Yuri Gagarin, while famous for being the first human in outer space, really did nothing but sit in a big metal ball and say things like, "Da, everythink she is workink fine" to the ground controllers. In the Soviet space program at that time, the cosmonauts really had almost no involvement in anything, and the flight systems on the spacecraft were all completely automatic (unlike the much less-advanced American spacecraft of the time). They could just as easily have sent the town drunk into space instead of Yuri Gagarin, but having a national hero boosts morale and gives you something to be proud of.

A cool example of how contraproductive propaganda can be:
My mother comes from Hungary. At some stage they were sent out in crowds to greet the great Yuri Gagarin, who had shown the supremacy of the so-called communist countries over the imperialist yadda yadda yadda. And the crowds went out to greet Gagarin and cheered and all. But they were not very impressed by him anyway, since they figured it was probably just another propaganda trick.
40 years ago today, Yuri Gagarin, then 27 years old, was the first human to leave this planet. He orbitted the earth for 48 minutes and was safely returned. He stayed a total of 108 minutes in space.

At that time this meant an incredible head start for the soviet union. The USA had nothing to beat that.
Gagarin himself was destined to be a hero ever since. His mysterious death however is still unsolved today.

Russian cosmonauts can only dream of things like this nowadays. The reputation of the russian space program is basically at an all time low, after the crash of the MIR space station. Until the 1980s, Russian propaganda claimed that Gagarin landed smoothly on the earth. Actually he used the ejector seat of the little "Wostok" space capsule at an altitude of 7000m, otherwise he would have died a certain death. Gagarin himself was the type of person that enjoyed being famous in all the ways it has to offer.
According to his trainer Nikolai Kamanin, who published his Gagarin's diaries in 1994, his wife Walia caught him with another woman in their hotel room during a vacation in 1961. Driven by panic, Yuri simply jumped out of the first floor window, cutting his face.
Yuri Gagarin died at age 34, on March 27 1968 in a plane crash. Even 33 years after his death, the circumstances of that crash are still unclear. Gagarin and his co-pilot Wladimir Serjogin have not been physically examined before their flight, which was against regulations. Additionally Serjogin had a quarrel with his commanding officer before the flight.
Some people claimed that Gagarin was drunk, when he entered the cockpit of his plane. Others think he was the victim of a KGB conspiracy. Some even think that he was abducted by aliens.

Contrary to wonko's point, Gagarin was not just a random guy. While his mission was in fact the human equivalent to that of Belka and Strelka, i.e. staying alive during and after the flight, he had been carefully picked out of many. The man for the job had to be in perfect health, have rock-solid mental condition, endurance against extra/zero G's and mid-air experience — man, he had to bail out from the reentry capsule and descend on a parachute by himself! Gagarin was an Air Force Lieutenant (he had been promoted to a Major during his 108-minute space flight). The amount of training that he passed would make Dennis Tito look like a chicken (not that he doesn't already).

What really made the mission planners to select Yuri among the group of prospective cosmonauts, was his modest constitution and low weight. Another reason was his rather pleasant appearance: this smile had become a weapon of Soviet propaganda for decades.

Anyway, I get a piloerection and wet eyes each time I hear that noisy record...

<Mission Control>: "Piat'... Chetyre... Tri... Dva... Odin... PUSK!"
(noise blasts away)
<Gagarin>: "Poyehali!" (Let's ride!)

My dad was an 11 year old Soviet boy in 1961. He still remembers where he was when the radio broken news ("This is Moscow. Every radio station in the Soviet Union is on line.") about the man in space. People were rejoicing and hugging each other on the streets.

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