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50 years in space: Yuri Gagarin

To consider the life and achievement of the first human being in space and to reflect on making the most of opportunities (SEAL theme 4: Going for goals).

by Gordon Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 2


Preparation and materials


  1. Introduce the theme and explain that just over 50 years ago, on 12 April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person ever to go into space.

    Explain the terms ‘Soviet’: a Russian-led empire of the last century; and ‘cosmonaut’: the Soviet word for astronaut, someone who journeys into space.
  2. Say that although he was very brave and dedicated, Yuri Gagarin had one very special quality that made it possible for him to climb into his Vostock 1 spacecraft and make the first orbit (circle of) the earth. Ask the children for suggestions for what this ‘special quality’ was.

    (Value all answers, such as engineering and scientific ability, athletic qualities and so on, but don’t give the game away even should someone know that Gagarin was short enough to fit into the cramped Vostock – save this for later!)
  3. Yuri Gagarin was born on 9 March 1934 in a small village in Russia. His parents worked on a farm. During World War II, their village was occupied by Hitler’s army and when the German troops left they threw the family out of their home. The Gagarins had to dig a shelter to survive the harsh Russian winter. Yuri was just eight years old when this happened.
  4. After this terrible start, things improved for young Yuri, who loved aeroplanes and the idea of flight. In 1950, when he was just 16, he was sent to Moscow to learn how to manufacture steel. He impressed his bosses and was soon given special technical training. He joined the factory’s ‘AeroClub’ and learned to fly and then he was selected to learn to pilot military jets in the Soviet Air Force.
  5. One day some mysterious visitors arrived at Yuri’s air base recruiting people for a top-secret mission. Many volunteered – whatever it was, it sounded exciting – but the tests were so hard that most pilots failed. Not Yuri! He passed all the tests and was delighted to discover that he had been selected to be a cosmonaut – he might get the chance to travel in space.
  6. Explain that space flight is extremely dangerous. Rocket fuel burns at very high temperatures and just the slightest error can lead to massive explosions. Then there are the difficulties of keeping a person alive in the vacuum of space. The technology in 1961 was primitive by today’s standards; there were no onboard computers, not even calculators. Scientists didn’t even know if a human being could survive a space flight!

    Twenty pilots were selected and one of them would be the first person ever to leave the earth and fly in space – who would it be?
  7. Yuri was perfect in so many ways: he was cheerful and able to cope with danger, he was a very good pilot and he understood the principles of space flight perfectly. But he had one more special quality: Yuri Gagarin was a bit short! This meant that he was one of only two of the pilots who could fit into the tiny Vostock spacecraft. And he was not very heavy – and every kilogram counts when you’re trying to get into orbit!
  8. Squeezed into his small space capsule on top of a powerful rocket, Yuri blasted off. He made one complete circuit of the Earth in just under two hours – by far the fastest person alive, the one who had gone the highest and, of course, the first ever to leave the Earth and go into space.

Time for reflection

Yuri Gagarin was a brave man.
He was a hard worker.
He was committed to reaching his goals.
And he was short!

When he was growing up he probably didn’t like being shorter than the other children. But this was one of the things that helped him to become the first person in space.

Be proud of who you are and how you are.
None of us knows what opportunities might come our way in the future.
But we have to be ready to take advantage of them.
Like Yuri Gagarin half a century ago.


‘He who would valiant be’ (Come and Praise, 44)

Publication date: June 2011   (Vol.13 No.6)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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