Yuri Gagarin was born on March 9, 1934, in Klushino, a village 100 miles west of Moscow. During the Second World War, the Nazis drove his family from their home and took away two of his sisters (they were reunited with the family after the war). Yuri helped his parents construct a dugout where they lived until the war was over. At that time the family moved to the town of Gziatsk.

Gagarin completed six grades of secondary school there studying physics and mathematics, his favorite subject. He then went to a trade school where he became a foundry-man. In his spare time, he read voraciously, including the works of the Russian rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

After a year and a half at the trade school, Gagarin joined a four-year technical school in Saratov. While there he joined a flying club, achieving a childhood dream. He took his first solo flight in 1955 and graduated (with honors) from the Soviet Air Force Academy in 1957. He was then assigned to an airbase in Murmansk, near the Norwegian border.

Yuri Gagarin was one of twenty fighter pilots chosen to be a part of the first group of cosmonauts in 1960. All underwent intense medical examination and preparation for space travel. Gagarin became the first human to enter outer space on April 12, 1961, and was proclaimed the “Columbus of the Cosmos” by the Soviets. Sergei Korolev, the head of the USSR space program had personally chosen Gagarin to be the first cosmonaut.

Gagarin entered space aboard the Soviet spaceship/satellite Vostok 1, a small one-man spherical descent module with a diameter of less than seven and a half feet that was mounted on top of an instrument module containing the engines. The cosmonaut was strapped into an ejection seat, from which he would exit the descent module upon re-entry, parachuting to earth once well within the atmosphere.

Gagarin and Vostok 1 were launched from what is now Baikanor Cosmodrome on April 12, 1961. In a 108-minute flight, he reached a height of 203 miles above Earth, becoming the first person in space, and the first to orbit the Earth. Gagarin set a new manned speed record, traveling at a speed of 17,025 miles per hour. Once in orbit, he had no control over the spacecraft and radio signals sent to the capsule by a computer program guided its reentry. Gagarin did have access to a key in a sealed envelope, which would enable the cosmonaut to take control of the vessel in case of an emergency.

Vostok 1 also contained a supply of food and water for ten days in case of retrorocket failure. Fortunately, all worked as planned, and Gagarin ejected after reentry into Earth’s atmosphere at an altitude of 20,000 feet, landing by parachute, as the Vostok was not designed to bring cosmonauts completely back to Earth. Yuri Gagarin had proved that man could endure the rigors of lift-off, re-entry, and weightlessness.

Korolev later said, “A good pilot is one who, in one minute of flight, can make enough observations, and draw enough conclusions, to keep an entire institute busy with them for a whole year. A bad pilot can fly for a whole week but only obtain enough information for an hour’s work. What pleased us so much about Gagarin was that in 108 minutes he was able to see a great deal and enrich science with valuable information and conclusions”.

After the success of Vostok 1, Gagarin was used to promote the Soviet space program in several worldwide tours, but he always wanted to venture back to space. In 1966 he was returned to active status to serve as the backup cosmonaut to Vladimir Komarov for the first flight of the Soyuz spacecraft. When the Soyuz 1 mission ended in Komarov’s death in April 1967, Gagarin was assigned to command the upcoming Soyuz 3 mission. But on March 27, 1968, during flight training, Gagarin’s MiG–15 jet was engaged in low-level maneuvers with two other jets near the town of Kirzach when it was caught in their vortex; he lost control and crashed into the tundra at high speed, killing him and his flight instructor instantly.

Major Yuri Gagarin’s ashes were buried next to those of Komarov and other Soviet heroes in the Kremlin Wall. A lunar crater and asteroid 1772 Gagarin are named in his honor.