Already reeling from the successful launch of
before that of
the first U.S. satellite
, the United States fell further behind the Soviet Union in space achievements when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.


Gagarin, a Soviet Air Force major, launched into orbit April 12, 1961, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in a Vostok spacecraft powered by a modified SS-6 rocket. He completed one orbit during
the 108-minute flight.


Gagarin beat out the
six finalists
– out of
20 candidates – for the first Vostok flight because of his superior exam results, said Asif Siddiqi, Russian space history expert and professor at Fordham University in New York
. In addition to testing well, Gagarin’s winning personality made him a “good PR man” for the Soviets, Siddiqi said in a March 31 phone interview.

John Logsdon, executive director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University here, called
the early Sputniks “
strike one,” and Gagarin’s flight “
strike two” against the United States.


U.S. President John F. Kennedy did not want a third strike, Logsdon said in a March 30 phone interview.

“There was a direct connection between Gagarin’s flight and Kennedy’s decision to go to the Moon,” Logsdon said.


Logsdon said Kennedy sent out a memo eight days after the flight: “Find me a space program which promises dramatic results in which we can win.”


The United States, however, already was in the midst of its own buildup for a manned launch with the Mercury program.


Less than a month after Gagarin’s first spaceflight, NASA sent its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, into space on a suborbital flight.

he Soviets, however, skipped suborbital flights altogether with Gagarin’s successful Vostok flight.


Although with its miniaturized electronics, the Mercury spacecraft was more sophisticated than the Vostok
, the Soviet vehicle was more durable and capable of flying for longer, Siddiqi said.


Gagarin’s responsibilities
were few while on board the auto-piloted flight, except for monitoring and reporting,
the Yuri Gagarin Russian State Science Research Cosmonauts Training Centre Web site said.
Gagarin could have taken control of the vehicle if necessary but he never did
– indicative of a “let the machine do it” attitude that was more prevalent with the early cosmonauts than the early astronauts.

The Vostok was performing well until its descent
. The descent and instrument modules failed to separate when the retro-rockets were fired, Siddiqi said. Connective straps that were designed
to disconnect instead kept the two modules together, which
sent the spacecraft spinning until the straps burned away about 10 minutes later, he said. “That was a potentially dangerous moment,” though not necessarily fatal, Siddiqi said.

“Gagarin was very cool throughout this whole process

as he continued
to report the situation, Siddiqi said.


He descended safely through the atmosphere and ejected as planned, landing via parachute in the Soviet Union as a national hero and an international celebrity, much like the Mercury astronauts, Siddiqi said.


But unlike the Mercury astronauts, who were famous before the first Mercury ever took flight, Gagarin and the other Vostok cosmonauts were not introduced to the public until after their flights, Siddiqi said.


Soviet officials kept him away from more space missions and piloting in an attempt to preserve their national treasure, Siddiqi said.

Eventually, Gagarin convinced his superiors to change their minds, and he resumed flying. But about a month later on March 27, 1968,
he was killed
during a plane crash while training on a UTI-MiG-15
, Siddiqi said.

Far from forgotten, Siddiqi called the launch the pinnacle event of the Soviet space program, noting the celebration of Gagarin’s historic first spaceflight was as big as that marking the end of World War II. He said he already has heard people
talking about the upcoming 50th anniversary of the flight in 2011.