Yuri Gagarin

Yuri Gagarin

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was born on 9 March 1934 in the village of Klushino near Gzhatsk (now in Smolensk Oblast, Russia).

His parents, Alexei Ivanovich Gagarin and Anna Timofeyevna Gagarina, worked on a collective farm. Yuri was the third of four children, and his elder sister helped raise him while his parents worked.

After starting an apprenticeship in a metalworks as a foundryman, Gagarin was selected for further training at a technical high school in Saratov. While there, he joined the 'AeroClub', and learned to fly light aircraft, a hobby that would take up an increasing part of his time. In 1955, after completing his technical schooling, he entered flight training at the Orenburg Military Pilot's School.

While there he met Valentina Goryacheva, whom he married in 1957, after gaining his pilot's wings in a MiG-15. After graduation, he was assigned to Luostari airbase in Murmansk Oblast. He became a lieutenant in the Soviet air force on 5 November 1957, and was promoted to senior lieutenant on 6 November 1959.

The first cosmonaut group of 1960

After Soviet Union decided to launch a human being to space, a secret nationwide selection process was started in 1960 and Gagarin was chosen with 19 other pilots. Gagarin was further selected for an elite training group known as the 'Sochi Six', who would make up the the first cosmonauts of the Vostok programme.

Gagarin and the other prospective cosmonauts were subjected to experiments designed to test physical and psychological endurance; he also underwent training for the upcoming flight. Out of the 20 selected, the eventual choices for the first launch were Gagarin and Gherman Titov, because of their performance in training, as well as their physical characteristics — space was at a premium in the small Vostok cockpit and both men were rather short. Gagarin was 1.57 metres tall.

In August 1960, when Gagarin was one of 20 possible candidates, an air force doctor evaluated his personality as: "Modest; embarrasses when his humour gets a little too racy; high degree of intellectual development evident; fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his sharp and far-ranging sense of attention to his surroundings; a well-developed imagination; quick reactions; persevering, prepares himself painstakingly for his activities and training exercises, handles celestial mechanics and mathematical formulae with ease as well as excels in higher mathematics; does not feel constrained when he has to defend his point of view if he considers himself right; appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends."

The first cosmonauts

Gagarin was also a favoured candidate by his peers. When the 20 candidates were asked to anonymously vote for which other candidate they would like to see as the first to fly, all but three chose Gagarin. One of his colleagues, cosmonaut Yevgeni Khrunov, believed that Gagarin was very focused, and was demanding of himself and others when necessary.

Gagarin kept physically fit throughout his life, and was a keen sportsman. Cosmonaut Valeri Bykovsky wrote: "Service in the air force made us strong, both physically and morally. All of us cosmonauts took up sports and PT seriously when we served in the air force. I know that Yuri Gagarin was fond of ice hockey. He liked to play goal keeper... I don't think I am wrong when I say that sports became a fixture in the life of the cosmonauts."

Flight to space

gagarin biography

In April 1961, Gagarin became the first human to travel into space, launching to orbit aboard the Vostok 3KA-3 (Vostok 1). After the flight, he became a global celebrity, touring widely to promote the Soviet achievement.

In 1962, he began serving as a deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. He later returned to the Star City training facility, where he spent some years working on designs for a reusable spacecraft. He was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in June 1962, and then to colonel in November 1963. Soviet officials tried to keep him away from flying aircraft, being worried of losing their hero in an accident.

Gagarin had served as back-up pilot for Vladimir Komarov on Soyuz 1. When Komarov's flight ended in a fatal crash, Gagarin was ultimately banned from training for and participating in further spaceflights.

Death in crash

On 27 March 1968, Gagarin took off with MiG-15UTI fighter with flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin for a routine training flight from Chkalovsky Air Base, but the flight ended tragically: their plane crashed near the town of Kirzhach. Gagarin was laid to rest in the wall of the Kremlin on Red Square.

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April 12, 2021

First in Space: New Yuri Gagarin Biography Shares Hidden Side of Cosmonaut

It’s been 60 years, to the day, since Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human to travel to space in a tiny capsule attached to an R-7 ballistic missile, a powerful rocket originally designed to carry a three- to five-megaton nuclear warhead. In this new episode marking the 60th anniversary of this historic space flight—the first of its kind— Scientific American talks to Stephen Walker, an award-winning filmmaker, director and book author, about the daring launch that changed the course of human history and charted a map to the skies and beyond.

Walker discusses his new book  Beyond: The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space , out today, and how Gagarin’s journey—an enormous mission that was fraught with danger and planned in complete secrecy—happened on the heels of a cold war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and sparked a relentless space race between a rising superpower and an ailing one, respectively.

Walker, whose films have won an Emmy and a BAFTA, revisits the complex politics and pioneering science of this era from a fresh perspective. He talks about his hunt for eyewitnesses, decades after the event; how he uncovered never-before-seen footage of the space mission; and, most importantly, how he still managed to put the human story at the heart of a tale at the intersection of political rivalry, cutting-edge technology, and humankind’s ambition to conquer space and explore new frontiers.

By Pakinam Amer

gagarin biography

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey into outer space.

Getty Images


Pakinam Amer: It was at 09.07 am Moscow time on April 12, 1961 that a new chapter of history was written. On that day, without much fanfare, Russia sent the first human to space and it happened in secrecy, with very few hints in advance.

Yuri Gagarin, 27-year-old Russian ex-fighter pilot and cosmonaut, was launched into space inside a tiny capsule on top of a ballistic missile, originally designed to carry a warhead. 

The spherical capsule was blasted into orbit, circling the Earth at a speed of about 300 miles per minute, 10 times faster than a rifle bullet.

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Accounts vary on exactly how long Gagarin spent circling our blue planet before he re-entered the atmosphere, hurtling towards Earth, gravity rapidly pulling him in.

Some say it was 108 [ one hundred and eight ] minutes. Stephen Walker, my guest today and the author of a new book on Gagarin’s historic feat and the world it happened in, puts at 106 [ one hundred and six ].

Give or take a few minutes, that space venture aboard Vostok 1 — orbiting the earth at a maximum altitude of roughly 200 miles and putting the first man in space — still set the record for space achievement.

It sparked a space race between the US and Russia that, 8 eight years later, put other men on the moon for that small step hailed as a giant leap.

It is said that Gagarin whistled a love song as his capsule prepared for launch

One man, five feet five, in an orange space suit, strapped into a seat inside a capsule attached to a modified R-7, the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. … 

… 106 minutes or 108, man’s first pilgrimage around the planet we call home

... a solitary journey that is still celebrated as monumental and game-changing 60 years on.

This is Pakinam Amer, and you’re listening to Science Talk, a Scientific American podcast. And today, my guest Stephen Walker and I will talk about a legendary astronaut and a super secret space mission that changed everything.

Stephen Walker: [I] came across a book that was written by a guy called [Vladimir] Suvorov who had kept a diary, a secret diary of the secret Soviet space program which he was filming from about 1959 right the way through into the 60s and it was fascinating because it was so secret that he wasn't even able to tell his wife what he was doing but he was away filming all this stuff and he says in his diary this felt like science fiction.

It was just so incredible what was happening in secret and I thought myself I want to find the footage because if I can find that footage which is apparently shot in color and on 35 millimeter I can appraise that footage and turn it into a theatrical feature film which gives you the inside image, the inside sight into this incredible first step to space to the beyond.”

That was Stephen Walker, British director and New York Times bestselling author of Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima. And this was his attempt to dust off decades-old footage showing months of preparing Vostok 1 to put a Soviet citizen into orbit before the Americans.

Stephen traveled to Russia, tracked down eye witnesses who worked at the top secret rocket site in the USSR, shot the interviews in high-definition and gathered some raw, never-before-seen insider material shot between 1959 and 61, that he describes as pristine.

But he couldn’t get access to the rest of the footage. What he had was great but wasn’t enough for a full feature film.

So instead, he wrote a book.

It’s called Beyond and it’s published by HarperCollins.

Pakinam Amer: So Stephen, you’re one of those people who actually wrote a book in lockdown.

Stephen Walker: It was incredibly exciting in a way but it was weird, because all this other stuff was going on outside. And I didn't see it. Really. Of course, I did see it. But when people talk about Corona for me at that point, I wasn't thinking about the Coronavirus, I was thinking about the corona spy satellite system that the Americans had in 1961, which I talk about in my book where they were spying on secret Soviet missile complexes. I mean, I was in a different world. I was literally in 1961. And I was also in 2020. It was a really weird experience>

Pakinam Amer: But you began weaving the yarn in 2012?

Stephen Walker: Yeah, I mean, I've done lots of other things since then. I did three trips to Russia. One in 2012. One in 2013. I think I actually had another in 2014 or 2015. The last one was actually a short trip to St. Petersburg, where I met this incredible couple and one of things is wonderful about the Soviet space program at that time, was that actually very unlike NASA, which seemed to have a real major problem about women being anywhere near NASA.

I mean, actually women were not even allowed in the launch blockhouses at Cape Canaveral in 1961. They were forbidden to get in them … There was one woman, a wonderful woman, I interviewed called Joanne Morgan, who was the only woman engineer of all of them [who was allowed] in the launch Center at Kennedy Space Center in 1969. For the moon landing, she's the only one woman and everybody else is a guy. And back in 61, she was telling me over crab cocktails in Cape Canaveral. She told me that you know, she was actually not even allowed to go into the launch of the launch blockhouse, she was forbidden to go in.

Whereas actually in the USSR, oddly enough, it wasn't like that. And I interviewed this couple called Vladimir and Khionia Kraskin, and they're in my book. And they were this wonderful husband and wife in their 80s. And they entertained me in this wonderful little Soviet-style flat in Saint Petersburg, and told me glorious stories about how they were both engineers, telemetry engineers, that have moved there with their child to this weird place in the middle of the Kazakh Steppe, you know, where this new rocket cosmodrome was being built.

And they actually were working right at the epicenter of the Soviet space program, and for that matter, the Soviet missile program, and these were their glory days. It was quite an incredible thing to sort of talk to them both about and they were there when Gagarin launched and with all of that stuff, they were there all the way through it. It was wonderful; it was so Russian, we ended up sitting and drinking vodka until four o'clock in the morning.

I interviewed them on camera, and we had this wonderful, it was quite glorious. This guy had actually out of chocolate wrappers from Ferrero Roche chocolates had constructed a two-meter-high replica of the R-7 rocket that took Yuri Gagarin into space and it was in his sitting room. It was Incredible. It was all made out of chocolate, you know, gold wrappers, it was beautiful.

And, and so I kind of fell in love with these people. And I also sort of felt, you know, I want to tell their stories because they just aren't being heard by anybody. It's all moon, moon, moon, lunar, lunar, lunar. And that's great. Don't get me wrong, it's really important. It's a landmark. It's all of that I get it. But this is an amazing story. And these are amazing stories that people don't know about, and they are really exciting, and really dramatic and really touching and really moving and really, you know, epoch changing, in my opinion.”

Pakinam Amer: Stephen, when I read your book, it almost felt like a novelization of that era. It's a very intricate and intimate account of the people who were involved in that space mission. A very rich account, not just of the orbit itself, but of the tensions reminiscent of the cold war between the US and the Sovient Union, then the space race. But yours is primarily a human story. What inspired you to write it, decades down the line?

Stephen Walker: It is a major philosophical leap for humankind, this is not just advanced Soviet v. America, it really isn't. And to think of it in those terms, is to miss the essential point. Because what I believe

is that the first human being in space is one of the most epoch call moments in all human history.

For essentially three and a half billion years since, or any life began on this planet, anything, okay? This man is the first to leave, he is the first human eye to look down on the biosphere from outside, he is the first--to use the words of Plato--he is the first to escape the cave that we are all in. He steps into the beyond; it is that very first step outside. Nobody had seen this before.

It is one of the things that when you actually put yourself back into that world at that time, and Gagarin very quickly became the most famous man on the planet. You understand why? Because what this is all pre-moon, none of that had happened is this guy was seeing something that no one else in all history whether a human or anything had ever seen. When he looked out in that porthole window, he saw the stars, he saw the earth. And he saw a sunrise in fast motion, and a sunset in fast motion. He saw the incredible fragility of the earth. He saw what we're all destroying, frankly, right now, he saw all of that. And he was the first to see it.

So for me, that is a philosophical psychological quarter, which will be emotional, it is somebody stepping out of the cave into the sunlight as it were to pursue the metaphor and blinking in the light and going, Oh, my God, what's this? What's this that's out here? What is this? He was the first to do it at incredible risk.

It happened because of the politics. It happened because of the race. It happened because of the iron curtain. We know all of those things are valid at all that but actually, in the end, the event, the achievement, better than that the moment is bigger than all of those things way, way, way bigger than all of those things, three and a half billion years. And something changes on April the 12th 1961, at you know, ten past nine in the morning, Moscow time. And that's this. And that's the story.

So for me, it's everything. That's the first thing that kind of animated me to write the book. And I felt that I even had a sign above my desk saying, “remember, Stephen, three and a half billion years, remember,” I kept thinking that when I started to get into the politics too much or got a bit lost in whatever details, as one always does, and pull back from it. What is this really about?

And the other thing that I thought was really important about this. And it animated my writing too. I'm not interested in writing history books that end up in library stacks for decades. I mean, I'm a filmmaker. I want to reach people. And what I tried to do in this story was tell people about people. What interests me most of all, I'm interested, obviously in the technical achievement and really interested in the politics. Of course I am. I couldn't write this book if I wasn't. But what I'm really, really interested in people.

Who was this guy? What was this rivalry like between him and this guy, Titov? He was [the Soviet] number two.

There's an incredible story there, which I kind of talked about, where you get these two men who are both competing to be the first human in space. They are best friends. They are next door neighbors. And they have a child each the same kind of age little infant child, but Titov's child Igor dies at the age of eight months, right in the middle of their Cosmonaut Training, and the Gagarin husband and wife with their own child about the same age, a little girl ...  they are incredible to him. They are and his wife, Tamara, they are locked in embrace, they are supportive, they are wonderful. And I know this because I interviewed Titov's wife in Moscow. And she told me all of this, it was quite incredible. She was in tears when she told me this stuff.

And yet, these two men with this love with this tragedy that they kind of shared and helped each other through living next door and on adjoining balconies and crossing over each other's balconies to spend time with each other and late nights talking and drinking vodka and all those sorts of things. They're also rivals for immortality, effectively. And we're not really talking about Titov today, we're talking about Yuri Gagarin. So he lost, he lost. And yet underlying that rivalry is love.

And to me, that becomes human that becomes rich and interesting. It's not just ‘Oh, who came first,’ it's actually a real, it's a relationship of brothers, with all the complexities that fraternal relationships like that would have, you know, the rivalry, the kind of male rivalry, but also the love and the connection in the background. So it's complicated, difficult, it doesn't fit easily into boxes, but a very, very human mix of emotions that drives forward. So characters, people who make the story, this pivotal moment in human history happen, is what really excites me.

Pakinam Amer: Stephen painted an interesting picture of the world where Gagarin’s extraordinary mission happened. How back then, the Soviet Union and the United States were head to head, taking colossal risks in the race to be first in space.

Before Gagarin’s mission, the Soviet Union had already blasted the first satellite in into space, Sputnik 1.

Only three weeks after Gagarin’s earth orbit, American astronaut Alan Shepard--part of the so-called Mercury-7--was launched into space aboard a rocket called Freedom 7.

Less than a year later, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, circling it three times in 1962.

But Gagarin’s leap into the unknown, being a first, was terrifying.

No one knew what would happen to a person once they’re launched into space. Would they go mad? Can their body withstand it?

Like Stephen aptly describes, there was no textbook for that mission … anywhere. So what exactly were the challenges …

Stephen Walker: The challenges are physiological and psychological, the physiological challenges, some of which had been kind of looked at and dealt with some of the animal flights they do, which I write about in the book with dogs in a Soviet Union and with monkeys, and then finally, obviously a chimpanzee called Ham in the United States. But what actually, they didn't know really was what a human physiology would do in that environment.

So what you're talking about are unbelievable, first of all, acceleration forces in a rocket. Nobody, let's just get this really clear. From the beginning. Nobody had sat on top of a nuclear missile, replacing the nuclear bomb, and then firing it upwards, nobody.

And this particular missile, the R-7, was the biggest missile in the world, it was much bigger than any missile the Americans had, it was powerful enough to fly from Kazakhstan, to New York with a thermonuclear weapon on top of it... It was astonishingly radically advanced for its time. And no human had sat on top of one with a million pounds of thrust and lit the fuse and see what happens.

So they didn't know. I mean, it could blow up straight there on the pad. It could be that the physiological experiences, the actual acceleration, or G-forces could be too much for a body to withstand. And once this rocket had actually got into orbit, and the capsules there, nobody knew what weightlessness would do to a human body.

There were real fears that a human wouldn't be able to breathe properly, even obviously, in an oxygenated atmosphere. The human being wouldn't be able to swallow, for example, that weightlessness would do really, really strange things to the heart, they wouldn't beat properly. You know, nobody knew because nobody experienced weightlessness of any kind for more than a few seconds in one of those aeroplanes that simulated weightlessness with his parabolas, they kept flying. But that was only for about 20 seconds. This is going to be much, much longer than that.

So they just didn't know. They were tremendous concerns about how he'd get down again, everybody knew that a capsule returning through the atmosphere would build up massive amounts of friction, the temperatures would reach 1500 degrees centigrade, even more, you know, would it burn away? Would whatever protection he had in the form of a heat shield, or in the design of the capsule itself? Would it work already burn up as he came down? You know, would that be a problem?

And then, beyond all of those problems, there was, as I said, the psychological problem. And the psychological problem basically boiled down to very simple sentence, or rather a very simple question, but with a very simple answer. And that was, would he go insane? Was he going mad in space, because the real fear, and it was a real fear at that time.

And there were, there was psychological textbooks that were written about something called space horror , was that the first human being divorced from the planet below divorce from life or life as we know it divorce for all of that sailing alone, and this is ultimate loneliness or isolation, in the vacuum of space in his little sphere, might go mad.

So they had to think about that, too. And what they thought about as I described in my book was a very Soviet response, they decided that flight will be completely automated. So the guy wouldn't have to do anything at all inside it, except essentially endure it, whatever “endure” actually meant. But they then decided at the last moment, that if actually, something did go wrong, and he needed to take manual control, then how are they going to let him have manual control.

And they came up with this extraordinary solution, which is just utterly mad, where they basically had a three digit code, which you press on, like, the kind of thing you have in a hotel safe on the side of his capsule, and you press these three numbers, which I think will one to five; it's in the book, and that would unlock the manual controls. But then they worried that he might go so crazy that he might just do that anyway, take control, and God knows what he'll do, you know, destroy himself, defect to America, in his spacecraft.

These were proper discussions that took place, literally a few days before he flew. And in the end, what they decided to do was to put the code in an envelope, and seal the envelope, and glue it somewhere in the lining of the inside of his spacecraft. The idea being somehow-- this is crazy logic, it's not even logic-- that if he was able to find it, open it, read the code and press the correct numbers, then he won't be insane. And that was seriously discussed in a state commission of the top politicians, KGB people and space engineers, one week before Yuri Gagarin flew in space.

That's, that's what they dealt with, because they were they didn't know space, horror, insanity. So you're, again, it comes back to my saying at the very beginning, everything here is a first everything is an unknown, nobody's done it before. Nobody. And what increases that feeling of isolation that would have made the possibility of insanity a real one. Why they were so frightened was because they didn't have reliable radio communications with the ground.

They didn't have what the [American] Mercury astronauts would have, which was a chain of stations basically, in circling the globe, where they would always have somebody to talk to, and we're very used to the moon landings and there's all those, you know, communications with beeps on the end, and even with Apollo 13, the one that went wrong, they're always communicating with Mission Control in Houston. But for Gagarin's flight, I would say a substantial part of his flight.

I'm not sure if you'd actually say the majority, but a substantial part of his flight hidden nobody's talked to. He had nobody to talk to, except a microphone with a tape recorder that was installed inside his cabin. And as I say, in the book, it turns out that whoever installed the tape in the tape recorder didn't put enough tape in. So he ran out halfway around the world. And he sat there and made probably one of the few independent decisions that he made in the cabinet, in that Vostok spacecraft, which was to rewind the tape to the beginning, and then record over everything he just said. This is the first mind in space and that's what happened.

You can't really make this stuff up.

Although the radio communication with the first human who stepped beyond our planet involved few words, what we know for instance was that Yuri’s first spoken words were, “The Earth is blue, how wonderful,” Stephen includes part of the transcript of the tape that Yuri recorded during orbit aboard the capsule, as he looked out of the porthole of his capsule.

“The Earth was moving to the left, then upwards, then to the right, and downwards … I could see the horizon, the stars, the Sky,” Gagarin said. “I could see the very beautiful horizon, I could see the curvature of the Earth.”

Pakinam Amer: You’ve heard from Stephen Walker, filmmaker and author of Beyond: The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space. His book is on sale today. You can get it through HarperCollins, its publisher, or wherever you buy your books. For more information visit www.stephenwalkerbeyond.com

That was Science Talk, and this is your host Pakinam Amer. Thank you for listening.

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“Poyekhali!!” With that one Russian word, meaning “Let’s go!” on April 12, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to become the first human to travel in space.  Upon his return from his history-making single orbit of Earth, the Soviet Union treated Gagarin as a national hero.  Completing many goodwill tours, he became an international celebrity.

For several years, Soviet officials were hesitant to assign him to a second space flight for fear of losing him in an accident.  He became the deputy training director of the cosmonaut training center, helping other cosmonauts prepare for their space flights, and successfully defended his aerospace engineering thesis on space plane design at the prestigious Zhukovski Air Force Academy.  Gagarin persisted in his desire to return to space and eventually he was assigned as Vladimir Komarov’s backup for the first Soyuz mission.  After Komarov’s death in the Soyuz 1 accident in April 1967, Soviet officials felt justified in their caution and allowed Gagarin to fly aircraft only with a flight instructor.

On March 27, 1968, while on a routine training mission from Chkalovskiy Air Base near the Star City cosmonaut training center with flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin, the MiG-15UTI jet in which they were flying crashed in inclement weather, killing both pilots.  Gagarin was 34.  His ashes were interred in the Kremlin wall and are ritually visited by space flight crews prior to their departure for Baikonur.

Upon hearing the news, the NASA Astronaut Office sent a message of condolences to the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R., saying in part: “We join you in mourning the loss of Yuri Gagarin.  Nothing will dim the memory of his achievement in becoming the first pilot to fly in space.”

After his death, many prominent space facilities were renamed in his honor.  Outside of Moscow, the facility where cosmonauts train for their spaceflights was renamed the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center.  Once a secret facility, today international crews, including U.S. astronauts, train there for missions to the international space station (ISS).  At the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the launch pad from which Gagarin began his historic journey is known as the Gagarin Start.  The pad is still in use today to launch multinational crews to the ISS.

To symbolize the current cooperation in space between two former rivals, in 2012 the Dialogue of Cultures – United World Foundation donated a bronze statue of Gagarin to the city of Houston, along with a bronze monument to John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.  The side-by-side sculptures stand outside the building that once housed the original headquarters of the Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center), before the Clear Lake facility was completed.


Yuri Gagarin: First Human in Space

Yuri Gagarin on his way to the launch pad.

On April 12, 1961, the era of human spaceflight began when the Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth in his Vostock I spacecraft. The flight lasted 108 minutes.

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Yuri Gagarin: Facts about the first human in space

Yuri Gagarin was the first human in space when he orbited Earth in 1961 aboard the Vostok 1 space capsule.

a man wearing a space helmet with the visor open. He is smiling and looking off to his right.

Yuri Gagarin FAQs

Childhood and cosmonaut selection, vostok 1 mission, soyuz 1 and death, additional resources.

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was a Soviet pilot and cosmonaut who became the first human in space. In 1961, he orbited Earth aboard the Vostok 1 space capsule, the first-ever crewed spacecraft. As a result, he became an international celebrity and received many awards for this achievement, both within and outside the Soviet Union.

Vostok 1 was Gagarin's only spaceflight. He was on the backup crew for the Soyuz 1 mission but wasn’t allowed to go to space after that mission ended in a fatal crash because officials worried that Gagarin, a national hero, would be killed. Though he was eventually allowed to continue flying regular aircraft, he died five weeks after being cleared to fly again, when his flight-training airplane crashed. The exact cause of the crash is still unknown.

Related: Yuri Gagarin on Vostok 1: How the 1st human spaceflight worked (infographic)

Who was the first man in space?

Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet pilot and cosmonaut, was the first person in space and the first to orbit Earth. 

How old was Yuri Gagarin when he died?

Yuri Gagarin was 34 when he died. 

How many times did Yuri Gagarin go to space?

Gagarin went to space only once, aboard the Vostok 1 capsule. He was also the backup crewmember for the Soyuz 1 mission. 

Gagarin was born on March 9, 1934, in the Soviet Russian village of Klushino to parents who worked on a collective farm, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). Beginning in October 1941, German soldiers occupied Klushino as part of their advance on Moscow during World War II. The occupation lasted 21 months, according to the BBC . In 1946, his family moved to the nearby town of Gzhatsk (now named Gagarin), where he went to secondary school and studied math and physics, according to the New Mexico Museum of Space History .

After six years of secondary school, Gagarin went to technical school in Saratov, where he also joined a local flying club and began learning to fly a plane. He went on to attend the Soviet Air Force Academy and graduated in 1957. He was one of 20 Soviet fighter pilots chosen as cosmonauts, in part because of his small size, according to ESA. To fit in the small Vostok capsule, cosmonauts couldn't be taller than 1.75 meters (5 feet 9 inches), according to Star Walk , and Gagarin was 1.57 m tall (5 feet 5 inches), according to ESA. In fact, in a 1961 interview , Gagarin described the capsule as quite roomy, especially compared with airplane cockpits of the time.  

Alongside other cosmonauts, Gagarin participated in intensive preparation for spaceflight, including various physical and psychological experiments. A doctor doing psychological testing on him praised his "high degree of intellectual development," noting his attention to detail, strong imagination, quick reaction time and skill in doing mathematical calculations, according to ESA.

Launch of vostok 1

" Vostok " means "East" in Russian, as opposed to the Western world, signifying the mission's importance in the Cold War-era space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The crewed part of the capsule was spherical, with an inside diameter of about 7 feet (2 m), according to The Planetary Society . The spacecraft launched on April 12, 1961, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in what is now Kazakhstan.

In response to a statement from ground control that everything seemed to be working fine, Gagarin famously replied "Poyekhali!" — an informal phrase meaning "Off we go!" in Russian, according to ESA.

Gagarin orbited Earth in the capsule for about an hour before the spacecraft reentered Earth's atmosphere . For the most part, the flight went smoothly, though Gagarin lost communication with ground control several times. The two parts of the spacecraft also failed to correctly separate for a while during reentry, and the spacecraft shook violently. But when the capsule was about 4 miles (6 kilometers) above the ground, Gagarin parachuted back to Earth as planned, landing on farmland outside the city of Engels, Russia.

After the mission, Gagarin became an overnight international celebrity; the Soviet Union had kept his spaceflight secret until it was successful. Gagarin was known not only for his accomplishments but also for his charismatic personality and smile, according to the BBC. Though he was barred from visiting the United States, he traveled the world and received many honors, The Telegraph reported . This included the title " Hero of the Soviet Union ," the nation's highest honor.

On April 23, 1967, the Soyuz 1 mission launched with cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov as its sole crewmember, with Gagarin as the backup. During the spacecraft's landing, the parachute failed to deploy, instantly killing Komarov when it hit the ground. Though Gagarin had nothing to do with the crash (and even reportedly tried to get the launch postponed due to safety concerns), the Soviet Union barred him from spaceflight after the crash, out of fear that their national hero would be killed, according to the BBC . Officials also originally also banned him from flying regular aircraft.

After completing additional training, Gagarin was eventually allowed to continue flying. But on March 27, 1968, the plane he was test-piloting crashed, killing him and flying instructor Vladimir Seryogin, according to ESA.

It is unclear exactly what caused the crash. An investigation by the KGB , the former Soviet security and intelligence agency, found that the aircraft went into a spin, possibly maneuvering sharply to avoid a weather balloon. According to the report, the two pilots couldn't regain control; they believed they were at a higher altitude than they actually were because of the inaccurate weather information they'd been given. The report is difficult to confirm, and there are many theories about the crash, including conspiracy theories that Gagarin's death was orchestrated by Soviet officials.

You can learn more about the first man in space with these pieces from Scientific American and Astronomy.com . Space Center Houston's on this day in history details Gagarin's historic flight to space. 


 BBC News. (2011, April 8). Yuri Gagarin: 'I was never nervous during the space flight.' [video]. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-politics-12983333

Dowling, S. (2021, April 12). Yuri Gagarin: the spaceman who came in from the cold . BBC Future. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210409-yuri-gagarin-the-spaceman-who-came-in-from-the-cold  

European Space Agency. (2007, February 4). Yuri Gagarin . www.esa.int/About_Us/ESA_history/50_years_of_humans_in_space/Yuri_Gagarin

European Space Agency. (2007, February 4). The flight of Vostok 1. https://www.esa.int/About_Us/ESA_history/50_years_of_humans_in_space/The_flight_of_Vostok_1

Lapenkova, M. (2018, March 27). Fifty years on, Yuri Gagarin's death still shrouded in mystery . Phys.org. http://www.phys.org/news/2018-03-fifty-years-yuri-gagarin-death.html

McKeever, A. (2022, April 12). How the space race launched an era of exploration beyond Earth . National Geographic . https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/space-race-early-human-spaceflight-history-missions?loggedin=true&rnd=1699322304385 .

Orange, R. (2011, April 12). Yuri Gagarin: 50th anniversary of the first man in space . The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/8443777/Yuri-Gagarin-50th-anniversary-of-the-first-man-in-space.html  

Star Walk. (2021, April 11). 60th anniversary of the first human space flight . https://starwalk.space/en/news/60th-anniversary-of-the-first-human-space-flight

Swopes, Brian. “Pilot-Cosmonaut Yuri Alexseyevich Gagarin, Hero of the Soviet Union.” This Day in Aviation. 14 Apr. 2023, https://www.thisdayinaviation.com/tag/yuri-alekseyevich-gagarin/ . Accessed November 7, Nov. 2023.

The Planetary Society. (n.d.). Yuri Gagarin and Vostok 1, the first human spaceflight . Retrieved November 7, 2023, from https://www.planetary.org/space-missions/vostok-1

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Rebecca Sohn

Rebecca Sohn is a freelance science writer. She writes about a variety of science, health and environmental topics, and is particularly interested in how science impacts people's lives. She has been an intern at CalMatters and STAT, as well as a science fellow at Mashable. Rebecca, a native of the Boston area, studied English literature and minored in music at Skidmore College in Upstate New York and later studied science journalism at New York University. 

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gagarin biography


Yuri Gagarin

By Mick O'Hare

Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy

The cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin went down in history as the first human ever to enter space . From humble beginnings he would attain the rank of senior lieutenant fighter as a pilot in the Soviet Air Forces before being accepted into the Soviet space programme in March of 1960.  It was little over one year later, on 12 April 1961, that he was launched into orbit from Baikonur Cosmodrome in present-day Kazakhstan, where he spent 108 minutes aloft , orbiting the globe once in his craft, Vostok 1.

Officially, he came back to Earth in his capsule. Though it subsequently emerged that he actually parachuted to safety when it was still 7 kilometres from the ground.

Despite that glitch, this was another technological and PR victory for the Soviet Union just three and a half years after they launched Sputnik 1 , the first artificial satellite. Gagarin was the ideal poster boy. Good looking, charming, modest and the ideologically unimpeachable son of a carpenter and dairy farmer working on a collective farm, he became the human face of the Soviet system on the western side of the Iron Curtain. He undertook a world tour, was feted by foreign leaders and became a hero to schoolchildren around the globe.

The US managed to shoot a human – Alan Shepard, who later went on to walk on the moon – into space weeks later on 5 May, and then only on a short sub-orbital flight. But the gauntlet was picked up: on 25 May President John F. Kennedy announced to a special session of the US Congress the intention that an American would walk on the moon before the decade was out. This was the beginning of what became the Apollo programme.

Full name : Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin

Birth : 9 March 1934, Klushino, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union

Death : 27 March 1968, Novosyolovo, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union

Yuri Gagarin was a Soviet cosmonaut famous for being the first human ever to enter space, spending 108 minutes orbiting the globe in the Vostok 1 spacecraft.

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Every April, people around the world celebrate the life and works of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. He was the first person to travel into outer space and the first to orbit our planet. He accomplished all this in an 108-minute flight on April 12, 1961. During his mission, he commented on the feeling of weightlessness that everyone who ever goes into space experiences. In many ways, he was a pioneer of spaceflight, putting his life on the line not just for his country, but for the human exploration of outer space. 

For Americans who remember his flight, Yuri Gagarin's space feat was something they watched with mixed feelings: yes, it was great that he was the first man to go to space, which was exciting. His was a much-sought-after achievement by the Soviet space agency at a time when his country and the United States were very much at odds with each other. However, they also had bittersweet feelings about it because NASA hadn't done it first for the U.S.A. Many felt the agency had somehow failed or was being left behind in the race for space.

The flight of Vostok 1 was a milestone in human spaceflight, and Yuri Gagarin put a face on the exploration of stars. 

The Life and Times of Yuri Gagarin

Gagarin was born on March 9, 1934. As a young adult, he took flight training at a local aviation club, and his flying career continued in the military. He was selected for the Soviet space program in 1960, part of a group of 20 cosmonauts who were in training for a series of missions that were planned to take them to the Moon and beyond.

On April 12, 1961, Gagarin climbed into his Vostok capsule and launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome—which remains today as Russia's premier launch site. The pad he launched from is now called "Gagarin's Start". It's also the same pad that the Soviet space agency launched the famous Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957.

A month after Yuri Gagarin's flight to space, U.S. astronaut Alan Shephard, Jr., made HIS first flight to and the "race to space" went into high gear. Yuri was named "Hero of the Soviet Union", traveled the world talking of his accomplishments, and rose quickly through the ranks of Soviet Air Forces. He was never allowed to fly to space again, and became the deputy training director for the Star City cosmonaut training base. He continued flying as a fighter pilot while working on his aerospace engineering studies and writing his thesis about future space planes.

Yuri Gagarin died on a routine training flight on March 27, 1968, one of many astronauts to die in space flight accidents ranging from the Apollo 1 disaster to the Challenger and Columbia shuttle mishaps. There has been much speculation (never proven) that some nefarious activities led to his crash. It's far more likely that erroneous weather reports or an air vent failure led to the deaths of Gagarin and his flight instructor, Vladimir Seryogin. 

Yuri's Night

Since 1962, there has always been a celebration in Russia (Former Soviet Union) called "Cosmonautics Day", to commemorate Gagarin's flight to space. "Yuri's Night" began in 2001 as a way to celebrate his achievements and those of other astronauts in space. Many planetariums and science centers hold events, and there are celebrations at bars, restaurants, universities, Discovery Centers, observatories (such as Griffith Observatory), private homes and many other venues where space enthusiasts gather. To find more about Yuri's Night, simply "Google" the term for activities. 

Today, astronauts on the International Space Station are the latest to follow him into space and live in Earth orbit. In the future of space exploration , people may well start living and working on the Moon, studying its geology and mining its resources, and preparing for trips to an asteroid or to Mars. Perhaps they, too, will celebrate Yuri's Night and tip their helmets in memory of the first man to head to space.

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It’s been 60 years since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in outer space

  • By Daniel Ofman

Soviet cosmonaut Major Yuri Gagarin is shown in a black and white portrait photograph wearing a space helmet with the visor open.

Soviet cosmonaut Major Yuri Gagarin, first man to orbit the earth, is shown in his space suit. Photo undated.

Sixty years ago on Monday, the Earth sent its first human into outer space — Russia’s Yuri Gagarin.

On this day in 1961, Gagarin’s space capsule completed one orbit around Earth and returned home, marking a major milestone in the space race. As he took off, you could hear Gagarin’s muffled yet iconic “ Poehali, ” which means “Let’s go” in Russian.

Gagarin’s pioneering, single-orbit flight made him a hero in the Soviet Union and an international celebrity. After putting the world’s first satellite into orbit with the successful launch of Sputnik in October 1957, the Soviet space program rushed to secure its dominance over the United States by putting a man into space. Gagarin’s steely self-control was a key factor behind the success of his pioneering, 108-minute flight.

The World’s Marco Werman spoke to Stephen Walker, who has just published a book about Yuri Gagarin called “Beyond: The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space.”

Cover of Stephen Walker's book

Marco Werman: Stephen, tell us a little more about Yuri Gagarin. Before he became known as the first man in space, who was he?

Stephen Walker: Well, it’s a really interesting question. He was actually brought up in a little village just to the west of Moscow. And in 1941, Nazis invade Russia, and they swallow Gagarin’s village. And something very seminal happens to Gagarin, which I think determines, in some respects, the course of his life. At the age of 7, he is horrified to see that his little brother, Boris, age 5, is being hanged from an apple tree by an SS officer, and he tries to cut his brother down from this branch. But he’s very small. He can’t do it. So, he races back, yells at his mother, Anna, who comes racing out, rushes across and cuts down little Boris from this tree just in time. And that experience seared Gagarin for life. It gave him kind of an inner toughness and inner resilience, which is why he was able to sit effectively on top of the world’s biggest nuclear missile, waiting to be blasted into space.

Right. And as we know, the Americans were stunned when the space capsule orbited the Earth. So, I casually told the story of this day in 1961, earlier, basically the rocket launch; Gagarin went up, did an orbit and then came back down alive. But that doesn’t quite capture the intense drama of the day, does it?

Not at all. This rocket — it’s called an R-7 — is unbelievably dangerous. The chances of Yuri Gagarin getting back alive were less than 50-50. Almost everything you can think of goes wrong. No one knows what happens to a human being in space. And then, of course, the rocket itself is so dangerous because many of them have blown up. The Russians were desperate to get ahead of America, which means they took risks. So, it’s an incredibly dramatic tale of this 106 minutes that sort of changed the world.

What was the mission of the Soviet rocket and what did Gagarin himself think at the time about it?

Well, the mission was basically to see if a human being could survive in space and fly in orbit around the Earth. And there is this secret briefing given by Yuri Gagarin the day after his flight, and he tells the story of what happened 11 minutes after launch. Gagarin separated from the rest of his rocket, and he started very gently to spin. And then, he turned to the little porthole on his right and he saw the Earth. He had escaped the biosphere.

Incredible perspective. How was Gagarin received once he touched down some 90 minutes later?

Well, he actually landed hundreds of kilometers, of course. So, he ejects from this capsule at about 20,000 feet and the capsule lands separately. And Gagarin by parachute lands in a potato field. And there’s no one there except an old lady and her granddaughter who were picking potatoes. So, he goes up to them and they run away. They’re absolutely terrified. They see this, kind of, orange spacesuit. He manages to convince them he’s a comrade, he’s Soviet, he’s safe, and he says, “I need to get to a phone. Have you got any way of my getting to a phone?” So, they offer him the use of a horse. This guy’s been around the world at 18,000 miles an hour. And they’re talking about putting him on a horse to get to a telephone. It’s just crazy. Just before the horse arrives, some tractor drivers turn up, very curious. They’ve heard about him on the radio, on the kind of state radio, because it’s now being broadcast. And then within minutes, this jeep arrives with soldiers and they all start taking photographs. And there is a photograph of him, which is in my book, and it’s just wonderful. He’s just been around the whole planet and he’s landed in this potato field. And there’s this photograph. It’s quite extraordinary. 

I mean, it speaks of the high ambition and also the low reality of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The USSR, as you said, Stephen, was determined to beat the US in getting a human into space. What was the reaction in the West when Yuri Gagarin went up and came home, and specifically in the United States?

Absolute shock. I mean, there is a press conference which President Kennedy, remember new in the job, gave that afternoon, and he looks completely and utterly shell shocked. He says he extends his congratulations to Khrushchev, who was the premier of the USSR at the time and also to the man who was involved. He can’t even say his name, but it is a real bad moment for him and for the American space program. You’re looking at somebody who is on the back foot. And we know this because two days later, Gagarin was celebrated in a, basically, parade that was millions of people, the biggest party really in Moscow’s history.

And at the very time that Gagarin was being celebrated and having the hero of the Soviet Union gold star medal pinned to his chest, we know that Kennedy was in the Cabinet Room at the White House with his advisers, and Kennedy is tapping his teeth with his pencil, which is always a sign of nervousness with him. And he says, “What can we do? What can we do to catch up? How do we leapfrog them?” And he comes up with a wonderful line. He says, “Even if the janitor in the White House has an answer, I want to hear that answer.” And this is when the moon idea really starts to take hold. And what I hope I have managed to do is to put readers right in the center, in the epicenter, of events, the little fly on the wall, that gives us an often very jaundiced view, but really fascinating inside story of what was really happening and how different that was from the presentation to the world of what was happening.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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Yuri Gagarin picture: Gagarin waves to the crowds in London in July 1961

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    Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin (9 March 1934 - 27 March 1968) was a Soviet pilot and cosmonaut who, aboard the first successful crewed spaceflight, became the first human to journey into outer space.Travelling on Vostok 1, Gagarin completed one orbit of Earth on 12 April 1961, with his flight taking 108 minutes. By achieving this major milestone for the Soviet Union amidst the Space Race, he ...

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    Fast Facts: Yuri Gagarin. Known For: First human being in space and first in Earth orbit. Born: March 9, 1934 in Klushino, USSR. Parents: Alexey Ivanovich Gagarin, Anna Timofeyevna Gagarina. Died: March 27, 1968 in Kirsach, USSR. Education: Orenburg Aviation School, where he learned to fly Soviet MiGs. Awards and Honors: Order of Lenin, Hero of ...

  4. ESA

    127296 views 353 likes. ESA / About Us / ESA history / 50 years of humans in space. Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was born on 9 March 1934 in the village of Klushino near Gzhatsk (now in Smolensk Oblast, Russia). His parents, Alexei Ivanovich Gagarin and Anna Timofeyevna Gagarina, worked on a collective farm. Yuri was the third of four children ...

  5. First in Space: New Yuri Gagarin Biography Shares Hidden Side of

    Yuri Gagarin, 27-year-old Russian ex-fighter pilot and cosmonaut, was launched into space inside a tiny capsule on top of a ballistic missile, originally designed to carry a warhead. The spherical ...

  6. Remembering Yuri Gagarin 50 Years Later

    Gagarin persisted in his desire to return to space and eventually he was assigned as Vladimir Komarov's backup for the first Soyuz mission. After Komarov's death in the Soyuz 1 accident in April 1967, Soviet officials felt justified in their caution and allowed Gagarin to fly aircraft only with a flight instructor.

  7. Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin

    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 ...

  8. Yuri Gagarin: First Human in Space

    April 9, 2018. Credit. NASA. Language. english. On April 12, 1961, the era of human spaceflight began when the Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth in his Vostock I spacecraft. The flight lasted 108 minutes. Front page of the Huntsville, Ala., Times on April 12, 1961.

  9. Yuri Gagarin

    Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was a Soviet pilot and cosmonaut who, aboard the first successful crewed spaceflight, became the first human to journey into outer space. Travelling on Vostok 1, Gagarin completed one orbit of Earth on 12 April 1961, with his flight taking 108 minutes. By achieving this major milestone for the Soviet Union amidst the Space Race, he became an international celebrity ...

  10. Yuri Gagarin: The journey that shook the world

    Yuri Gagarin's single orbit of Earth 50 years ago this month ushered in the era of human spaceflight. Gagarin's 108-minute flight was another major propaganda coup for the Soviet Union, which had ...

  11. Yuri Gagarin: Facts about the first human in space

    Gagarin was born on March 9, 1934, in the Soviet Russian village of Klushino to parents who worked on a collective farm, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). Beginning in October 1941 ...

  12. Yuri Gagarin: Who was the first person in space?

    It has been 60 years since a Russian cosmonaut called Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space. He completed a full orbit of the Earth on 12 April 1961 on-board the spacecraft Vostok 1. It ...

  13. "Let's go!"

    The first human spaceflight stunned the world on April 12, 1961. But famed Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had been preparing for that moment all of his life. Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space ...

  14. Yuri Gagarin

    Yuri Gagarin was a Soviet cosmonaut famous for being the first human ever to enter space, spending 108 minutes orbiting the globe in the Vostok 1 spacecraft.

  15. Who Was Yuri Gagarin?

    Biography of Yuri Gagarin, First Man in Space. By Jennifer Rosenberg. The Life and Times of Yuri Gagarin . Gagarin was born on March 9, 1934. As a young adult, he took flight training at a local aviation club, and his flying career continued in the military. He was selected for the Soviet space program in 1960, part of a group of 20 cosmonauts ...

  16. It's been 60 years since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in outer

    Sixty years ago on Monday, the Earth sent its first human into outer space — Russia's Yuri Gagarin. On this day in 1961, Gagarin's space capsule completed one orbit around Earth and returned home, marking a major milestone in the space race. As he took off, you could hear Gagarin's muffled yet iconic " Poehali, " which means "Let ...

  17. Yuri Gagarin

    Yuri Gagarin - biography. Gagarin was the first cosmonaut of the USSR and the world, a symbol of the development of Soviet aviation and science in general, a man who forever inscribed his name in the history of space exploration. The name of Yuri Gagarin has been familiar to everyone since childhood. He was the first person alive on Earth to ...

  18. Yuri Gagarin

    Yuri Gagarin was born in the village of Klushino near Gzhatsk (now in Smolensk Oblast, Russia ), on 9 March 1934. Gzhatsk was renamed Gagarin in 1968 in his honour. His parents, Alexey Ivanovich Gagarin and Anna Timofeyevna Gagarina, worked on a collective farm. [2] While manual workers are thought as "peasants," this may be too-simple if ...

  19. Yuri Gagarin: First Human Space Flight in Pictures

    Yuri Gagarin Celebrated Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin—honored today with a Google Doodle—waves from a car outside the Russian Embassy in London in July 1961, a few months after he became the ...

  20. Yuri Gagarin Biography

    Yuri Gagarin was a famous Russian cosmonaut and the first man to enter space and orbit the Earth, on the 'Vostok 1.' Check out this biography to know more about his childhood, family, achievements, etc.