Because no one was certain how weightlessness would affect a pilot, the spherical capsule had little in the way of onboard controls; the work was done either automatically or from the ground. If an emergency arose, Gagarin was supposed to receive an override code that would allow him to take manual control, but Sergei Korolev, chief designer of the Soviet space program, disregarded protocol and gave the code to the pilot prior to the flight.
Over the course of 108 minutes, Vostok 1 traveled around the Earth once, reaching a maximum height of 203 miles (327 kilometers). The spacecraft carried 10 days’ worth of provisions in case the engines failed and Gagarin was required to wait for the orbit to naturally decay. But the supplies were unnecessary. Gagarin re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, managing to maintain consciousness as he experienced forces up to eight times the pull of gravity during his descent.
The BBC remembers how on his return to earth, Gagarin parachuted into some farmland several hundred miles from Moscow — “much to the surprise of a five-year-old girl who was out in the fields planting potatoes.”
60 years later, the BBC tracked down and interviewed Interviewed that woman — who still remembered Gagarin’s kind voice and smile. (Thanks to Slashdot reader 4wdloop for sharing the article.)
The BBC also published a look at Gagarin’s global fame in the years that followed — and Phys.org notes that even today, there are few people more universally admired in Russia than Yuri Gagarin:
His smiling face adorns murals across the country. He stands, arms at his sides as if zooming into space, on a pedestal 42.5 metres (140 feet) above the traffic flowing on Moscow’s Leninsky Avenue. He is even a favourite subject of tattoos… The anniversary of Gagarin’s historic flight on April 12, 1961 — celebrated every year in Russia as Cosmonautics Day — sees Russians of all ages lay flowers at monuments to his accomplishment across the country…
Gagarin, says historian Alexander Zheleznyakov, was a figure who helped fuel the imagination. “He transformed us from a simple biological species to one that could imagine an entire universe beyond Earth.”
Read more of this story at Slashdot.