The First Astronaut – International Day of Human Space Flight
Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Credit: Energia

The First Astronaut – International Day of Human Space Flight

10/04/2018Written by Tamela Maciel

In celebration of Yuri Gagarin and all the astronauts who have followed.

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The day that we first ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ and entered outer space as a species was 12 April 1961.

This was the day that 27-year-old Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin launched on a Vostok rocket from Kazakhstan, completed one orbit of Earth, and returned safely to Earth, making him the world’s first astronaut.

We mark this day as International Day of Human Space Flight – celebrating past, present, and future human exploration in space.

International Day of Human Space Flight

International Day of Human Space Flight
Ed White, first American to space walk. Image Credit: NASA

Every 12 April, we especially remember Yuri Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova (first woman in space), Alexei Leonov (who performed the first spacewalk), and the crew of Apollo 11 who first landed on the Moon.

But these historic firsts are just the tip of the iceberg compared to the 556 men and women and counting who have explored outer space since 1961. And of course human spaceflight wouldn’t be possible without the countless people who work behind the scenes: the engineers who build the rockets and spacecraft, the doctors and trainers who work with the astronauts, the mission controllers who guide the journey, and the scientists who collect the data from the missions and help us understand more about the human body and the extremes of outer space.

This day celebrates our human drive to explore the next frontier – to see what is possible at the limits of our daring and the limits of our technology.

First Man In Space

First Man In Space
Yuri Gagarin before launch. Credit: Energia
First Man In Space
Gagarin's Vostok-1 spacecraft, before launch. Credit: Energia
First Man In Space
Gagarin during parachute training. Credit: Energia

In 1961 this frontier was 200 kilometres up and the free-falling environment of Earth orbit. When Yuri Gagarin launched, he was following in the footsteps of just a handful of satellites, and a few animals such as Laika the dog, who proved it was possible to live, breathe, and eat in space.

But Yuri was the real test of this – he was put through the extremes of physical tests and training in the hopes that he would be able to survive the g-forces on launch and the impact of landing. He was sent with toothpaste tubes of meat paste to eat (it was unclear whether he’d be able to swallow even this), and given a high-frequency radio to talk back to mission control.

Yuri had no control of his flight – there was the fear that he would pass out or be unable to operate the spacecraft in microgravity. He orbited the Earth just once, speeding at 27,000 kilometres per hour.

After 108 minutes, Yuri made a dramatic return to Earth. During re-entry the descent capsule, where Yuri sat, was meant to separate from the service module (carrying the fuel and electronics). When this didn’t happen, the capsule entered Earth’s atmosphere much heavier than originally planned, and it returned on a much steeper trajectory, causing Yuri to nearly black out. In the fireball that surrounded the capsule during re-entry, the cables that connected the two sections eventually burned through and the descent capsule was free.

Yuri ejected from the craft before it landed, parachuting down to Earth from 7 kilometres up. His dramatic landing caused some consternation among the local farmers.

Gagarin recalled walking up to a farmer and his daughter, clad in helmet and orange suit, just after landing: “When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet citizen like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!”

The fact that Yuri parachuted down separate from his capsule caused a bit of controversy when it was discovered some months later – at the time the rules for record-breaking aeronautical stunts required pilots to land safely within their plane.

So people questioned whether Yuri’s parachute bail-out meant that his first spaceflight was null and void. The rules were later changed for spaceflight, recognising that the mission was more about the launch and flight in space, rather than the feat of landing.

As the first man in space Yuri immediately became a global celebrity after his mission. America once again took second place in the race for space – sending NASA astronaut Al Shepard into space less than a month later, on 5 May 1961.

Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Credit: Energia

On ‘International Day of Human Space Flight’ we celebrate the hundreds of men and women who have followed in Yuri’s exploratory footsteps, pushing back the boundaries of space.

12 April also happens to be anniversary of the first Space Shuttle launch, 20 years to the day after Yuri Gagarin’s first flight.

In the words of Yuri Gagarin, 'Poyekhali!—Let's go!'

Join us at the National Space Centre on Thursday 12 April 2018 for special talks at 11:15 and 14:15 celebrating human space exploration.

About the author: Dr Tamela Maciel is the Space Communications Manager at the National Space Centre.