Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, First man in Space
On April 12, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (left, on the way to the launch pad) became the first human in space achieving a major milestone in the space race. One hour 57 minutes after Gagarin boarded the vehicle, the Vostok’s 1 engines roared to life, and the spacecraft completed an 108-minute orbit of the Earth. Newspapers like The Huntsville Times (right) trumpeted Gagarin's accomplishment.
The rocket carrying Gagarin's Vostok 1 spacecraft launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome spaceport, located in an area of southern Kazakhstan, at 6:07 a.m. local time beating the Americans with the first manned space flight. Vostok’s 1 reached unprecedented speed to obtain orbital flight, the spacecraft broke free of the Earth's gravitational pull and entered orbit around the planet. Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth once before re-entering the atmosphere and landing back on Soviet soil.
In May 1961 astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space made the first manned flight of the Mercury Project. His craft entered space reaching an altitude of 116 statute miles (187 km) , but did not achieve orbit.
Yuri Gagarin had become a international celebrity
being awarded many medals and titles, including a title of "Hero of the Soviet Union" the highest honer in Soviet Union. Vostok 1 was his only spaceflight, but he was on the backup crew to the Soyuz 1 mission (which unfortunately ended in a fatal crash) claiming the life of cosmonaut Colonel Vladimir Komarov. Fearing for his life, Soviet officials permanently banned Gagarin from further spaceflights, but he advocated to be allowed to fly regular aircraft. Yuri Gagarin later became deputy training director of the Cosmonaut Training Center just outside of Moscow in 1962, which was later named after him. Gagarin died in 1968 when the MiG-15 training jet he was piloting crashed.
The Space Race began on August 2, 1955, when the Soviet Union responded to the US announcement four days earlier of intent to launch artificial satellites for the International Geophysical Year. The Soviet Union declared they would also launch a satellite "in the near future". The Soviet Union beat the US to this, with the October 4, 1957, orbiting of Sputnik 1