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Who was the first human being to travel into space?

Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, performing a 108-minute orbital flight in his Vostok 1 spacecraft. He took off from the Baikonur cosmodrome on April 12, 1961.

His words to describe the experience of seeing the planet from space were one of amazement: “The Earth is blue …!” “From the cosmic height the Earth is seen clearly, the mountains, the coasts and the islands are clearly distinguished,” Gagarin later wrote in his official report on the flight.

At just 27 years old, he became a national hero.

Less than a month later, on May 5, 1961, the US would again take the reins of the space race by placing Alan Shepard, from the Mercury project, also in space aboard the Freedom 7 spacecraft. NASA hastened contemplating the enormous feats of the Soviets in space: the first satellite, Sputnik 1, had been launched in October 1957.

Before Gagarin’s mission, the Soviets sent a test flight into space using a prototype of the Vostok spacecraft. On this flight was a life-size doll named Ivan Ivanovich and a dog named Zvezdochka. After the success of the test, the Soviets considered that the ship was fit to take a human into space.

Over the course of 108 minutes, Gagarin, aboard Vostok 1, traveled around the Earth once, reaching a maximum height of 327 kilometers. The spacecraft carried 10-day supplies in case the engines failed and Gagarin had to wait for the orbit to drop naturally. But Gagarin reentered Earth’s atmosphere, managing to maintain consciousness while experiencing up to eight times the force of gravity during his descent.

A dangerous landing

But unlike later shuttles, Vostok 1 had no engines to slow its re-entry to Earth; so Gagarin expelled himself from the spacecraft and parachuted at an altitude of approximately 7 kilometers. But, for the mission to be counted as an official space flight, the governing body of aerospace records, the International Aeronautical Federation (IAF), had determined that the pilot had to land with the spacecraft. Soviet leaders indicated that Gagarin had made landfall with the Vostok 1, and did not reveal the true landing until 1971.

That would be Gagarin’s first and last time in space. Sadly, he passed away before he could make his next space flight: he was preparing for the Soyuz mission in 1967, although leaders doubted whether to put him at risk due to his importance as a public figure. Ironically, he died on March 27, 1968 during a routine training flight.

In 1969, crewmembers Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, crew members of NASA’s Apollo 11 and the first mission to put a human on the Moon, placed a commemorative medallion with the name of Yuri Gagarin; still today he is a man highly remembered and venerated internationally.

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