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Columbus of the cosmos

As the world celebrates 50 years of humankind’s first space mission, here is a look at the man who dared to explore the unexplored

education Updated: Apr 20, 2011 09:16 IST

How excited or nervous would you be if you had been chosen to visit – for the first time ever – the unknown, exciting realms of outer space? Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin's name comes to mind when one talks about exploration of the universe. Called Columbus of the Cosmos, he was the first human being to witness the grandeur of the universe.

Early life
Born into a peasant family on a collective farm west of Moscow in 1934, he attended a local school for six years, studying vocational and technical subjects.

It was during this time that he developed an interest in space and planets. While at a technical high school in Saratov, he joined an aero club and learned to fly a light aircraft. Gagarin then joined the Russian Air Force in 1955 and graduated with honours from the Soviet Air Force Academy in 1957. He met and married Valentina Goryacheva here and soon became a military fighter pilot. By 1959, he was selected for cosmonaut training as part of the first group of USSR cosmonauts.

The space mission
On April 12, 1961, Gagarin, aboard the Vostok 3KA-3, became the first human to travel into space, and orbit the earth. In his post-flight report, Gagarin recalled his experience: “The feeling of weightlessness was somewhat unfamiliar compared with Earth conditions. Here, you feel as if you are hanging in a horizontal position in straps. You feel as if you are suspended.” Gagarin’s spacecraft circled earth at a speed of 27,400 km per hour and the trip lasted 108 minutes. At the highest point he was about 327 km above earth.

A celebrity
After the maiden space mission, Gagarin became a worldwide celebrity. He visited various countries throughout the globe like to promote Soviet Union’s accomplishment. Wherever he went people greeted him with a lot of warmth and adulation. However, the glory was short lived. In March 1968, he along with flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin died in a plane crash, the reasons for which are debated till date. Some believe his crash was plotted. Author Valentina

Malmy wrote in the book Star Peace: “To accomplish a heroic exploit means to step beyond one’s own sense of self-preservation, to have the courage to dare what today seems unthinkable for the majority. And to be ready to pay for it. An act of heroism is always a breakthrough into the Great Unknown. (Gagarin) was like a sound amplified by a mountain echo. The traveller is small, but the mountains are great, and suddenly they merge into a single whole.” Such was Gagarin.

50th anniversary
The 50th anniversary celebrations of Gagarin’s journey into space were marked by various tributes. A film entitled First Orbit was shot by the International Space Station, combining the original flight audio with footage of the route taken by Gagarin. The Expedition 27 crew aboard the ISS sent a special video message to wish people Happy Yuri’s Night. Google paid tribute to Gagarin with a ‘Google-doodle’ that showed him in space with a rocket that could be launched using the cursor.

Compiled by Garima Upadhyay