Yuri Gagarin was chosen because he had a more Russian sounding name versus his competitor, Titov. Also, Titov was considered smarter so they wanted to have the smarter man live in case something went wrong. There are other factors that played into it as well, such as Gagarin’s ability to show off his “Sovietness,” and his natural PR skills. His physical appearance was far behind on the list of reasons he was chosen.
A photographer waited for the ISS to sync up with Gagarin flight at the right place and time of day and recorded the earth then synced it up with the actual audio (NASA has combined Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s audio from his historic flight with 1080p HD video from the ISS to simulate what Yuri experienced):
The Soviet space program accomplished great things:
- 1957: First satellite, Sputnik 1
- 1957: First animal in Earth orbit, the dog Laika on Sputnik 2
- 1959: First rocket ignition in Earth orbit, first man-made object to escape Earth’s gravity, Luna 1
- 1959: First data communications, or telemetry, to and from outer space, Luna 1.
- 1959: First man-made object to pass near the Moon, first man-made object in Heliocentric orbit, Luna 1
- 1959: First probe to impact the Moon, Luna 2
- 1959: First images of the moon’s far side, Luna 3
- 1960: First animals to safely return from Earth orbit, the dogs Belka and Strelka on Sputnik 5.
- 1961: First probe launched to Venus, Venera 1
- 1961: First person in space (International definition) and in Earth orbit, Yuri Gagarin on Vostok 1, Vostok program
- 1961: First person to spend over 24 hours in space Gherman Titov, Vostok 2 (also first person to sleep in space).
- 1962: First dual manned spaceflight, Vostok 3 and Vostok 4
- 1962: First probe launched to Mars, Mars 1
- 1963: First woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, Vostok 6
- 1964: First multi-person crew (3), Voskhod 1
- 1965: First extra-vehicular activity (EVA), by Aleksei Leonov, Voskhod 2
- 1965: First probe to hit another planet of the Solar system (Venus), Venera 3
- 1966: First probe to make a soft landing on and transmit from the surface of the moon, Luna 9
- 1966: First probe in lunar orbit, Luna 10
- 1967: First unmanned rendezvous and docking, Cosmos 186/Cosmos 188.
- 1968: First living beings to reach the Moon (circumlunar flights) and return unharmed to Earth, Russian tortoises on Zond 5
- 1969: First docking between two manned craft in Earth orbit and exchange of crews, Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5
- 1970: First soil samples automatically extracted and returned to Earth from another celestial body, Luna 16
- 1970: First robotic space rover, Lunokhod 1 on the Moon.
- 1970: First data received from the surface of another planet of the Solar system (Venus), Venera 7
- 1971: First space station, Salyut 1
- 1971: First probe to impact the surface of Mars, Mars 2
- 1971: First probe to land on Mars, Mars 3
- 1975: First probe to orbit Venus, to make soft landing on Venus, first photos from surface of Venus, Venera 9
- 1980: First Hispanic and Black person in space, Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez on Soyuz 38
- 1984: First woman to walk in space, Svetlana Savitskaya (Salyut 7 space station)
- 1986: First crew to visit two separate space stations (Mir and Salyut 7)
- 1986: First probes to deploy robotic balloons into Venus atmosphere and to return pictures of a comet during close flyby Vega 1, Vega 2
- 1986: First permanently manned space station, Mir, 1986–2001, with permanent presence on board (1989–1999)
- 1987: First crew to spend over one year in space, Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov on board of Soyuz TM-4 – Mir
The Soviet space program did face major problems in the 1960s. Their chief designer Sergei Korolev died in 1966 if I remember correctly and there was no similar genius to replace him. The Soviet N1 rocket which was supposed to be the equivalent to the Saturn V (the US moon rocket) never worked correctly and was a disaster. Because of the failure of the N1 the Soviets did not develop a rocket capable enough to deliver payloads beyond low orbit fast enough to catch up with the Apollo program. So, after 1969, the Soviets went a different way with their permanent space stations and were quite successful with it, more than the US.
The Soviets continued to send probes that landed on the surface of Mars and Venus. (You should look up the Vega program. They actually floated balloons in the atmosphere of Venus.) The USSR was the only country to operate semi-permanent space stations in near Earth orbit for decades, until the ISS was launched. Even today, they only way to send a person to the ISS is by using a Soviet/Russian designed Soyuz craft.
I highly recommend Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin for more information. There’s also been a wealth of declassified documents released from the former soviet archives in Russia regarding its space program.
Here’s a couple of pages from the book; (the one with Korolev is my favorite.):
And here are some more good sources and links. I find that a lot of Soviet stuff on some select English based media sites have a bad spin on it in their use of word-choices etc so I avoided the sensational sites and went for the more non-biased English ones or space expo ones.
This is a great documentary about lives of Soviet cosmonauts during that era:
A similar instance in USA history would be the Apollo 1.
Like Komarov, the astronauts of Apollo 1 also knew about how bad, unsafe, and grim their chances were. One of the photos down the page show them half-jokingly praying to a model of the Apollo 1. However, unlike Komarov, the Apollo 1 never made it past the atmosphere . It blew up due to cabin fire during a rehersal.
These were brave men. No matter ideology, nation, or time. They were men who dreamed about humanity amongst the stars. They went where no man set foot – some only in dream – and sprung humanity to the edges of our world. They were representatives, human representatives, of our pale blue dot.
May these brave representatives of our planet, rest in peace.
(While some Soviet space posters are outright political propaganda (socialism is our launchpad, sons of the revolution, etc.), most of them seem to be projecting a pride in the very real achievements of their space program and in/for the workers who built it, and to raise excitement about the space program. Most of the posters also don’t explicitly strike a contrast between the USSR and its rivals.)
*The United States also used propaganda to justify going to the moon… JFK basically told the american public that those dirty communists would use space to launch weapons at the US, so the US had to get there first.
“Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. ” – JFK
Propaganda posters of Soviet space program 1958-1963:
V. Viktorov, Moscow, 1957.