This Day in History: April 12
- Published: Apr 12, 2016, 4 AM
America suffered another setback in its race to space with the Soviet Union on April 12, 1961, when Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.
Russia dominated the space race from the launch of Sputnik in 1957 until 1965 when America’s Gemini project started notching victories, and no Russian victory was more stunning and dispiriting to Americans than Gagarin’s flight, when he orbited the Earth once during a 106-minute flight (often listed as 108 minutes, modern research suggests it was two minutes shorter).
On April 12, 1961, at 9:07 a.m. Moscow time, the Vostok 1 spacecraft blasted off from the Soviets’ launch site with the Soviet fighter pilot aboard.
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Vostok 1 traveled around the Earth once, reaching a maximum height of 203 miles (327 kilometers). Over Africa, the engines fired to bring Gagarin back to Earth. About four miles up, Gagarin ejected himself and landed, off-target, but safely.
Gagarin became an instant worldwide celebrity, visiting several countries and becoming a symbol of the Soviet space achievements. His status ensured that he would never be sent to space again, but he wasn’t immune from danger — Gagarin died in a military training flight on March 27, 1968, aged 34.
Russia has celebrated his achievements on coins (paper money and stamps, too) several times, including a 10-ruble ringed-bimetallic coin issued in 2001 for the 40th anniversary of the 1961 flight and a 10-ruble coin in 2011 for its 50th anniversary.
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