Yuri Gagarin: The First Man in Space

The life and times of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who became the first man in space on April 12, 1961. See the full slideshow at Life.

portrait of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin

Born March 9, 1934, Klushino, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Died March 27 1968 (aged 34), Novosyolovo, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union

Time in space: 1 hour, 48 minutes

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Yuri Kid

Where No One Had Gone Before

America is proud of its space program, and with ample reason. But the stubborn fact remains that the former Soviet Union attained not one, but two of the most important firsts during the decades-long, titanically expensive Space Race between the two superpowers. In 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik, the first manmade satellite in orbit around our planet. Then, in 1961, 27-year-old cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, beating NASA's Alan Shepard by three critical weeks. Here, a celebration of a Russian genuine trailblazer.

Above: Portrait taken in 1950 of Gagarin, then a student at an industrial school in Lyubertsy, near Moscow.

AFP/LIFE.com

Yuri Family

Humble Beginnings

Born on March 9, 1934 in village of Klushino in Russia, Gagarin was raised on a collective farm. Much of his childhood occurred during World War II, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union and overran his village on their way to Moscow, forcing his family to flee until the war ended. (While the Soviet Union and its allies ultimately triumphed, of course, it was at an unimaginable cost: Soviet casualties from the war range as high as 20 million.) In 1955, 21-year-old Gagarin joined the Russian air force. 

Above: Gagarin with his wife Valentina and daughter Jelena on the beach in Glasma, 1960.

AFP/LIFE.com

Yuri Air Force

Soviet Symbol

At the time of the space flight, Gagarin was just 27. Suddenly he was having streets named after him and monuments built in his honor. He was promoted to the rank of colonel. The Soviet Union asserted that his accomplishment proved "the genius of the Soviet people and the powerful force of socialism." LIFE, meanwhile, while praising the man, could not resist some barbs at Gagarin's homeland: "From Russia, where for centuries freedom has been a mockery, this man had been hurled, briefly free of earth into the high airlessness of space. In about as long as it might taken an Average family to down a Thanksgiving dinner, he had circled the globe in a capsule and come safely back." 

Above: Gagarin is greeted by Cuban President Fidel Castro in 1961.

Joseph Scherschel/Getty Images/LIFE.com

Yuri Little Girl

Home Away From Home

Gagarin receives a bouquet of flowers from a little girl at the Soviet Embassy in London on July 11, 1961.

Fox Photos/Getty/LIFE.com

Yuri Car

Final Flight

On March 28, 1968, Gagarin and Colonel Vladimir S. Seryogin crashed during a routine training flight. Both were killed. Only 34, Gagarin left behind a wife and two daughters.

Above: Gagarin drives through the streets of London in a convertible with the personalized plate "YG 1" on July 11, 1961.

Bob Haswell/Express/Getty Images/LIFE.com

Yuri Life After

Flight Dreams

While Gagarin's life was brief, his fame has endured on a global level. The tributes for the 50th anniversary of his historic flight include the construction of a statue of Gagarin in London, where he triumphantly visited decades earlier hard on the heels of his pioneering flight. 

Above: A child at the National Exhibition of Economic Achievements observes a model of Gagarin's Vostok spacecraft on July 19, 1967.

Pohodin/AFP/LIFE.com

Yuri Gagarin: The First Man in Space

The life and times of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who became the first man in space on April 12, 1961. See the full slideshow at Life.

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