The development of human space flight was one of the pinnacles of human technological advancement and one of humanity's greatest achievements. But the "Space Race" was not motivated by science or by the humanitarian drive to explore new worlds--it was motivated by global Cold War politics between the United States and the Soviet Union. Perhaps that is why most people in the US today do not remember that the first human in space was not an American, but was a Soviet Air Force Senior Lieutenant named Yuri Gagarin.
Gagarin's spacesuit, on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
During World War 2, the Nazis developed the V-2 rocket, the first ballistic missile. At the end of the war, when it had become apparent that the US and the USSR would be postwar military rivals and that the combination of atomic weapons and ballistic missiles would be a potent military force, both sides tried to capture as much of the German technology and technicians as possible. The US got the best German technicians, including Werner von Braun, who went on to lead the US rocket and space efforts. The Soviets captured most of the technology and production equipment, and it served as the core of the Russian rocketry efforts, led by engineer Sergei Kolorev (the paranoid Soviets were afraid the US would try to kidnap or kill Kolorev, so from the 1940's until his death in 1966 they kept his name a secret and referred to him publicly only as "the Chief Designer"). Within a short time, using modified versions of the German V2, both sides had produced short-range rockets capable of carrying atomic warheads. But the real prize was an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of launching a nuclear warhead from one country and landing it accurately onto the other. As a side benefit, any rocket powerful enough to do that would also be enough to lift a smaller payload into orbit around the earth.
When the United Nations designated 1957 as the "International Geophysical Year", in which scientists from around the globe would carry out a comprehensive study of the Earth, both the Soviet Union and the United States announced that they would develop and launch an artificial satellite to study the region of outer space in Earth orbit. It was the beginning of the "Space Race".
In addition to the military benefits of a space-capable rocket, there were also political benefits. Decolonization in Africa and Asia meant that dozens of newly-created independent nations were being pushed into choosing Cold War political/economic ties and military partnerships with either the Soviet/Warsaw Pact Bloc or with the US/NATO Alliance. So both the US and the USSR had geopolitical motives to influence these nations by demonstrating their technological superiority and the economic advantages that would come with friendly relations.
In the US, von Braun's US Army team was already working on the Jupiter missile, which was nearly ready in 1956 and could serve as a satellite launcher as well as a medium-range nuclear missile, but President Eisenhower, for propaganda reasons, wanted the US satellite to be launched by a civilian rocket instead of a military missile, and assigned the task of launching a US satellite to the Vanguard team. In the Soviet Union, meanwhile, Korolev was developing the R-7 missile as an ICBM, and convinced Kruschev to let him use it as a satellite launcher. The Soviets launched their Sputnik satellite, using the R-7 rocket, in October 1957.
The Sputnik launch was a propaganda coup for the Soviet Union, and established the USSR as a technological power to be taken seriously. And US military officials also knew that the R-7 could be (and was) deployed as an ICBM capable of delivering nuclear weapons to US cities.
In response, the US first accelerated its Vanguard schedule to put an American satellite up as quickly as possible, and, when Vanguard failed in a spectacular explosion on live TV, finally allowed von Braun to use a modified Jupiter missile to launch the US's first satellite, called "Explorer", in January 1958. Unlike the Sputnik, which carried only a radio beeper, Explorer carried a number of scientific instruments, including a Geiger counter that discovered the Van Allen radiation belts that circled around the Earth--giving the Americans at least something of a propaganda victory.
The US also began pouring money into the development of a number of more advanced American ICBMs, including the Atlas and the Titan. For the rest of the Cold War, American missiles were technologically more advanced than the Soviet counterparts. The Soviets, meanwhile, continued their string of propaganda victories in the Space Race, by using the R-7 rocket to launch the first satellite that contained a living organism (a dog named "Laika"), and then a large satellite called Sputnik 3, packed with scientific instruments and weighing almost 1.5 tons (the American Explorer weighed a little less than 31 pounds).
By now, both nations had taken the next logical step in the space-race propaganda war--putting a human into space. Both nations selected military test pilots to undergo training for space flight, and began designing one-man spacecraft. The Americans called their conical spaceship "Mercury"; the Soviets named their spherical spacecraft "Vostok" (the Russian word for "East").
Once again, American delays would cost them their victory. By the first week of April 1961, the US was ready with its Mercury capsule, mated to a modified US Army Redstone missile. The Redstone was not powerful enough to put the capsule into orbit, but could launch it into space for about 15 minutes in a suborbital parabolic flight. But NASA decided to make one more unmanned test before launching an astronaut. That allowed the Soviets to carry out their manned launch on April 12, 1961, and Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.
Gagarin, an avid hunter, and basketball coach, had just turned 27. He was known as a math whiz and for keeping his cool under pressure. He was one of 20 Soviet pilots selected for cosmonaut training; this was quickly reduced to six. While Gagarin and the others trained at the newly-built facilities in Star City, the Vostok spacecraft and its modified R-7 launcher was developed and test-flighted using dogs and a mechanical dummy named "Ivan". Korolev knew that the first planned American space missions were to be suborbital, and he wanted to make a manned orbital flight before that.
On April 12, the Vostok 1 rocket/spacecraft was rolled out to the launching pad and inspected, while Gagarin and his backup, Gherman Titov, received medical exams. On the way to the launch pad, Gagarin stopped the van so he could get out to pee--a tradition that is now followed by all Russian cosmonauts prior to launch. Gagarin entered the Vostok, the hatch was closed--and wouldn't seal. Technicians spent the next hour opening the hatch, adjusting it, and closing it again. Finally it worked, and Gagarin spent the next two hours chatting with Korolev and the ground operators while the rocket underwent its preflight tests. As the rocket ignited for liftoff, Gagarin triumphantly shouted over the radio, "Let's go!"
When the mission was planned, it was not known how well humans would be able to tolerate the weightlessness of space, so the Vostok 1 capsule was designed to be capable of fully automated flight, as well as control from the ground and manual control by the cosmonaut. So once the flight began, Gagarin didn't actually have much to do. Looking through the small window at his feet, he reported, "I can see the Earth. The visibility is good." As the Vostok moved out over the Pacific Ocean, Gagarin gave regular reports on his physical condition, and on various instrument readings.
About one hour after liftoff, the automatic systems began lining up the Vostok capsule for re-entry. The retro rockets fired just as Gagarin was passing over the west coast of Africa. When the command was sent to separate the Vostok capsule from its service module (which had remained attached for the flight), there was a problem when one bundle of cables failed to separate, but it quickly broke free. Vostok re-entered the atmosphere over the Soviet Union. At a height of about 20,000 feet, the hatch was blown open and Gagarin was thrown clear from the craft in an ejection seat; both the Vostok capsule and Gagarin landed by parachute. (This fact was kept secret at the time by the Soviets; international aviation rules for aeronautical records specified that the pilot of a craft had to land in their craft, but weight considerations meant that Vostok could not carry the rockets that would soften the impact on landing, so Gagarin had to eject and land separately.) The entire flight had lasted 108 minutes.
The Soviets had not announced the flight until after it had been successfully completed, but within hours, Gagarin was hailed worldwide as a hero, and congratulatory messages poured in from every country. He was sent on a world tour by the Soviets as a goodwill ambassador. After his return to the USSR, he was placed in charge of cosmonaut training at Star City. He was forbidden from any further space flights, but was allowed to re-certify himself as a fighter pilot. On March 27, 1968, Yuri Gagarin was killed when his MiG-15 trainer jet crashed in bad weather.
Gagarin was given a state funeral and was buried in a place of honor in the Kremlin Wall. He is still considered as a hero in Russia--when the Communist Party regime fell in 1991, the statues of all the old Soviet leaders were pulled down and destroyed, but none of the statues of Yuri Gagarin were touched.
In the US, meanwhile, the only Soviet artifact to be exhibited in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum was the mockup Soyuz spacecraft used for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. It wasn't until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that artifacts from the former Soviet Union became available. In 1993, the Russian space program put a number of artifacts, including one of the space suits worn by Gagarin during training, up for auction at Sotheby's, and the entire collection was bought for $4 million by an anonymous bidder. That bidder turned out to be Texas billionaire Ross Perot (yes, THAT Ross Perot), and he donated the collection in 1997 to the Smithsonian, where Gagarin's spacesuit is now on permanent display.