Today (April 12th) is the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight, successfully completed by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. It marked the first major milestone in the ‘Space Race’ which led to Neil Armstrong becoming the first man to set foot on the Moon (21st July 1969) and subsequently the launch of the first reusable spacecraft, the space shuttle Columbia, which took place 20 years to the day after Gagarin’s historic achievement. (That, incidentally, was a complete coincidence, as Columbia was initially scheduled to fly two days earlier, but the launch was aborted due to technical problems.)
The anniversary has been celebrated not just in Russia but all over the world. A 50-gun salute and various other celebrations have been held in Moscow. A statue of Gagarin, a gift from the Russian Space Agency, has been erected in the centre of London near Admiralty Arch. A film, First Orbit, has been made from the International Space Station to recreate what Gagarin would have seen from orbit, which has been released on YouTube. The ISS crew also recorded a video message to the world to wish everyone a Happy Yuri’s Night. And Google is featuring a themed Google Doodle on its home page (see below).
There is plenty of coverage of the anniversary in both traditional media and online, but here are ten fast facts about the first man to orbit the Earth and view our planet from space.
1. Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was born on 9th March 1934 in the village of Klushino near the town Gzhatsk. The latter was subsequently renamed Gagarin in his honour.
2. He was the third of four children. His two older siblings were deported to Germany during the Nazi occupation of Russia and used as slave labour.
3. Gagarin was one of 20 pilots chosen for the initial Soviet space programme. He was so popular among his fellow candidates that, when they were all asked to anonymously nominate which one of them they would like to see become the first cosmonaut, all but three chose him.
4. One of the factors contributing to Gagarin’s selection for the launch of Vostok 1 was the fact he was only 5ft 2in tall, a distinct advantage in the spacecraft’s cramped two-metre wide cockpit.
5. His call sign was Kedr (Siberian Pine).
6. In total, Gagarin’s flight lasted 108 minutes.
7. It has often been claimed that Gagarin said “I don’t see any God up here” during his orbit. However, no official record of these words exists. The quote has instead been attributed to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
8. During re-entry, Gagarin whistled the tune The Motherland Hears, The Motherland Knows. The opening lines of the song are:
The Motherland hears, the Motherland knows
Where her son flies in the sky
9. After his safe return, he worked on designs for a reusable spacecraft.
10. On 27th March 1968, he was killed when his MiG-15 fighter crashed near the town of Kirzhach. He was just 34. His death became the subject of fervent conspiracy theories, but a KGB investigation attributed the accident to the negligent actions of air base personnel in providing outdated weather information and a failure to remove external fuel tanks. Other theories suggested the fatal crash might have been caused by a near mid-air collision or an open cabin air vent.
Finally, here are some other goodies. Firstly the video message from the ISS crew:
Here is the film First Orbit:
Here is some archive footage of Gagarin’s Vostok 1 launch:
And finally, here is an infographic (courtesy of SPACE.com) with further detail on the first manned space flight: