Monday, April 11, 2011

Yuri Gagarin: the first man in space, 50 years later

It was 50 years ago, on April 12, 1961, that a human being first reached space. It was also a wake-up to the U.S. space program: that human was not an American, but rather cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

The United States eventually raised its own astronaut into space, as Alan Shepard reached space on May 5, 1961. It wasn't until February 20, 1962 that John Glenn matched Gagarin's other feat, of orbiting the earth.

Only 27 years old at the time, Yuri Gagarin saw his life cut tragically short when, at the age of 34, on March 27, 1968, he was killed on a routine training flight. Along for the ride, and also killed that day, was flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin. The pair died in a crash of a MiG-15UTI, near the town of Kirzhach. The bodies of Gagarin and Seryogin were later cremated with the ashes of both buried in the walls of the Kremlin on Red Square.

Although Yuri Gagarin's Vostok 1 mission remains credited with being the first manned mission into space, some experts point out that the Soviets cheated. Vostok 1 was not equipped to land with a man aboard, so Gagarin had to eject at an altitude of around 4 miles.

The Russians, knowing that the mission would probably not have been regarded as the first successful "manned mission to space" without a manned landing, conveniently redacted this event from the press releases.

To this day, Gagarin remains a hero, even after the fall of the Soviet Union. For the 20th and 30th anniversaries of his flight the Russians issued commemorative coins: a 1 ruble coin in 1981, made of copper-nickel and a 3 ruble coin in 1991, made of silver. In 2001, for the 40th anniversary of the flight, a series of four coins, each bearing his likeness, was issued. One was a 2 ruble coin (copper-nickel); another was a 3 ruble coin (silver), the third was a 10 ruble coin (brass-copper, nickel); and the final coin was 100 rubles (silver).

You can watch a "reflection" on Yuri Gagarin's historic flight, below.

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