MYSTERY WIRE — Sixty years ago, on Monday (April 12, 1961), an air force pilot named Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space – taking the Soviet Union’s own giant leap for mankind and spurring a humiliated America to race for the moon.
Gagarin’s 108-minute mission on April 12, 1961 marked a historic achievement for the Soviet Union, which beat the United States in a tight race to launch the first human into space.
The Vostok spacecraft’s chief designer Sergei Korolyov was eager to cement the Soviet edge in space after the October 1957 launch of Sputnik, the world’s first manmade satellite.
Korolyov wanted to move to human spaceflight and score another victory in the race against the Americans.
But after a series of botched experimental flights throughout 1960 and a launch pad explosion that killed 126 people, safety became an overriding priority.
The flight was limited to a single orbit because of questions about weightlessness, Gagarin was supposed to parachute out of the capsule on return because a soft-landing system was not ready yet.
Despite the risks, competition for the mission was strong among the 20 young pilots on the short list, Gagarin was the favorite.
Just three days before blastoff from what would later be known as the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Gagarin was told that he was chosen for the mission.
In a letter to his wife, Valentina, he asked her to raise their daughters “not as little princesses, but as real people,” and to feel free to remarry if his mission proved fatal.
Gagarin’s rocket lifted off as scheduled on April 12, 1961, at 9:07 a.m. Moscow time. “Poyekhali!” (Off we go!), the cosmonaut shouted as he took off.
The 27-year-old cosmonaut’s mission lasted just 108 minutes and was fraught with drama: a break in data transmission, glitches involving antennae, a retrograde rocket, and the separation of modules.
But the flight went off safely, and the handsome Russian with the big smile became a poster boy for the communist world and is still a national idol 53 years after his death in a jet training accident.
Gagarin bailed out as planned and parachuted onto a field near the Volga River about 720 kilometers (450 miles) southeast of Moscow.
On April 14, the cosmonaut was flown to Moscow, where he was greeted by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and driven into town on a highway lined with cheering Russians.
Americans, waking up as the Soviet Union was well into its celebrations, were shocked.
The next day members of Congress grilled NASA officials, who explained that the Soviets had a greater lead time, having started their effort in 1954, four years before the American space agency was founded.
Twenty-three days after Gagarin’s flight, on May 5, 1961, American Alan Shepard became the second man in space. But his sub-orbital hop lasted just 15 minutes.
It wasn’t until John Glenn’s flight on February 20, 1962, that an American managed to emulate Gagarin’s globe-circling feat.
Gagarin died in a training jet crash on March 27, 1968.
Just over a year later, the U.S. finally beat the Soviet Union in the space race, putting a man on the moon.
The nation’s space glory faded after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, and Gagarin’s pioneering mission is now widely seen with nostalgia by many Russians amid a steady decline of the once-proud space program.
Efforts to develop new rockets and spacecraft have faced continuous delays and the country’s space program has continued to rely on Soviet-era technology.
Amid the stagnation, the much-criticized state space corporation Roscosmos has focused on a costly plan to build its new Moscow headquarters shaped to resemble a rocket.