On April 12, 1961, the Soviets pulled further ahead of the United States in the space race by launching the first person to orbit the Earth—Yuri Gagarin. At the time, America was still testing its Mercury spacecraft which had been used to send up monkeys, but no astronaut yet.
Gagarin had the personality and history to be a hero of Soviet communism. He was friendly, likeable with a warm personality and an easy smile. He was a solid pilot, a brave man and came from good peasant stock. He was both a great man and an every man.
His flight, Vostok 1, was mostly controlled from the ground. During descent, Gagarin ejected as planned and parachuted safely to Earth. The Vostok spacecraft landed separately.
An immediate celebrity and hero, Gagarin longed to return to space. But he was too famous and too important to send on another risky mission. Nonetheless, he was training for a return to space in 1968 when, on March 27th, he was killed in a plane crash.