been prepared in advance: one was to be used in case of the cosmonaut’s death; the other would report an emergency and crash landing, and the third declaring the Soviet Union’s success. It was the latter version that was circulated around the world one hour after blastoff.

At the last moment then Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev ordered urgent promotion of Senior Lieutenant Yuri Gagarin to Major. The strictly embargoed package of documents that had been brought to the TASS Photo Service in advance contained a photo of Gagarin wearing a Senior Lieutenant’s uniform. In the meantime the text of the report referred to him as an Air Force Major.

Editor Klavdia Vozyanova approached a Soviet Army Major she met on the street near the office of the TASS Photo Service and asked him for help, if he had a minute to spare, of course. The passer-by agreed. The worst problem was with the insignia - the man served in the artillery. The photo retouchers did their job well. The world saw a photo of Gagarin wearing a Major’s uniform.


On the same day, April 12, the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party and the Soviet government issued a message to the world. In part, it said:

“The Soviet Union was the first to have launched an inter-continental ballistic missile, to put a satellite in space, to send a space probe to the Moon, to create the first artificial satellite of the Sun and to launch a space probe towards Venus … The triumphant flight of a Soviet man in a spaceship around the Earth crowns our achievements in space exploration.”


The working day was “hopelessly ruined”. It turned into a holiday. The people looked euphoric. Everyone one could hear the so far unfamiliar name – Yuri Gagarin – pronounced everywhere again and again. Lev Mazurov Space engineer


Two days after, on April 14, the whole nation was honoring the first man in space. It was Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev’s personal initiative. The main gala ceremony was in Moscow’s Red Square.


Gagarin’s flight was a world sensation. All mass media around the world gave it front-page coverage and discussed it at length in editorials and comments. And national radio stations were broadcasting reports about the first manned space flight non-stop.


World media on the event

BBC: Soviets win space race

Evening Gazette: Greatest feat of science in man’s history

UPI: News that a Russian had become the first man in space touched off scenes of wild celebrations throughout Moscow today

TIME: Triumphant music blared across the land. Russia's radios saluted the morning with the slow, stirring beat of the patriotic song, How Spacious Is My Country. Then came the simple announcement that shattered forever man's ancient isolation on Earth: "The world's first spaceship, Vostok [East], with a man on board, has been launched on April 12 in the Soviet Union on a round-the-world orbit."

NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE: Russia fires first astronaut into space; Soviet feat wins praise of East, West.

NEW YORK TIMES: Soviet orbits and returns man; Earth seen through porthole in flight lasting 108 minutes. Yuri Gagarin, a Major cited by Krushchev as ‘immortal’.

JOURNAL AMERICAN: Reds orbit man, bring him back alive.

THE EL PASO TIMES: We are behind in space race, President concedes

DAILY MIRROR: A fresh-faced 27-year-old Russian family man Yuri Gagarin… Who cannot fail to be stirred by this mighty achievement? Today the Mirror salutes the Russians.

THE HUNTSVILLE TIMES: Man enters space. Soviet officer orbits globe in 5-ton ship. Praise is heaped on Major Gagarin.

EVENING GAZETTE: Air Force Major does a Columbus feat, then reports: I have no injuries or bruises. Greatest feat of science in man’s history.




NASA asked the international air sports federation FAI not to recognize Gagarin’s record, because, it argued the Soviet designers had not yet devised a way of and mechanism of soft and safe landing of the descent capsule, so ten minutes before the capsule touched the ground had Gagarin ejected himself and opened a parachute. NASA argued that Gagarin should be considered as a parachute jumper, and not as a cosmonaut.

US experts referred to FAI rules requiring the cosmonaut’s landing inside the capsule. The Soviet Union, too, was aware that technically the flight did not match the FAI rules well enough, so the details of Gagarin’s landing were kept quiet about for another ten years, till 1971.

But even after the official publication of this information NASA’s request remained unsustained. The first manned space flight was recognized as the Soviet Union’s indisputable achievement.

I want to see our country mobilized to a wartime basis, because we are at war. I want to see our schedules cut in half. I want to see what NASA says it is going to do in ten years done in five. And I want to see some first coming out of NASA, such as the landing on the Moon. Victor Anfuso Member of the US Congress House of Representatives from New York:


US astronauts congratulated their Soviet counterparts despite their deep feeling of disappointment and continued preparations for their own space mission, as Alan Shephard was due to make a suborbital flight on May 5, 1961.

US President John Kennedy congratulated Soviet scientists and engineers upon their outstanding achievements and voiced the hope for constructive cooperation in joint space exploration.

“The exploration of our solar system is an ambition which we and all mankind share with the Soviet Union, and this is an important step toward that goal,” he said.

When asked at a news conference later about his attitude to the United States’ lagging behind in the space race, Kennedy replied in these words: “As I said in my State of the Union address, the news will be worse before it is better, and it will be some time before we catch up…”

And on May 25, 1961 Kennedy told Congress that the United States should send a team of astronauts to the Moon before the end of the decade.




Alongside some details of Gagarin’s historical flight the Soviet leadership’s message contained a call for peace and an end to the arms race.

During a two-day international tour, which is sometimes referred to as the Peace Mission, Gagarin visited more than a dozen countries, from Czechoslovakia to Japan, where he was received at the highest level.

For instance, his trip to Great Britain at the invitation of the Foundry Workers’ Union resulted in a meeting with the Queen:

I had breakfast in Buckingham palace. Imagine! The Queen received me well. She was very friendly and kind. We discussed the weather, space and impressions. With the Prince we talked about air pilots, flights and new aircraft… I presented the Queen with a book. She looked very glad to have it. And she presented me with a family photograph in return. Yuri Gagarin


Contemporaries were curious how Gagarin managed to cope with so many duties. He was a member of the USSR Supreme Soviet (national legislature), President of the USSR-Cuba Friendship Society, and a representative of many commissions. Also, he managed to keep training for flights, instruct other crews, attend business conferences at design bureaus, visit industrial plants, study and spend time with the family.

“I often saw light in the windows of his apartment well after midnight. This answers all questions,” cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov said in his memoirs.

Gagarin was invariably in the limelight. His fans were literally hunting for his autographs. Newly-born babies, streets, parks, cities and even craters on the Moon were named in his honor. Poems were devoted to him:

It was news of the age,
Heed the clear behest
And remember the day,
When that man, slightly tired, returned from his quest.
Goal achieved
Amid bright constellations!

(Mikhail Vladimov)


I recall one day when Gagarin went to the office of a district municipality in Moscow. He’d just learned that his first school teacher had long moved to Moscow but had to live in a semi-basement room. He persuaded the local authorities to help the woman move to new decent housing. And such cases were many. Quite often he welcomed guests from his native Smolensk Region. He did his utmost to extend a helping hand those who came to him with their grievances and to take care of his native region, his Smaller Motherland. He visited lonely old people and neighbors. He used his authority to persuade decision-makers to provide new machinery for farm cooperatives. In a word, I’ve never met people like Gagarin my whole life! Nikolai Mitrokhin Gagarin’s personal chauffeur

Gagarin was rather calm about his publicity.

“I’ve made many mistakes, just as all other people. I have my own weaknesses, too. It’s wrong to idealize anyone. Take a person for what he is in real life. Sometimes I even have a rather uneasy feeling. People may think that I’m perfect, that I’m always a good boy, so disgustingly nice,” he once wrote down in his diary.

Gagarin was very anxious about not seeing his name on the lists of future space crews. The Soviet leadership was reluctant to put at risk a man who was the symbol of victory in the space race.


In the end, the worst happened, though. On March 27, 1968 Gagarin died in an air crash during a training flight.

After that his wife was given the letter her husband had written back in 1961, two days before his historical space voyage:

“I have the full trust in our technology. But sometimes a person may stumble on a flat floor and break one’s neck. If something happens, don’t be dead with grief. Take care of our girls. Bring them up to be decent people, not work-shy loafers. Arrange your own life the way you’ll feel fit… This letter of mine is looks somewhat sad, doesn’t it? I do hope you’ll never see it…”

Gagarin was the first-ever “ordinary” citizen of the Soviet Union who was officially mourned for across the nation. Before, only deceased senior officials were granted such honors.


Gagarin was the founding father of the cosmonaut’s profession. He established the “tradition.” He proved that it was possible to live and work in space. These days, when other countries’ astronauts are getting ready for a mission, each time it turns out that they owe their dream of space flights to Gagarin. Aleksey Leonov


In August 1968, Gagarin was to address the UN Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space with a report on cosmonauts’ professional activity. Death intervened. Aleksey Leonov took Gagarin’s place to represent the Soviet Union. The range of topics discussed included the outlook for space exploration, future manned flights, exploration of the Moon and many other ambitious ideas. Over the past 55 years many dreams have materialized: the first spacewalk, the first man on the Moon, prolonged space missions and launches of probes towards other planets.

By 2016, hundreds of people have been in space.

Three countries (Russia, the United States and China) have their own capabilities to accomplish manned space missions.

The two most important achievements are the maturation of space from a two-nation “race,” to an international collaboration involving more than 100 countries; and the current evolution of the global space enterprise to include private investment and commercial space enterprise on a significant industrial scale. Elliot Pulham Chief Executive Officer, Space Foundation.

Space flights have begun to be looked at as something usual, as a routine affair. Some business people have already predicted the early advent of a new era of affordable “space tourism.”

However, any trip in space remains a highly risky affair. Over the 55 years since Gagarin’s flight the Soviet Union lost four cosmonauts, the United States, 16 astronauts, and Israel, one. The effects of zero gravity and of space radiation on the human body remain largely unclear.

Yet humanity will go ahead with its quest for new discoveries and for conquering outer space. As some researchers indicate, humanity’s underlying motives are not confined to scientists’ curiosity.

“Humanity’s future is in peril thanks to so-called advancements in science and technology,” claims theoretical physicist, Professor Stephen Hawking. He points to “nuclear war, global warming, and genetically-modified viruses” as deadly threats to our existence.

“Although the chance of a disaster to planet Earth in a given year might be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next thousand or ten thousand years,” he warns. "Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space."

"By that time we should have spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race,” says Hawking.

And Elliot Pulham, the CEO of Space Foundation, a non-governmental organization in the United States, which popularizes space research, believes the focus must be on the creation of a permanent base on the Moon. His colleague, NASA’s former astronaut Leroy Chiao believes that “a Moon base is a logical next step to develop and test hardware and operations, to push towards Mars.”

In the meantime, a Russian-European Mission called ExoMars-2016 is on the way towards the Red Planet. It is not a manned mission, but thoughts of developing manned space flights keep visiting scientists’ inquisitive minds.

Working together, we can advance knowledge of our planet, our solar system, our sun, and our universe – for all of humanity. Sending human beings to Mars will require all hands on deck – government, industry, academic and international partners and citizen scientists; we need everybody. Stephanie Schierholz Spokesperson for the NASA Administrator


Prepared by: Kristina Nedkova, Aurika Yatsko, Ivan Lebedev, Dmitry Strugovets, Alexey Peslyak, Alexey Payevsky, Irina Yakutenko, Inna Klimachyova

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