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Yuri Gagarin ( 1934 - 1968 )  Category ( Historical_Figures ) [suggest a correction]

Yuri GagarinRecipient of awards and medals from around the world, Soviet Union pilot and Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human in space and the first to orbit the Earth. Born in the village of Klushino near Smolensk Oblast, Russia, his parents lived and worked on a collective farm. His mother loved to read and his father was a skilled carpenter. As the only son among three daughters, Gargarin was cared for and doted upon by his three sisters while their parents worked. From childhood Gargarin was fascinated by the solar system and the idea of travel in outer space. He was a bright student though his teachers reported that he could be mischievous at times. His mathematics and science teacher was a former Soviet Airman, and it is possible he may have influenced and encouraged Gagarin’s interest in flight. In high school he joined a local "AeroClub" and learned to fly light aircraft. Bitten by the flying bug, he was determined to become a professional pilot. In 1955 he began military flight training and earned his wings in a MiG-15. It was at flight school that he met his future wife, Valentina Goryacheva. By 1959 he reached the rank of Senior Lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force.

In 1960 Gagarin was selected along with nineteen other cosmonauts for the Soviet Space program. Just like their American counterparts, the elite team of pilots were subjected to numerous and rigorous experiments and tests in order to assess physical and psychological endurance. Gagarin and the rest of the group also received further flight training. Eventually Gagarin and Gherman Titov were named finalists due to their performance in the tests and flight training. Another factor that played a role was physical size, since the Vostok cockpit was very small. Standing at five feet, two inches, Gagarin was a good fit. Other factors considered in the decision were his physical appearance, his ability to handle the intense media and public interest, as well as his name, which has Russian aristocratic roots.

On April 12, 1961, Gagarin became the first human to travel into space and return. While in orbit he whistled a popular Russian tune entitled "The Motherland Hears, The Motherland Knows." One of the first lines in the song, "the Motherland knows/Where her son flies in the sky," was especially appropriate. One of his more famous comments to ground control was,"The Earth is blue. How wonderful. It is amazing."

Upon his safe return, Gagarin was an instant and international celebrity. He toured much of Europe, Canada, and Japan to promote Soviet superiority in the space race. Soviet officials attempted to keep him from flying, as they did not want to risk the great hero’s life, but as is the case with many pilots, flying was what Gagarin loved best, and eventually he pursued re-qualification as a fighter pilot. In March of 1968, while still training to resume his flying career, Gagarin and his instructor died in a MiG-15UTI on a routine training flight. He was thirty-four years old and is survived by his wife and two daughters. One of his daughters was chosen to open the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.

Image: Yuri Gagarin, official photo, TASS.

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