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First man in space

'Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!'
Yuri Gagarin, first man in space, first man to orbit Earth, 1961

The colour film of Soviet citizens packing Moscow's Red Square on 15 April 1961 is slightly fading now, but the proud, joyful faces of its subjects are still vibrant. Thousands gathered to share in the triumph of 27 year-old Yuri Gagarin, the U.S.S.R.'s first cosmonaut and the first human to enter space, who had returned to Earth three days earlier following his historic flight in Vostok 1.

'Poyehali!' ('Let’s Go!') Gagarin had exclaimed at the start of his 108-minute orbital mission on 12 April, kicking off not only his own adventure but the era of manned spaceflight. Having gathered momentum for a decade, this was the moment when the Space Race between the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. hit full speed, with a working-class people's champion carrying the Soviets triumphantly into the lead.

Gagarin's good looks and charisma made for great P.R. and influenced the medical and aviation experts who chose him from a group of 20 Russian Air Force pilots to be 'Cosmonaut #1'. His upbringing on a collective farm was also a deciding factor, carrying social and political weight as the Cold War peaked. Most importantly, the smart, tough Gagarin had excelled during gruelling cosmonaut training, and at just 5' 2" tall was the ideal man to pilot the tiny Vostok spacecraft.

Reaching beyond the sky

Yuri Gagarin in Vostok 1 Russian experts, notably the visionary Konstantin Tsiolkvosky, had theorised about space exploration since the dying days of their nation’s Empire. By 1951 they had sent dogs into the stratosphere. By 1957 advances in rocketry had enabled the satellite Sputnik 1 to be launched into orbit, increasing the likelihood of manned spaceflight.

Four years after Sputnik, Gagarin and Vostok 1 blasted into orbit on top of an adapted version of the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, an R-7 rocket nicknamed Semyorka ('the 7').

Vostok was equipped with a spherical descent module into which Gagarin would strap himself before being shot into space. Set against the huge advances in spacecraft technology that have taken place in the 50-plus years since Vostok 1 flew, it's hard to believe that such a rudimentary vehicle could enable a man to travel in space. Nonetheless, it did.

News of the launch spread quickly across the Soviet Union and people thronged together in celebration of a defining moment in human history, running through the streets and screaming 'We are flying!'. For a moment, international tensions and Earth's atmosphere itself were transcended, as all eyes turned to the sky and all thoughts to Yuri Gagarin.

A vision of Earth from space

Vostok 1 entered orbit at 6.18 a.m. on 12 April, 11 minutes after launch at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The first man to see all of Earth from space, Gagarin calmly watched cloud formations dappling the globe through the capsule's tiny window and told his ground control unit how beautiful it was.

Gagarin completed his mission safely but certain details remained secret until the 1970s. Not only were the near-fatal complications the descent module encountered on re-entering the Earth's atmosphere suppressed but it was generally believed that Gagarin had returned to Earth as he had left it, in Vostok 1.

This belief was fostered as the accolade of the first human orbit of the Earth required that the crew remained in the spacecraft until the landing. In fact Gagarin parachuted from the descent module at 7km, landed safely on his feet and offered the first people he met the now-famous greeting, 'I am a friend, comrades, a friend'.

Gagarin the legend

Back on Earth, Gagarin instantly became a global celebrity. Invitations flooded in from all over the world and lavish parades sprang up wherever he went. Monuments, symbols, books and art commemorated his flight in the U.S.S.R. and internationally.

His convivial personality served him well as a roving ambassador, but by 1962 the role had worn him down. He returned to the Soviet Air Force, training as a fighter pilot and attaining the rank of Colonel, as well as becoming deputy training director of cosmonauts at Star City and working on designs for reusable spacecraft.

Then in 1968, the extraordinary life of Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was tragically cut short when a MiG-15UTI jet he was piloting crashed during a routine test flight.

Just 34 years old at the time of his death, Gagarin has been rediscovered by each new generation. His image has become iconic, proliferating on posters, t-shirts, comic books and more. Among a myriad of memorials, Russia and the former Soviet countries celebrate his flight every 12 April on 'Cosmonautics Day', while the annual, internet-organised 'Yuri’s Night' is a global array of events that includes film screenings and all-night raves.

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age at the Science Museum offers a particularly special opportunity to learn more about the life and career of this extraordinary man.

Written by Julia Tcharfas, Curatorial Assistant for the Cosmonauts exhibition

Image credits

1. Yuri Gagarin preparing for launch in Vostok 1 © RGANTD / Roscosmos
2. Vostok 1 re-entry module on landing © Science Photo Library
3. Yuri Gagarin, 12 July 1961 © Daily Herald Archive/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Film credits

BFI National Archive
Music: Mahler - Symphony no. 5, I. Trauermarsch by Jason Weinberger & wcfsymphony