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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 the role of space flight in human achievement (SEAL theme 3: Keep on learning).

by Gordon Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 3/4


To consider the life and achievement of the first human being in space and to reflect on the role of space flight in human achievement (SEAL theme 3: Keep on learning).

Preparation and materials


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

    If necessary, explain the terms ‘Soviet’: a Russian-led empire of the last century; and ‘cosmonaut’: the Soviet term for astronaut.
  2. 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 as the German troops retreated they threw the family out of their home. The Gagarins had to dig a shelter to survive the harsh Russian winter. Yuri was eight years old when this happened.
  3. After this terrible start, things improved for 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 train to pilot military jets in the Soviet Air Force.
  4. One day some mysterious visitors arrived at his 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. Yuri, however, passed all the tests with flying colours and was delighted to discover that he had been selected to be a cosmonaut and might get the chance to travel in space.
  5. Discuss the dangers of space flight including:

    –   Rocket fuel burns at very high temperatures and just the slightest error can lead to massive explosions.

    –   Then there are immense difficulties in 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.

    –   No one knew what the radiation dangers of space flight might be as a cosmonaut would be exposed to the full power of the sun.

    –   The effects of prolonged weightlessness on a human being in orbit were completely unknown.

    –   Scientists did not even know if a human being could survive a space flight.
  6. Twenty cosmonauts were selected and one of them would be the first person ever to leave the earth and fly in space – who would it be?

    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 very well. But he had one more special quality: Yuri Gagarin was a bit short! This meant that he was one of only two of the cosmonauts who could fit into the tiny Vostock 1 space capsule (later versions had more space) and he was not very heavy – and every kilogram counts when you’re trying to get into orbit!
  7. The powerful rocket, with Yuri’s capsule on top, blasted off. It made one complete circuit of the Earth in just under two hours. Yuri was 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.

    But he very nearly didn’t make it back! His Vostock 1 spacecraft was a brilliant design. Below Yuri’s spherical return capsule there was a service module. According to the design, when the descent began, the two would separate. The capsule would travel back to earth, and the service module would be left behind to burn up on re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere.

    Yuri’s return capsule separated, as planned, but one cable remained attached. The capsule began to spin, dangerously out of control, and the chances were high that Yuri and his capsule would burn up as the Earth’s atmosphere heated the rushing spacecraft. After ten minutes, at the very last moment, the cable burnt through and Yuri’s capsule stabilized sufficiently for his parachute to open.

    Yuri ejected from Vostock 1 as planned and the first man in space landed safely, to be met by a group of farm workers!

Time for reflection

What do you think of the story of the first man in space? Are you inspired by it:
by the human courage,
by the amazing technical achievement,
by the exciting nearly disastrous story?

Space flight is dangerous and expensive.
Do you consider it to be a good thing for humanity to do?

Yuri Gagarin came from a poor background;
he survived a terrible war and the destruction of his home
to become the most famous person in the world.
One reason for his achievement was his passion for aircraft and flying.
What inspires you to work hard to achieve your best?

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