We quickly learned about him, he was 27 years old and he left and flew round the Earth and returned in 1hr. 48 minutes. The actual orbit of mother Earth took 1Hr. 29.34 minutes. He flew at a height of 327,000 meters and travelled at 23,766 miles an hour in Vostock 1. Or as me and my brothers worked out rather crudely Glenburn to London in about 50 seconds that's what grabbed us, Glenburn to London in 50 seconds! I remember we sat looking at each other dumbstruck and unable to explain such a phenomenon, Glenburn to New York? 13 minutes wow! Yuri was described by his fellow cosmonauts as a brilliant mind with ice water in his veins, completely without fear and popular with everyone. He was able to withstand 13G's in the centrifuge and as part of psychological training spent 24 hrs. In a soundless, lightless room the instructors described him as "very difficult, if not impossible to upset"
He was one of 20 cosmonauts who were competing to be the first human in space, Gagarin got the nod not because of his brilliance as a pilot or his unflappable temperament, such things counted of course but he was chosen because he was the smallest of the 20 and the capsule was tiny, world shattering events can be dependent on such mundane things.
Yuri Gagarin left the Earth, no one had ever done that before, since the big bang until April 12 1961 he was the first to leave our planet quite a claim right? What the Soviets did not plan for was the reaction of the world, Gagarin was not just the first man in space he was also as a bonus the most charismatic of men with a megawatt smile who made friends with everyone he met, he was down to Earth (poor pun) and the world could not get enough of him, he did more to change people's opinions of the Soviet Union than anyone could imagine he was a PR dream and to me and millions of others he was one of the greatest if not thee greatest heroes in history.
Gagarin however did not like life as a famous personality all he wanted to do was fly preferably in space. This was denied him as the Soviets valued him too much to send him back into orbit. After much pleading they let him resume his career as a test pilot and he was happy with the adrenalin rush provided by flying low at great speed when testing migs. He died along with another pilot doing this in 1968 and so horrific was the crash that his body could only be identified by the air base barber who recognised a mole on his neck, I suppose he died the way he lived fast and dangerous.
I have thought of him many times since I first heard his name and I he is responsible in no small measure for my interest in science, astronomy and space travel. I suppose everyone has heroes and Yuri Gagarin was/is mine he takes me back to a time when he made anything seem possible a time when hair was long and time was short.