Coinciding with the massive arms buildup that became symbolic of the Cold War, was an increasing international interest in space exploration. Whether the motives behind the interest in space were to progress weapons technology, develop ways to gather intelligence on opponents without their immediate knowledge or to increase national prestige will never be precisely known however, the Cold War era drastically paralleled the often tumultuous series of events known as the Space Race. Both the United States and the Soviet Union launched a series of missions some manned or unmanned, some successful and some meeting with tragedy in hopes of outdoing the other to increase the national image of their nation. With the launch of the first artificial satellite known as Sputnik I on 4 October 1957 by the Soviet Union, there was no turning back. The stage was now set for the exploration of space, a realm which would come to be deemed 'the final frontier'. With a satellite in orbit, the Soviets soon turned their attention towards putting the first human in orbit around the Earth. The man that would be selected for the mission would be a young Russian by the name of Yuri Gagarin.
Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was born in the village of Klushino near the town of Gzhatsk, Russia in the Soviet Union on 9 March 1934. His parents worked on a collective farm in socialist fashion endorsed by the Soviet government. His father Alexey Ivanovich Gagarin was a carpenter and bricklayer by trade, and his mother Anna Timofeyevna Gagarina was a milkmaid. Yuri was the third of four children born to the Gagarins. The family suffered greatly when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 during Operation Barbarossa. Gagarin's hometown of Klushino would fall to Nazi occupation in November of 1941 as the German Wehrmacht advanced towards Moscow. During the occupation, a German officer took over the Gagarin's residence and forced the family into a mut hut on the land behind the family home. The family would spend nearly a year and a half living in the tiny mud hut before advancing Soviet forces liberated the village but not before Yuri's older brother Valentin and older sister Zoya were deported by the Germans to Poland for slave labor in 1943. With the end of the Great Patriotic War in 1945, and the Soviet victory over fascism, Yuri's older siblings returned home and in 1946, the family moved to Gzhatsk where Yuri would advance his secondary education.
In 1950 at the age of 16, Yuri was enrolled into an apprenticeship as a foundryman at the Lyubertsy Steel Mill near Moscow. Along with his apprenticeship, Gagarin took evening classes for young workers to advance his education. He graduated vocational school in 1951 with honors in the trades of moldmaking and foundry work where he was then enrolled into the Saratov Industrial Technical School, where he studied tractors and other farming machinery. It was here where Gagarin's future would ultimately begin to take shape when he volunteered for weekend training as an air cadet in a local Soviet aeronautics club. It was from here that he developed an interest in aeronautics and flight. While earning extra money as a dock laborer on the Volga River, he paid for flight lessons first flying biplanes before progressing to the Yakovlev Yak-18 Max two seat training airplane.
When he graduated from the Saratov Industrial Technical School, Yuri Gagarin was drafted into the Soviet Army in 1955, where upon recommendation he was sent to the First Chkalov Air Force Pilot's School located in Orenburg, in southern Russia close to the border with the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. It was here that in 1957 he learned to fly the Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-15 Fagot jet fighter. He would graduate from Orenburg on 7 November 1957. After graduation, Gagarin and his new bride Valentina Ivanovna Goryacheva a graduate of the Orenburg Medical School were assigned to the Luostari airbase in the Murmansk Oblast located not far from the Soviet border with Norway. Harsh weather conditions at the Luostari airbase made flight operations difficult and dangerous but nonetheless Gagarin was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force on 5 November 1957 and on 6 November 1957 he was promoted to the rank of Senior Lieutenant.
Following the successful launch of the Sputnik I satellite a month earlier in October, the Soviets began focusing on the next step of preparing to put a man in orbit around the Earth. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev began planning for the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution that had brought communism to power in the Soviet and wanted a spacecraft to be launched on 7 November 1957. A more advanced satellite was under development however it would not be ready in time to meet Khrushchev's deadline so instead a new craft would be built to partake on a mission that would again bring the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to the forefront of the world as they would repeat the championing of the Sputnik I launch. This would lead to the launch of Sputnik II. As little was known about the impact of spaceflight on living organisms at the time, and methods for reentry had not been developed at the time, a stray dog named Laika was chosen to partake in the mission. Laika became the first animal to orbit the Earth, however she would die within hours of the launch from overheating.
The success of the Sputnik II mission proved to Soviet officials that a living passenger could survive being launched into space and endure weightlessness. The journey to human spaceflight was now underway.
In 1960, Yuri Gagarin along with 19 other candidates were selected for the Soviet space program. From here he along with five others would graduate to become members of the elite Sochi Six which would go on to become the first cosmonauts of the Vostok program. After submitting to rigorous tests examining their physical and psychological endurance the selection came down to two candidates Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov as to whom would be the first man into space. With his physical prowess as an avid player of ice hockey, and basketball as well as his small stature, Yuri Gagarin was chosen to be the Soviet Union's first cosmonaut to orbit the Earth.
The launch into Earth's orbit would be conducted on 12 April 1961, when aboard the Vostok I space craft, Yuri Gagarin would be propelled into history becoming the first human to enter outer space as well as orbit the Earth while Vostok I conducted the first orbital flight of a manned vehicle. Vostok I was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. When he returned to the Soviet Union from outer space, Gagarin was hailed as a national hero to the Soviet Union. For his accomplishments in the advancement of the Soviet space program, Gagarin was made a Hero of the Soviet Union on 14 April 1961.
His fame skyrocketed worldwide as he toured the world visiting both Germanies, Canada, Brazil, Japan, Egypt and Finland to promote the Soviet feat. He also would visit the United Kingdom touring both London and Manchester. It was a great propaganda victory over the West for the Soviet Union. With his sudden fame, Gagarin suffered a series of setbacks which took its toll on the young pilot including bouts of alcoholism and on atleast one occasion he was caught having an affair with a nurse by his wife. The encounter and subsequent flight of Gagarin resulted in a permanent scar above his left eyebrow after he hit his face on a kerbstone while fleeing the room.
On 12 June 1962, Yuri Gagarin was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet Air Force and on 6 November 1963 he would be promoted to the rank of Colonel. He would be restricted from any further flight activities as it was feared the national hero of the Soviet Union would be lost. He would be a backup pilot for his friend Vladimir Komarov, when he would be launched into space aboard the Soyuz I space craft. The launch was contested by Gagarin who argued that the appropriate safety measures had not been taken and ultimately the launch ended terribly when upon reentry the Soyuz I space capsule crashed to Earth following a parachute failure. Komarov would become the first human to be killed during a spaceflight. The death of Komarov took its toll on Gagarin, and Soviet authorities permanently barred Gagarin from any further space flights. With no further spaceflights in his future, Gagarin began focusing on requalifying as a fighter pilot.
On 27 March 1968, the Soviet Union's worst fears were realized when Yuri Gagarin was killed during a routine training flight from Chkalovsky Air Base near the town of Shchyolkovo in the Moscow Oblast. Yuri Gagarin and his flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin had been flying a Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-15UTI, the two seat trainer variant of the MiG-15 jet fighter. It was reported that a Sukhoi Su-15 Flagon fighter, a much larger aircraft than the MiG-15 was flying a test in the vicinity of Gagarin's flight plan although it was to fly at an altitude well above the course Gagarin and Seryogin were to fly. The weather on the day of the crash was poor with heavy rain and a low cloud formation which severly limited visibility. At the time of the crash, Alexei Leonov who was a friend of Gagarin's was scheduled to perform parachute jump training when he heard two large booms. The first boom was determined to be the sound of an aircraft breaking the sound barrier and the second to be the sound of an aircraft colliding with the ground. The booms were within seconds of each other followed by an abrupt silence.
When the crash site was located investigators first found Seryogin's body but Gagarin's was nowhere to be found. It wouldn't be recovered until the following day thus dashing Soviet hopes that he had atleast ejected and survived the crash. Leonov identifed Gagarin's body by a mole on Gagarin's neck. Witnesses to the crash told an investigation board that they had seen the Su-15 streaking from the cloud formation with its tail section ablaze and smoking however it was flying much lower than the mission profile had authorized. According to witnesses it was flying closer to 2,000 feet not the 33,000 feet filed in the test report. A larger aircraft like the Su-15 has the power to roll a smaller aircraft like a MiG-15 over if they come too close to each other. The timing between the two booms indicated that the aircraft were about 30 feet apart at the time of the accident. The momentum of the Flagon flying at nearly supersonic speeds shook Gagarin's MiG from the sky, forcing it into a spiral dive and the aircraft impacted the ground at a speed of some 470 miles per hour killing Gagarin and Seryogin instantly. There was only 55 seconds between the pilot's last communication and the impact with the ground.
The identity of the other pilot was never identified and official reports covered up the incident blaming the crash on a bird strike, or alcoholism amongst other theories. Regardless at the age of 34, the man who was said to possess a smile 'that lit up the Cold War' was dead.