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Yuri Gagarin was the first man to fly into space. On April 12, 1961 the 27 year old Soviet fighter pilot orbited the world at an altitude of 203 miles with Vostok 1. The spacecraft was launched from the cosmodrome in Baikonur. The journey itself lasted 108 minutes. For the first time in history man had freed himself from the earth's gravity. Gagarin was the son of a carpenter. His mother worked as a milkmaid. When the Germans occupied their village during World War II the family were forced out of their home and lived in a hut nearby. In school Gagarin's favorite subjects were mathematics and physics. Yuri went on to a technical college where he became interested in flying. After graduating from pilot school Gagarin became a fighter pilot for the Soviet Air Force. Over 20 candidates were trained for the Soviet Union's first manned space mission. The son of a worker was chosen because the Soviet Union wanted to show the west that, in a socialist society, everyone could succeed, even those from poorer families. When Gagarin's Vostok spacecraft lifted off on the morning of April 12, 1961 Gagarin was only a passenger. He could not control anything on board Vostok 1. Although the flight was a success, the west found out later that Gagarin was close to being killed. The service module did not separate from the capsule on its return to earth. Temperatures in the capsule got very high and Gagarin said he was engulfed in a cloud of fire when returning to earth. Shortly before the capsule crashed on the ground Gagarin was able to eject and return to earth with a parachute. The Soviet Union kept Gagarin's flight secret until it was almost over because they feared something might go wrong and the Communist superpower would be humiliated. After returning to earth Gagarin became famous around the world. He visited Germany, Canada, Japan
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