Young World

Conquering the final frontier

Valetina Tereshkova  

Every day, we travel many kilometres on bicycles, cars, bikes, trains and planes. But imagine if you were the first person to travel on one of these and go to a place no human had ever been before? How would you feel? Would you be trembling with excitement or nervous with fear or maybe a bit of both? Now, replace these familiar modes of transport with a spaceship and the journey you are making is to deep, dark space, far away from Earth!

This is the journey a brave young Russian cosmonaut named Yuri Gagarin made, on April 12, 1961, making him the first ever human in space. He was 27 when he orbited the Earth once during his 108-minute flight aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft. Today, people go regularly to the International Space Station and astronauts share their awe-inspiring pictures on Twitter. So, we may find it difficult to understand the gravity of this significant event.

But it was Gagarin’s successful flight that was an inspiration to achieve these scientific milestones. It made people more curious to know what made up our universe. It motivated people to reach for the moon and stars, literally!

It is now 55 years since that first flight and the Russian Space Agency is celebrating 2016 as the Year of Yuri Gagarin. He had a humble childhood, born to a farmer’s family in Gzhatsk, Russia. This town has now been renamed Gagarin, in his honour. After graduating from technical school, he joined the Soviet Air Force.

At that time, there was a fierce competition between former Soviet Union (USSR) and the U.S. to explore space. With the successful launch of the first satellite, Sputnik I, USSR took an early lead. The Soviet Vostok programme was competing with the American Mercury programme to send a human to space. The Americans had a deadline of 1961 and the Russians were working hard to beat it. The hunt was on for the cosmonaut who would be blasting off into history.

Making the cut

More than 200 Russian Air Force fighter pilots were considered. They had experience of high stress situations, as well as processes such as ejection from aircraft and high gravitational forces.

After vigorous tests, 20 were short listed and ultimately six were chosen to be tested on the spacecraft simulator. Gagarin was one of them. He soon became the popular choice not just of the selectors but also among the 20 short listed candidates, most of whom voted for him when asked who they would choose as the first man in space. This was because of his physical fitness and his attitude. He was also only about 1.57 m tall (5 ft 2 in) which was beneficial in the small cockpit of the spacecraft.

Gagarin lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome (presently in Kazakhstan), which is the world’s first and largest operational space launch facility. (Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian to travel to space in the Soyuz T-11 in 1984 also blasted off from this site.) The launch pad used by Vostok I has now been renamed Gagarin’s Start. At the moment of launch, Gagarin said “Poyekhali” which is Russian for “Let’s go”!

After his successful return, Gagarin became a worldwide hero but unfortunately did not realise his dream to fly to space again. Seven years after his return, he died when his MiG-15 jet crashed in a routine training flight.

So, after reading Gagarin’s exciting story, would you be interested to become a vyomanaut?


1942: German V2 A 4 rocket is the first to reach the boundary of space, defined by the Karman Line as 100 km from the Earth’s surface.

1947: Fruit flies became the first animals to be launched into space.

1 949: Albert II was the first monkey in space.

1957: On October 4, Russia successfully launches the first satellite into space, Sputnik I. This is the start of the Space Age. Sputnik means one on the same path (with someone else); implying a fellow traveller with the Earth. Today there are more than 500 satellites orbiting the Earth.

1957: In November, Russian space dog Laika becomes the first animal to orbit the Earth in Sputnik 2.

1959: The space-probe Luna 2 crash lands into the moon, becoming the first spacecraft to get to the moon.

Did you know?

On March 19, 2016, a small stuffed owl accompanied the three astronauts heading to the International Space Station. This tradition of carrying small toys as weightless indicators was launched with Gagarin when a small doll accompanied him on his historic flight.

Yuri’s Night is an international celebration held every year on April 12 to commemorate milestones in space exploration. It is also called the World Space Party and the goal is to increase public interest in space exploration. Log onto to take part in the celebration.

Cosmonaut? Astronaut?

The words essentially mean the same — a person trained to command, pilot or serve as a crew member of a special machine designed to fly in outer space; a spacecraft. Both the words have their origin in Greek with astro, meaning star, nautes meaning sailor and kosmos meaning universe. Astronaut is the popular American term whereas the Russians use cosmonaut.

With other countries becoming active in the space programme, there are new terms being used to describe an astronaut — Taikonaut for a Chinese astronaut and Spationaut for French astronauts. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is using the term Vyomanauts derived from the Sanskrit word vyom, for space.

First woman in space

Incidentally, the first woman in space was also a Russian cosmonaut called Valentina Tereshkova who made the trip in 1963. Ultimately, the space race between the U.S. and the USSR peaked when America sent its astronauts to the moon, in 1969.

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Printable version | Jan 13, 2021 9:01:22 AM |

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