Yuri Gagarin was short man with a big smile. He was born in Klushino, a village about 140 miles west of Moscow, in March of 1934. His parents worked on a collective farm, his father as a carpenter and bricklayer and his mother as a milkmaid. The family survived the German occupation that began in November of 1941, living for 21 months in a mud hut behind their house, which had been occupied by a German officer.
When he was 16, Gagarin became an apprentice foundryman at a steel plant near Moscow, while continuing to take classes. He learned to fly while working at the Saratov Industrial Technical school. After graduation, he was drafted by the Soviet Army and sent to Orenburg for training in the MiG-15. By November of 1959, he had been promoted to Senior Lieutenant.
Gagarin was chosen for the Soviet space program in 1960. He and 19 others underwent physical testing and training similar to the Mercury 7, but unlike the Americans, it was all conducted in strict secrecy.
On April 12, 1961, Gagarin became the first human being in space and the first to orbit the Earth. The flight of Vostok 1 began just after nine in the morning local time on April 12, 1961. “Let’s roll,” he told controllers after liftoff. It would take ten minutes for the Vostok to reach orbit and loft Gagarin into the history books. He would circle the Earth once in a flight that lasted 108 minutes. As he crossed the coast of Africa, his retrorockets fired, bringing him down in a rocky reentry caused in part when the equipment module didn’t separate cleanly from the descent module.
At about 23,000 feet, Gagarin ejected from the Vostok as planned and he parachuted safely to the ground. After landing, he told a startled farmer not to be afraid, and that he needed to find a telephone to call Moscow.
It was only after Gagarin was safely in orbit that the Soviet’s announced the mission publicly.
After returning safely to Earth, Gagarin became an international celebrity, touring the world to celebrate the Soviet accomplishment. But, much like John Glenn, the Soviets wanted to keep Gagarin out of harm’s way. He was the backup pilot to Vladimir Komarov on the first flight of the Soyuz spacecraft in April of 1967. The flight completed 18 orbits in just under 27 hours, but with a series of technical problems that forced controllers to abort the mission. After re-entering the atmosphere, the main parachute and the reserve parachutes both failed, and Komarov began the first in-flight casualty of the Space Race when the Soyuz capsule crashed to the ground. After that Gagarin was banned from participating directly in the Soviet space program. He became the deputy director of the Cosmonaut Training Centre, which was later renamed in his honor.
Less than a year later, Gagarin was killed in what was called a routine training flight in March of 1968. The cause of the crash of the Mig-15UTI was investigated several times, but there’s never been a definitive answer to what caused the crash.