Yuri Gagarin - First Man in Space


Yuri Gagarin was the first man to fly into space. On April 12, 1961 the 27 year old Soviet fighter pilot orbited the world at an altitude of 203 miles with Vostok 1. The spacecraft was launched from the cosmodrome in Baikonur. The journey itself lasted 108 minutes. For the first time in history man had freed himself from the earth’s gravity.

Gagarin was the son of a carpenter. His mother worked as a milkmaid. When the Germans occupied their village during World War II the family were forced out of their home and lived in a hut nearby. In school Gagarin’s favorite subjects were mathematics and physics. Yuri went on to a technical college where he became interested in flying. After graduating from pilot school Gagarin became a fighter pilot for the Soviet Air Force.



Over 20 candidates were trained for the Soviet Union’s first manned space mission. The son of a worker was chosen because the Soviet Union wanted to show the west that, in a socialist society, everyone could succeed, even those from poorer families.

When Gagarin’s Vostok spacecraft lifted off on the morning of April 12, 1961 Gagarin was only a passenger. He could not control anything on board Vostok 1. Although the flight was a success, the west found out later that Gagarin was close to being killed. The service module did not separate from the capsule on its return to earth. Temperatures in the capsule got very high and Gagarin said he was engulfed in a cloud of fire when returning to earth. Shortly before the capsule crashed on the ground Gagarin was able to eject and return to earth with a parachute.



The Soviet Union kept Gagarin’s flight secret until it was almost over because they feared something might go wrong and the Communist superpower would be humiliated.

After returning to earth Gagarin became famous around the world. He visited Germany, Canada, Japan and many other countries in order to show the success of Soviet technology. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev hailed Gagarin as Hero of the Soviet Union and compared him to Christopher Columbus.

The first Russian cosmonaut did not live long enough to see how space exploration continued. In 1968 Gagarin was killed when his airplane crashed in a forest on a training flight. He was 34 years old.

With the first manned spaceflight the Soviet Union had scored a major victory in the Cold War. They wanted to show the west that Communist technology was at least as advanced as that of the west. The space race continued throughout the 1960s. About a month after the Vostok mission American President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. On July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 landed on the lunar surface.



Related Topics




  • advanced = highly developed
  • Air Force = part of a country’s military organization which uses planes to fight
  • although = while
  • altitude = height
  • announce = to say officially
  • capsule = part of a spacecraft that carries people and lands back on earth
  • carpenter = someone who makes or repairs wooden objects
  • continue = to go on
  • cosmodrome = the place from which Soviet or Russian spacecraft fly into space ; located in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
  • cosmonaut = a Russian or Soviet astronaut
  • decade = ten years
  • eject = to escape from a plane or capsule by pushing a button
  • engulfed = to completely surround you
  • exploration =discovery ; to find out about unknown things
  • fear = to be afraid of
  • force = you have to leave
  • free = escape from
  • graduate = to complete your education and get a diploma
  • gravity = the force or power that pulls you to the ground
  • hail = to describe something as being very good
  • humiliate = to make fun of
  • journey = trip
  • launch = take off
  • lift off = take off
  • lunar = about the moon
  • major = very important
  • manned = with a man or a woman on board
  • milkmaid = a woman who gets milk from cows
  • occupy = to control a place by using weapons
  • on board = in the spaceship
  • orbit = to go around
  • parachute = when you jump out of a plane it helps you slow down and land on earth safely
  • score = achieve, get
  • secret = known by only a few people
  • separate = to break away from
  • service module = the part of a spaceship that is used to carry things and where all the important control systems are. It is usually unmanned and burns up before returning to earth because it is no longer needed
  • socialist = a system in which the government owns companies and businesses . Taxes are used to help the poorer people
  • society = people in general
  • Soviet Union = a Communist country in Asia and Europe that existed between 1917 and 1991; it broke up into 15 republics
  • space = the area outside the earth, where the stars and the planets are
  • space race = to be the first to send a spaceship to space and other planets
  • spacecraft = spaceship
  • succeed = to do something that you really want, to be successful
  • success = here: how good something is
  • throughout = in all of
  • train = to practice for something
  • victory = to win against someone