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Yuri Gagarin

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On April 12, 1961 the first earthling escaped the gravity well of planet earth. In the spaceship Vostok 1, Senior Lieutenant Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin orbited earth one time at an altitude of 187 3/4 miles (302 kilometers) for 108 minutes at 18,000 miles an hour. He was the first man to see that the earth was indeed round, indeed mostly water, and indeed magnificent.

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Gagarin in spacesuit
Posters of Gagarin, the first cosmonaut in space, appeared throughout Russia.

But who was this hero that hundreds of thousands of people greeted in the streets? How was it that he alone was chosen to break the barrier of gravity, to "go where no man had gone before"?

Gagarin & brothers & sister
Yuri, sitting, here with his brothers & sisters, was the third child.



He was born on March 9, 1934 in Klushino, a small village 100 miles west of Moscow. His father was a cabinetmaker, carpenter, bricklayer, and farmer, and his mother was a milkmaid. Together they worked on a kolkhoz or collective farm. By Soviet social standards, his heritage was impeccable. He was the third of four children. During the war, the Nazis threw his family out of their home and took away two of his sisters. Yuri helped his parents dig a dugout where they lived untill the war was over, then the family moved to Gziatsk.

When he was a teenager, he witnessed a Russian Yak fighter plane make a forced landing in a field near his home. It was just returning from battle, its wings bullet-ridden. When the pilots emerged covered in medals, he was so impressed:

Young Yuri
Yuri at age 10.
"We understood immediately the price that had to be paid for military decorations. We boys all wanted to be brave and handsome pilots. We experienced strange feelings such as we had never known before." Younf Gagarin & boys
Young Yuri, 3rd from left, told how he and his friends made trouble for the Nazis.

He completed six grades of secondary school where he studied mathematics, his favorite subject, and physics, then went to a trade school where he became a foundry-man. At the same time he read Longfellow's Hiawatha and the works of Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens, as well as the works of the Russian rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935).

After a year and a half at the trade school, he joined a four-year technical school in Saratov. In his fourth year at school he was offered the chance to join a flying club. And so began the realization of his dream to become a pilot. He took his first solo flight in 1955. He was frequently praised for his ability to handle a plane and his skill in making a smooth landing; "He'll make a wonderful pilot," his instructor and mentor Dmitry Pavlovich Martyanov said.

As a foundry man
He attended trade school where he became a foundry-man.

In pilot gear

Yuri was so excited about flying that he spent an entire summer in a tent next to the airfield.

He took his first solo
flight in 1955.
In cockpit
Photos: The Russian State Archive of Scientific & Technical Documents.

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