First man in space 50 years ago today – there’s an Australian connection

Australian Institute of Physics

Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on 12 April 1961, ramping up the Space Race.

To celebrate, a dozen events across Australia join over 340 ‘Yuri’s Night’ parties globally, with many events  showing First Orbit, a new film of Earth vistas shot from the International Space Station as it matched the original path of Gagarin’s spaceship.

Gagarin’s 108-minute orbit of the Earth, combined with the launch less than four years earlier of Sputnik, the first human object into space, excited an entire generation in space, science and engineering.

In the media frenzy that followed Yuri Gagarin was presented with a boomerang by Australian George Burchett, says Australian space archaeologist Dr Alice Gorman.

“Mr George Burchett presents Yuri Gagarin with a boomerang, on behalf of Australian peace workers with the hope that he and his fellow compatriots in their journeying to the stars will, like the boomerang, always return to Earth safely and to a world at peace.”

– Caption on a photo Dr Gorman found in the course of her research.

Burchett was in Moscow visiting his son, Wilfred Burchett who was one of just two western journalists to interview Gagarin face to face.

Dr Gorman says the flight was a milestone in the way people think about space.

“Before Yuri, no-one really knew whether humans could survive in space or return safely,” says Dr Gorman.

“His flight changed that and everyone grows up knowing that it is possible for humans to live in space.”

University of Adelaide astrophysicist Prof Roger Clay says although manned spaceflight isn’t the preferred option for space exploration because human life support systems are fragile and costly – it does attract students to the space sciences.

“The excitement of the idea of exploring the space frontier is overwhelming.“  Prof Clay says,

“Space science is crucial to the future of humanity but the romance is in going there oneself.”


  • ADELAIDE: First Orbit screening and Q&A with space experts including Dr Gorman and Prof Clay

Contact: Scott Foster on (08) 7389 5979 or

More details:

  • MELBOURNE: First Orbit screening and “Mars walk” simulation.

Contact: Naomi Mathers on (03) 9379 3456 or email:

More Details:

Other Yuri’s Night events, including ‘Space Beer’ tasting, rocket competitions, and space-themed parties can be found in the ‘Australia’ section of:

Available for comment:

Dr Alice Gorman – 0428 450 418
Space Archaeologist; lecturer of Archaeology, Flinders University (Adelaide)

Prof Roger Clay – (08) 8303 5046
Astrophysicist, High Energy Astrophysics Group – University of Adelaide

Media contact: Andrew Wight, 03 9398 1416; Niall Byrne, 0417 131 977.

Issued by Science in Public for the Australian Institute of Physics.