Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly into space on April 12, 1961.

Soviet air force pilot, Gagarin instantly became one of the most famous people in the world. The flight was a second notable “first” for the Soviet space program, after the launching of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. The Soviets would also become the first to launch a woman when Valentina Tereshkova entered space on June 16, 1963.

Gagarin’s flight charged the already heated relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States. After World War II (1939-1945), the two nations had entered a period of intense competition called the Cold War. The tension between the two superpowers revolved around the build-up of military might, most notably nuclear weapons. One front on which the Cold War was “fought” was the Space Race, with each rival trying to best the other in space technology. The Soviets won the opening rounds of the Space Race with the launch of Sputnik and with Gagarin’s historic flight. The race intensified during the 1960’s, reaching a peak with the landing of American astronauts on the moon in July 1969.

Gagarin’s flight was followed within a month by the first launch of an American into space. On May 5, the Navy pilot Alan Shepard flew Freedom 7 on a 15-minute flight. The mission was a far cry from the over 100-minute mission flown by Gagarin. During his flight, Shepard would not even orbit Earth once, falling back to the Atlantic Ocean soon after reaching space.

The Cold War and the Space Race were born out of fear among rivals. However, the technologies developed during this period laid the foundations for much of modern life. Satellites are an irreplaceable part of global communication, weather tracking, and navigation to name but a few uses. Still other Cold War technologies led to the Internet. Many advanced materials developed for use in space, such as lightweight plastics, are now used everyday.

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