A remarkable milestone in human history took place exactly 50 years ago today when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. During the flight of Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961, Gagarin, then 27, completed a single orbit of Earth in approximately 108 minutes. His flight begun at Baikonur cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan and ended with his safe arrival by parachute in the Saratov region of central Russia, where he was famously welcomed back to our planet with a hospitable offer of bread and milk by Anna Takhtarova and her four-year-old granddaughter Margarita.
The era was one of fierce competition between the US and the USSR, with the link between space exploration technology and military technology being all too clear – the Vostok rocket that took Gagarin on his pioneering journey for example, was adopted from a Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, the R-7 Semyorka.
The USSR had earlier placed the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit on 4 October 1957, effectively starting the "space race" which culminated in the Apollo 11 moon landing of 20 July 1969.
Less than a month after Gagarin's 1961 flight, the U.S. put astronaut Alan Shephard into space aboard a Redstone rocket, which was also adapted from a ballistic missile. Later flights would show a spirit of increased co-operation between these superpowers as humankind set out to explore the cosmos.
The son of a carpenter, Yuri Gagarin was born on 9 March 1934 in the village of Klushino near, Gzhatsk; which would be renamed Gagarin in the cosmonaut's honor in 1968, the year of his tragic death in a flying accident in a Soviet Air Force MiG-15.
His flight of 50 years ago stands out as a truly significant moment in humankind's efforts to explore our Universe, and a truly significant technological achievement by the former USSR.
More photos and archival material can be found at the the Russian Federal Space Agency site.