Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was a Soviet cosmonaut who on 12 April 1961 became the first human to journey into outer space, launching to orbit aboard the Vostok 3KA-3 (Vostok 1). His call sign for the flight was 'Cedar' - meaning Siberian Pine. Ground Control refered to themselves as Dawn. Yuri was born on the 9th March 1934 in the village of Klushino near Gzhatsk (now known as Smolensk Oblast, Russia). In his late teens he became interested in flight and joined a local flying club near Saratov. He started military flight training at the age of 21 and had his pilot's wings the year Sputnik was launched, rising to the rank of Senior Lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force by 1959. The next year he was selected for the Soviet Space Program and trained hard for the next 12 months before he was selected as the principal cosmonaut for the first manned flight into space.

The flight of Vostok 1 began at 06:07 Universal Time (UT), boosted into orbit by a Vostok-K series rocket. Ground controllers didn't know if Gagarin had achieved a stable orbit until 25 minutes after launch, just as he was heading into the night side of the Earth and down across the Pacific Ocean. Unsure of the effect of space flight on a human being, the spacecraft's controls were run by an automatic system, with Gagarin only permitted to take control in an emergency. Hurtling into dawn just south of Argentina and on through morning light across the vast South Atlantic Ocean, the spacecraft's automatic system aligned the capsule and fired the retro rockets just as he crossed the west coast of Angola to start the descent, still 8,000Km from home.

Problems with the separation of an eqipment module at this point in the flight meant that Gagarin experienced an uncomfortable 10 minutes as the two modules gyrated wildly before they broke free of each other and Gagarin's re-entry capsule settled into a proper orientation. Crossing over the deep dark forests and mountains of central Africa and on over the distinct red North African deserts Gagarin would have glimpsed the dark winding Nile River carved through Southern Egypt as his descent back into the atmosphere continued. On aross the Black Sea streaked the capsule and Gagarin prepared to eject, since the capsule's parachute landing system was deemed too rough for a cosmonaut to risk. Over the Russian province of Saratov, not far from Engels, Gagarin jettisoned his Vostok capsule, still seven kilometers above the ground. He made his final descent on his own parachute and was back on Earth 108 minutes after launch.


For more information please read Ken MacTaggart's excellent account of Gagarin's flight in the Scotsman and a rare interview with Elena Gagarina remembering her father Yuri, published by the British Council.