The Vostok 3KA-3 spacecraft (Vostok 1) being prepared for launch. April 1961. Credit: NASA
The year is 1961. The United States and the Soviet Union are locked in a Cold War fueled by the growing threat of nuclear war. The Soviet Union has launched the world's first manmade satellite, Sputnik 1, into space. They have also launched the first canine into space aboard Sputnik 2. Both countries are competing to be the first to send a human being into space.
Yuri Gagarin aboard the Vostok 3KA-3 spacecraft (Vostok 1). April 1961. Credit: NASA
The Soviet Union began planning for a manned mission into space in 1958, resulting in the Vostok program which ran from 1960 to 1963. The program was a great success and on April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space as well as the first to orbit the Earth aboard the spacecraft Vostok 1. One month later, on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American into space aboard the Freedom 7 spacecraft.
Vostok 3KA-3 spacecraft (Vostok 1) lifts off. April 1961. Credit: NASA
Vostok 1 traveled around the Earth once, reaching a maximum height of 203 miles. Yuri Gagarin re-entered Earth's atmosphere 108 minutes later, experiencing forces up to eight times the pull of gravity. It was reported that Gagarin had touched down with the Vostok 1, but it was not revealed until 10 years later, in 1971, that he had ejected and landed separately from the spacecraft. Regardless, Yuri Gagarin still set the record as the first man to leave Earth's orbit and travel into space.