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50 Facts for the 50th Anniversary of the First Man in Space

1 ) Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into space in Vostok 1 on the morning of April 12, 1961, 50 years ago today.2 ) He was a 27-year-old military pilot.3 ) He and his family were thrown out of their house by the Germans during World War II.4 ) They had to live in a dugout in the garden.5 ) Gaga...





1 ) Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into space in Vostok 1 on the morning of April 12, 1961, 50 years ago today.



2 ) He was a 27-year-old military pilot.



3 ) He and his family were thrown out of their house by the Germans during World War II.



4 ) They had to live in a dugout in the garden.



5 ) Gagarin was interested in space even as a child.



6 ) He joined the "AeroClub" in high school.



7 ) He met Valentina Goryacheva while in military flight school.



8 ) He married her in 1957.



9 ) They had two daughters, Elena and Galina.



10 ) Elena remembers that her father liked poetry and literature.



11 ) In 1960, the Soviet Union chose 20 pilots, including Gagarin, to begin training for a human space flight.



12 ) That group was narrowed down to the "Sochi Six."



13 ) Gagarin and Gherman Titov were the final two potential spacemen.



14 ) They were chosen not only for their excellence in training but also for their short stature (the cockpit was small).



15 ) Gagarin was 1.57 meters (5 feet 2 inches) tall.



16 ) Before taking off, Gagarin wrote a letter to his wife saying he likely wouldn't return.



17 ) But he didn't give it to her. (She found it after he returned home.)



18 ) Legend says that Gagarin had to relieve himself on the way to the launch pad.



19 ) And now modern (male) cosmonauts do so as well: "They leave the bus and stand at the left back wheel of the bus, to relieve themselves," says the European Space Agency.



20 ) Gagarin was launched into space at 6:07 UTC from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.



21 ) This was only 3 1/2 years since the first object, Sputnik, had been launched into space.



22 ) Vostok 1 made one complete circuit around the Earth.



23 ) The journey took 108 minutes.



24 ) He was the first human to see Earth from space.



25 ) Gagarin ejected from the space capsule when it was still 7 kilometers from the ground.



26 ) He then deployed a parachute at 2.5 kilometers in altitude.



27 ) Some people have argued that Gagarin does not qualify for the title "the first man in space" because he didn't land inside his aircraft.



28 ) They are wrong.



29 ) Gagarin and his spacecraft landed 26 kilometers southwest of Engels, Russia, at 51° North, 45° East.



30 ) Two schoolgirls witnessed the landing and described a huge ball that bounced on the ground as it landed.



31 ) A farmer and her daughter came upon Gagarin dressed in his orange spacesuit and dragging his parachute and backed away in fear.



32 ) He told them, "don't be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!"



33 ) Americans congratulated the Soviets on their space achievement.



34 ) And then sent their own man, Alan Shepard, into space a few weeks later.



35 ) It wasn't until the next year, however, that an American astronaut, John Glenn, would make a full circuit around the Earth.



36 ) Gagarin became a celebrity.



37 ) He went on a world tour and was greeted by adoring crowds.



38 ) But he soon returned to the cosmonaut facility.



39 ) There, he spent years working on designs for a reusable spacecraft.



40 ) Although he was a backup pilot for later spaceflights, he was ultimately banned from space because the Soviets were worried about losing their hero.



41 ) Gagarin died on March 27, 1968 in a training flight in a MiG-15UTI fighter.



42 ) His ashes were interred on Cosmonauts' Avenue outside the Kremlin in Moscow.



43 ) So are the ashes of four other cosmonauts who died during their missions.



44 ) Current Soyuz crews leave red carnations at this Kremlin wall.



45 ) A crater on the Moon is named for Gagarin.



46 ) As is asteroid 1772 Gagarin.



47 ) More than 500 people have gone into space since Gagarin.



48 ) Every year, people around the world celebrate Yuri's Night on April 12.



49 ) You can post this handy infographic on your wall to remind yourself about details of Gagarin's flight.



50 ) And you can read this post from Starts With A Bang about what cosmonauts (and astronauts) can see as they orbit the Earth.
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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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