Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Gagarin, Yuri (1934–1968)

Title: Yuri Gagarin
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Soviet cosmonaut and first human in space. Born on 9 March 1934 to a collective farm family in Klushino, 100 miles west of Moscow, Yuri Gagarin developed an interest in flying after observing Soviet pilots during World War II and learned to fly while a student at a four-year technical school in Saratov in the early 1950s. He subsequently joined the Soviet Air Force and studied at the Orenburg Aviation School, from which he graduated as a lieutenant with top honors in November 1957. After spending two years as a fighter pilot, in 1959 Gagarin began cosmonaut training, demonstrating superior physical and intellectual abilities that resulted in his selection by Sergei Korolev, chief designer of the Soviet space program, to pilot the first manned mission into space.

On 12 April 1961, at the controls of the spacecraft Vostok 1, Gagarin became the first man to orbit Earth, completing his mission in 108 minutes at a speed of 18,000 miles per hour. Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev hailed Gagarin's accomplishment, which came just three and a half years after Sputnik 1, another triumph of the alleged superiority of socialism over capitalism. Gagarin's success was a major Soviet achievement and a key propaganda victory in the Cold War space race.

After his mission, Gagarin was promoted to the rank of major and was honored with the Hero of the Soviet Union Medal. From then on, he enjoyed a life of privilege but longed to return to space. In 1967 he commenced training for the Soyuz program. Gagarin was killed while piloting a MiG-15 fighter on the outskirts of Moscow on 27 March 1968 and was buried, alongside other prominent Soviet citizens, near the Kremlin Wall.

Bruce J. DeHart


Further Reading
Oberg, James E. Red Star in Orbit. New York: Random House, 1981.
 

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