Yuri Gagarin and the Space Race

“Dear friends, known and unknown to me, my dear compatriots and all people of the world! Within minutes from now, a mighty Soviet rocket will boost my ship into the vastness of outer space. What I want to tell you is this. My whole life is now before me as a single breathtaking moment. I feel I can muster up my strength for successfully carrying out what is expected of me.”


Forty Nine years ago today, Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin lifted off as part of the Vostok 1 mission onboard the Ласточка (Lastochka – Swallow), becoming the first human being to leave the Earth, completing a single, 108 minute orbit before successfully touching down in the Soviet Union. As the U.S.S.R. had done with Sputnik-1 two years earlier, Gagarin ensured that the Soviet Union had taken the lead in the forming space race, with the United States just behind.

In the early days of the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union had begun to clash in highly public displays of technology, with roots going back to the beginnings of the Cold War. At the end of the Second World War, the two countries were on a collision course with opposing ideologies. As Germany collapsed, Nazi scientists were grabbed by both sides to determine how to best gain a new weapons technology that the German military had begun to work on and implement: missiles. For the Soviet Union, this was an essential development. The country was ravaged by war, with millions dead, and a massive conventional military to clothe, feed and train, while the United States, untouched, possessed the technology to directly strike targets within Russian borders. Missile technology would further the Soviet’s reach and allow them to threaten US allies at first, then the mainland.

As the weapons race continued with both the United States and Soviet Union creating and testing Nuclear warheads, a smaller race began between the nations to build bigger rockets, which could in turn bring around a better and faster missile that could strike anywhere on the planet. As part of this race, the Soviet Union successfully launched its first satellite, Sputnik-1, throwing the United States into a panic, perceiving the instrument as a direct threat to the country’s security, despite gestures from President Eisenhower, that satellite technology was not the key indicator of a country’s technical superiority. Despite his attempts, it would be months before the United States could successfully follow the Russians into orbit.

The key to the Soviet’s success was simple: they had started earlier, but because they had trouble miniaturizing parts for their own nuclear bombs, larger and more powerful rockets had to be built to carry their payload into orbit and back. Thus, the addition of a human passenger by 1961 was a technical possibility. Gagarin’s flight occurred just days before US Astronaut, Alan Shepherd Jr. took off on board Freedom 7 on May 5th. The successes with the Vostok mission signaled an escalation of the space race between the two countries: over the next decade, their respective space agencies would work tirelessly to outdo the other, with spacewalks, number of orbits, people in space and eventually, the first to the moon. While the United States eventually won the space race by reaching the moon in 1969, the early Soviet victories underscored the differences in attitudes towards defensive doctrines in both countries. The United States was reluctant to shift its air force to a deterrent based system, while the Soviet Union essentially had no choice. As a result, they were able to gain a short lead in the race to orbit, as both countries experienced a space industry that was pushed along by military and political developments.

Gagarin never flew in space again. He was grounded by Soviet leadership, who used him as a public relations tool to bolster moral in the country. In 1968, he died in a plane crash while on a routine training mission. His legacy, however, is one of great importance: the first human to leave the planet, something equal, if not greater in importance to Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon.