Americans sometimes like to think that they have a monopoly on space exploration, and it's true that they are the only ones who have been to the Moon, and they have the biggest and - whatever you might thing of NASA - the best exploration program (although there are many other countries with solid space programs).
However, while the Americans might have done things better in the long run, they didn't always do things first. Forty-five years ago today, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the "Columbus of the Cosmos", became the first human being to "boldly go where no-one had gone before" - into space.
Gagarin, who left the Earth a lowly Senior Lieutenant, and returned as a Major (he was promoted while he was up there) and a national hero, blasted off in Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961, orbited Earth once, in 108 minutes, and returned unharmed, ejecting from the Vostok capsule 7 km above the ground and descending separately to the ground (the capsule's parachute landing was too rough for cosmonauts to risk).
These days, orbiting the Earth once might not seem like much, which shows you how far we have advanced in such a short period of time, but in 1961 it was by no means certain that Gagarin was going to come back alive (three press releases were prepared - one for a successful flight, and two if it failed). Gagarin was a man of action, and courage - his first words after lift-off were, ""Poyekhali," or "Off we go!" which, as James Oberg noted, perfectly epitomized the adventure not only Gagarin, but all of us, were embarking on. His achievement, and that of the Soviet space program, was a triumph of human engineering and will.
Alas, as seems to often be the case, the aftermath of this one bright, shining moment did not measure up to the moment itself. Gagarin became world-famous, but had trouble adjusting to his new-found celebrity. He developed a drinking problem, and had marital difficulties. He never returned to space. He was killed in a plane crash on March 27, 1968, while working to re-qualify as a fighter pilot. He was just 34 years old.
In short, the rest of Yuri Gagarin's story did not live up to his achievement on April 12, 1961. But then it didn't have to - Gagarin had already made his unique mark. In the end, we remember not the tragedies of Gagarin's short life, but the courage and determination of the man who ushered in a new age in the history of the human race.
And we will never forget his words upon reaching orbit:
"I see Earth - it is so beautiful."