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Yuri Gagarin

The cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin went down in history as the first human ever to enter space. From humble beginnings he would attain the rank of senior lieutenant fighter as a pilot in the Soviet Air Forces before being accepted into the Soviet space programme in March of 1960.  It was little over one year later, on 12 April 1961, that he was launched into orbit from Baikonur Cosmodrome in present-day Kazakhstan, where he spent 108 minutes aloft, orbiting the globe once in his craft, Vostok 1.

Officially, he came back to Earth in his capsule. Though it subsequently emerged that he actually parachuted to safety when it was still 7 kilometres from the ground.

Despite that glitch, this was another technological and PR victory for the Soviet Union just three and a half years after they launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. Gagarin was the ideal poster boy. Good looking, charming, modest and the ideologically unimpeachable son of a carpenter and dairy farmer working on a collective farm, he became the human face of the Soviet system on the western side of the Iron Curtain. He undertook a world tour, was feted by foreign leaders and became a hero to schoolchildren around the globe.

The US managed to shoot a human – Alan Shepard, who later went on to walk on the moon – into space weeks later on 5 May, and then only on a short sub-orbital flight. But the gauntlet was picked up: on 25 May President John F. Kennedy announced to a special session of the US Congress the intention that an American would walk on the moon before the decade was out. This was the beginning of what became the Apollo programme.

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Gagarin himself never flew in space again. In 1968, he died aged just 34 in an unexplained plane crash, fuelling conspiracy theories that he was killed for becoming more popular than the regime he represented.

Key facts

Full name: Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin

Birth: 9 March 1934, Klushino, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union

Death: 27 March 1968, Novosyolovo, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union

Yuri Gagarin was a Soviet cosmonaut famous for being the first human ever to enter space, spending 108 minutes orbiting the globe in the Vostok 1 spacecraft.