Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
Fifty Years Ago, the people of the world were stunned to hear the announcement that the Soviets had launched the first man into space. Senior Lieutenant Gagarin of the Soviet Air Force rode the Vostok 1 into orbit around the Earth. The flight last 108 minutes. Just as he was completing the first orbit, he re-entered the atmosphere to land on Soviet territory. The first capsule he rode did not allow for the pilot to remain inside as it landed; for safety's sake he jumped from the capsule as it descended and floated down on his own parachute.
Instant Hero of the Soviet Union, and the World.
The news spread quickly around the world. The Soviets used this momentous occasion to belittle the United States space program and aggrandize their own. To be honest, they were ahead of the United States in one way: They had the rocket capable of lifting the heaviest payload into space. In the coming days, I'll examine why the US lost the race to be the first to put a human pilot into space.
Vostok 1 Control Panel.
Gagarin was more of a passenger than a pilot for this flight. The Soviet military had only sent up dogs before this flight, and were not entirely sure that a human would remain coherent during weightlessness. Mission Control on the ground kept control of most of the flight, with Gagarin providing commentary and observations. He was 27 at the time. Sadly, because of his hero status, he was not permitted to fly in space again. Tragically, he died in an aircraft accident in 1968.