He was born on March 9, 1934 in Klushino, a small village 100 miles west of Moscow. His father was a cabinetmaker, carpenter, bricklayer, and farmer, and his mother was a milkmaid. Together they worked on a kolkhoz or collective farm. By Soviet social standards, his heritage was impeccable. He was the third of four children. During the war, the Nazis threw his family out of their home and took away two of his sisters. Yuri helped his parents dig a dugout where they lived untill the war was over, then the family moved to Gziatsk.
On April 12, 1961 the first earthling escaped the gravity well of planet earth. In the spaceship Vostok 1, Senior Lieutenant Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin orbited earth one time at an altitude of 187 3/4 miles (302 kilometers) for 108 minutes at 18,000 miles an hour. He was the first man to see that the earth was indeed round, indeed mostly water, and indeed magnificent.
When he was a teenager, he witnessed a Russian Yak fighter plane make a forced landing in a field near his home. It was just returning from battle, its wings bullet-ridden. When the pilots emerged covered in medals, he was so impressed:
Yuri at age 10. "We understood immediately the price that had to be paid for military decorations. We boys all wanted to be brave and handsome pilots. We experienced strange feelings such as we had never known before."
While studying flyng, he learned parachuting, a skill that would later save his life when it was time for him to eject from the Vostok 1 capsule upon it's re-entry.
Chief Designer Korolev, the head of the Soviet space program and the man who had chosen the first cosmonaut, was especially fond of Yuri:
"During the days of preparation for the launch, when everyone had more than his share of concerns, apprehensions, and anxieties, he alone seemed to keep calm. More than that: he was full of good spirits and beamed like the sun."
Korolev would also comment later, "A good pilot is one who, in one minute of flight, can make enough observations, and draw enough conclusions, to keep an entire institute busy with them for a whole year. A bad pilot can fly for a whole week but only obtain enough information for an hour's work. What pleased us so much about Gagarin was that in 108 minutes he was able to see a great deal and enrich science with valuable information and conclusions."
A fun-loving man, Gagarin coupled his strenuous training with periods of relaxation, and, like his work, gave 100%. He loved the outdoors and enjoyed swimming, fishing, camping, hunting, and the company of good friends. And of course he loved cars. Like any good pilot, Yuri enjoyed a well-engineered, fast car.
James C. Ryan Middle School - Alaska - http://www3.northstar.k12.ak.us/schools/ryn/spacerace/people/gagarin.html
Norfolk Academy - Norfolk Virginia - http://www.norfacad.pvt.k12.va.us/project/gagarin/ygagarin.htm
Russian Archives Online - http://analogue.com/rao/gallery/gagarin/index.html
Russian Space Science - http://www.rssi.ru/
The Yuri Gagarin Cosmonauts Training Center - http://howe.iki.rssi.ru/GCTC/gctc_e.htm