How Soviet Hero Yuri Gagarin Embarrassed NASA Into Going to the Moon

Today marks 60 years since Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel to space, in a pioneering event without which NASA's future—including the Moon landings—may have looked very different, a historian has told Newsweek.

In 1961, Gagarin, of the former Soviet Union, travelled out of the Earth's atmosphere in the Vostok 3KA-3 spacecraft and completed one orbit of the planet in a flight lasting 108 minutes, before returning.

Space technology at the time was significantly less advanced than it is today; the Vostok 3KA-3 was not capable of landing safely so Gagarin had to eject from the craft before parachuting back to Earth himself after re-entry into the atmosphere.

In addition to Gagarin's flight, the Soviet Union's space program had previously sent the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into space in October 1957.

In the midst of these two pioneering moments for spaceflight, the young National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was preparing for the United States' own attempt at getting a human into space; a feat it achieved later in 1961 when astronaut Alan Shepard reached space in the Freedom 7 spacecraft.

Historians dub this period of history the "space race"—a time in which the two world powers rushed to advance their space capabilities.

For the U.S., Gagarin's flight proved to be a humbling moment for NASA. Brian Odom, acting chief historian at NASA, told Newsweek the reaction to it at the time was mixed.

"While many in the U.S. continued to push for the gradual, measured approach to the space program, others saw the feat as another example that the U.S. space program was falling behind what appeared to be a more technologically advanced Soviet program.

"Coming just over three years after the shock of Sputnik 1, Gagarin's spaceflight placed pressure on President John F. Kennedy to figure out areas in which the U.S. could see successes."

For U.S. officials, this area was the Moon, and in the same year that Gagarin conducted the first human spaceflight, Kennedy announced that NASA would try and put a man on the Moon before the decade was out.

Were it not for Gagarin's spaceflight, Odom said, the political will to finance the Apollo program may never have materialized.

"It is highly likely that without the embarrassment of Gagarin's successful flight, President Kennedy would not have committed the resources necessary for the Apollo program," he said.

"Yuri Gagarin's courageous mission on April 12, 1961 opened a new era in the exploration of space. Historic firsts are usually the most well-remembered. But I think Gagarin's legacy is more than that.

"He ushered in an era of human space exploration that unfolded over the 60 years since, including 30 years of the space shuttle program, and continues to this day with NASA's Commercial Crew program, the International Space Station, and the Artemis program."

Correction 9:30 a.m. EDT 02/07/21: This article previously stated that NASA astronaut John Glenn was the first American to reach space in 1962.

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Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin arrives in London for a Russian trade fair. Gagarin was the first man to travel in space. Douglas Miller/Getty Images