50 years ago today Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Until that time, only unmanned satellites and experimental animals had been sent up into space. It was a major coup in the Space Race for the USSR. Less than 1 month later, the USA sent up Alan Shepard , although his flight was suborbital.
There were other differences in the two flights as well: Shepard had some control over his flight, wheras Gagarin’s was completely automated. Shepard also splashed down in the Ocean wheras Gagarin bailed out of his Vostok 1. This detail was kept quiet by the USSR since the required standard for a successful spaceflight was that the craft would land on its own. Although this was a ‘violation’ of the Spaceflight standards of the time, only a few people have since made much of an issue of it and Yuri is generally considered the first man in a successful spaceflight.
Unlike Shepard, Gagarin also never returned to space, and he died in a plane accident in 1968. In the years since the Soviet Union collapsed, rumors have surfaced that other Cosmonauts were sent into space before Gagarin but did not survive – their failure being hushed up by the tight-lipped Soviet Union. The facts are that such dead cosmonauts were either fictional, died on Earth, or were dismissed for misbehavior.
So here’s to 50th years of Manned (if automated) Spaceflight!