The Russian cosmonaut Yuri Alexeivich Gagarin (1934-1968) was the first man to orbit the earth in an artificial satellite and thus ushered in the age of manned spaceflight.
Yuri Gagarin the third child of Alexei Ivanovich, a carpenter on a collective farm, and Anna Timofeyevna, was born on March 9, 1934, in the village of Klushino, Smolensk Province. Yuri attended an elementary school in Gzhatsk; in the sixth grade he began to study physics. At the age of 15 he became an apprentice foundryman in an agricultural machinery plant outside Moscow and enrolled in an evening school.
In 1951 Gagarin transferred to the Saratov Industrial Technical School. In 1955 he had to prepare a thesis in order to graduate. His problem was to design a foundry capable of producing 9,000 tons (metric) of castings a year. The state examining committee accepted his thesis, and he received his diploma.
Gagarin joined the Saratov Flying Club in 1955 and won his wings, learning to fly in the Yak-18. Late that year he was drafted and sent to the famous Orenburg Flying School, since he already had a pilot's license. He was disconcerted to learn that he would not be immediately put into jet planes. After he became an aviation cadet on Jan. 8, 1956, he was permitted to fly—but not in the jets he coveted. He started out all over again in the familiar Yak-18, learning to fly it the air force way. That year he also began flight training in the MIG jet.
On Oct. 4, 1957, Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, was orbited by the Soviet Union. Four days after Sputnik 2, on Nov. 7, 1957, Gagarin graduated from the flying school and was commissioned a lieutenant in the Soviet air force. On the same day he married Valentina Goryacheva.
Gagarin spent 2 years as a fighter pilot at an airfield above the Arctic Circle. By 1958 the Soviet government was asking for volunteers from the air force to pilot its spacecraft. On Oct. 5, 1959, Gagarin made formal application for cosmonaut training; he was selected in the first group of pilots. In 1960 the original group of 50 had been whittled down to 12, and these men moved to Zvezdograd (Star City), a newly built holding and training area in a suburb of Moscow.
For Gagarin and his 11 classmates training began in earnest. They were introduced to a bewildering curriculum of space navigation, rocket propulsion, physiology, astronomy, and upper atmospheric physics and were trained on special devices to accustom them to the physiological stresses of space flight. More to Gagarin's liking were the long hours spent in the mock-up of the Vostok, an exact replica of the spacecraft in which he would later orbit the earth. After only 9 months of training the cosmonauts were told that the first flight of the Vostok would be on April 12, 1961.
The selection of Gagarin as the first man to orbit earth was assured when each cosmonaut was asked to designate who should be the one to make the flight; 60 percent named Gagarin. He was launched in Vostok 1 on the planned date, and during the crowded 1 hour 48 minutes of his single orbit of the earth he proved that man could survive in space and perform useful tasks. His mission ended at 10:55 A.M., when he landed safely in a field near Saratov.
Following his mission, Gagarin became the commander of the cosmonaut detachment at Zvezdograd, a position he held until April 1965, when he briefly reentered mission training as a backup cosmonaut. During this period he also enrolled in the Zukovsky Institute of Aeronautical Engineering, where he began a 5-year course leading to a degree.
On March 27, 1968, Gagarin died in a plane crash outside Moscow while on a routine training flight. He was given a state funeral and was buried in the Kremlin wall facing Red Square. At the request of his wife, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin left one of Gagarin's medals on the moon as a tribute to the world's first man in space.
The most accessible biography for the student is Mitchell R. Sharpe, Yuri Gagarin: First Man in Space (1969). Less readily obtainable is Road to the Stars: Notes by Soviet Cosmonaut No. 1 (1961; trans. 1962), written by N. Denisov and S. Borzenko and printed in English by the Foreign Languages Publishing House in Moscow. Some biographical material is in William Shelton, Soviet Space Exploration: The First Decade (1968). □