On this date in 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first human to reach outer space. He completed one orbit of the Earth in his Vostok 1 spacecraft and returned home a hero to millions of Russians, including the leaders of the Soviet government who immediately pushed Gagarin’s flight as proof of communism’s inevitable triumph over the capitalism of the U.S.-led western hemisphere. Nikita Khrushchev famously claimed that Gagarin had “seen no God up there,” and the Soviets sent Gagarin on a tour of Europe and Asia to tout their achievement — not just that they had shot the first man into space, but that they had done it before the United States.
His exploitation as a tool for Soviet propaganda takes nothing away from Gagarin’s place in history. The guy was a hero, the first man in space. He deserves to be mentioned right alongside Neil Armstrong as a pioneer of manned spaceflight.
He died in a plane crash under mysterious circumstances just seven years after his Vostok 1 voyage. In Russia they call him “the Columbus of the Cosmos.”