April 12, 1961, was a day that changed the future of the world and sparked a new area of competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was on that day that a brave young Russian cosmonaut named Yuri Gagarin climbed into the Vostok 1 spacecraft and was shot into space from a lonely area of Kazakhstan. The capsule landed 108 minutes later with Gagarin parachuting the final leg of the journey, the first man to have flown in space, the first to orbit our earth.
I am among that generation of men and women who were inspired by Gagarin and found ourselves dreaming of following him into the unknown. We viewed his heroic deed not just as a win for Russia in the space race, but as something we suspected would shape our future in ways we couldn't even imagine or comprehend. He made us wonder what lay beyond our solar system. He made a nation coalesce in an effort to send a man to walk on the moon. The success of his flight secured the future of space exploration and the development of inventions and technologies that now enhance the daily lives of citizens worldwide.
Such a stellar legacy appears at odds with a boy raised on a collective farm. In 1955, aged 21, Gagarin joined the Russian air force, and was picked for cosmonaut training. Gagarin's eventual success in beating off 19 others to man the first flight owed as much to his physical characteristics as to his performance. Standing only 1.57m tall was an advantage in a small cockpit. Gagarin's humble upbringing and outgoing personality helped win him friends too and fans.
He was instantly catapulted to worldwide fame, and, as Russia paraded its hero, he in turn proved adept at handling the intense publicity.
Seven years after his return from space, Gagarin died when his MiG-15 crashed. His premature death prevented him from witnessing how his contribution benefited manned spaceflight and mankind. Thirty-three years later, looking down at the earth from a Russian Soyuz space capsule, I reflected on the scale of his achievement. And even from space, it looked huge.