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Monday, March 30, 1998 Published at 23:08 GMT 00:08 UK


'The Earth is blue'
image: [ Yuri Gagarin - the world's first cosmonaut ]
Yuri Gagarin - the world's first cosmonaut

On April 12 1961, the world changed. Lieutenant Yuri A Gagarin became the first human being to leave the Earth's atmosphere, winning the race to put a man into space for the USSR.

He orbited the planet in spacecraft Vostok 1, and returned to Earth one hour and 49 minutes after launch, landing safely.

[ image: The USSR won the race to put a human in space]
The USSR won the race to put a human in space
The flight - new footage of which is due to be shown on a BBC documentary, Starman, on March 31, proved that man could endure the rigours of lift-off, re-entry, and weightlessness.

But the first cosmonaut was also a symbol of the Soviet struggle for progress from the agricultural society to the space age - the triumph of the will over the plough.

Gazing at the Earth from an altitude of 300km, Gagarin described the world as unique and beautiful.

"The earth is blue," he reported to Ground Control. "How wonderful. It is amazing."

From the very beginning, Gagarin's role as a hero was as much about what he represented - as the son of a farmer - as what he achieved.

After the flight, the Soviet Union paid its official thanks to the man who had become its most famous son.

[ image: A hero of the Soviet Republic]
A hero of the Soviet Republic
Gagarin's victorious parade ended with a standing ovation at the Mausoleum. The only slip-up was when the cosmonaut's shoelace came undone, dragging along behind him as he strode in triumph to meet General-Secretary Kruschev.

His famous smile travelling the world, Gagarin became an international superstar. And, as Kruschev recognised, he had tremendous propaganda value as a result.

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