Colonel Yuri A. Gagarin, popularly called “The Columbus of the Cosmos,” was born on a collective farm in a region west of Moscow, Russia, on March 9, 1934. His father was a carpenter. Yuri attended the local school for six years and continued his education at vocational and technical schools.
Yuri Gagarin joined the Russian Air Force in 1955 and graduated with honors from the Soviet Air Force Academy in 1957. Soon afterward, he became a military fighter pilot. By 1959, he had been selected for cosmonaut training as part of the first group of USSR cosmonauts.
Yuri Gagarin flew only one space mission. On April 12, 1961 he became the first human to orbit Earth. Gagarin's spacecraft, Vostok 1, circled Earth at a speed of 27,400 kilometers per hour. The flight lasted 108 minutes. At its highest point, Gagarin was about 200 miles (327 kilometers) above Earth.
Once in orbit, Yuri Gagarin had no control over his spacecraft. Vostok's reentry was controlled by a computer program sending radio commands to the space capsule. Although the controls were locked, a key had been placed in a sealed envelope in case an emergency situation made it necessary for Gagarin to take control. As was planned, Cosmonaut Gagarin ejected after reentry into Earth's atmosphere at an altitude of 20,000 feet and landed by parachute. As pilot of the spaceship Vostok 1, he proved that man could endure the rigors of lift-off, re-entry, and weightlessness.
As a result of his historic flight he became an international hero and legend. Colonel Gagarin died on March 27, 1968 when the MiG-15 airplane he was piloting crashed near Moscow. He was given a hero's funeral, his ashes interred in the Kremlin Wall. At the time of his death, he was in training for a second space mission.