Yuri Gagarin was born on a Russian collective farm in Klushino, in the region now known as Smolensk Oblast, on 9 March 1934. The third of four children, Yuri's elder sister helped raise him while his parents were working. Like millions in the Soviet Union during World War II, the family suffered during the Nazi occupation.

In his youth Gagarin developed an interest in space. After working in a foundry, he was selected for a technical school where he joined the flying club and learnt to fly a small plane. After graduating, he joined the air force and qualified as a jet pilot.

While always interested in sport and keeping a high level of fitness, Gagarin's 1.57 m (5 ft 2 in) height gave him a significant advantage as a cosmonaut due to the Vostok's small capsule and in 1960 he was selected as one of 20 cosmonauts for the Soviet space programme. The following year Gagarin was selected to fly the first Vostok mission due to his performance, fitness, size and psychological stability.

After his historic flight, Gagarin became a worldwide celebrity. On the 27 March 1968, while re-qualifying as a fighter pilot, Gagarin and his instructor died in a crash.