On April 12 1961, Gagarin flew the Soviet space craft Vostok 1 into orbit. He only flew once around the Earth, an orbit which lasted 108 minutes. Because no-one was sure how being in space would affect a human, Gagarin was not given access to the controls of Vostok, and Gagarin was essentially a passenger on his journey.
Because no-one was quite sure how a landing would go either, on re-entry Gagarin ejected from the capsule and parachuted to ground. This has caused some controversy, because FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) rules state that a spaceflight is only official if the pilot lands with the spacecraft. To avoid controversy, the Soviet Union didn’t reveal that Gagarin had ejected from the capsule until many years later, and the world has always thought that the first person in space was Yuri Gagarin.
Gagarin landed near the town of Engels, near Saratov. He was apparently seen by a local farmer and daughter. He said afterwards that:
“When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!”
Gagarin became famous after the information about the successful flight was revealed, and he toured the world promoting Soviet successes. He became a deputy in the Soviet Union’s Supreme Soviet, but soon returned to active work as an engineer, and training director at Star City. Despite attempts to keep him away from dangerous flights (the risk of losing a hero of the Soviet Union was too great), he died on a training flight while trying to qualify again as a fighter pilot.
The cause of the crash is not known, and a number of investigations have been carried out. There have, of course, been a number of conspiracy theories, but it seems likely that Gagarin’s death was a simple accident.
Other famous space firsts include:
The first woman in space was Valentina Tereshkova, a Soviet factory worker recruited to become a Cosmonaut. Tereshkova flew into space on 16 June 1963.
The first American in space, and the second person in space, was Alan Shepard, who piloted the Freedom 7 capsule into space on 5 May 1961, less than a month after Gagarin. Shepard returned to space in 1971, flying Apollo 14, and becoming the fifth person to land on the moon.
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