Excerpt from "The Man Who Sold the Moon" by Cory Doctorow, part of the wonderful Hieroglyph story collection:
The Lost Cosmonaut Conspiracy theory holds that a certain number - two? three? - of Russian cosmonauts were killed before Gagarin's successful flight. They say when Gagarin got into the Vostok in 1961, he fully expected to die, but he got in anyway, and not because of the crack of a commissar's pistol. He boarded his death trap because it was his ticket into space. He had gone to what could almost certainly have been his death because of his belief in a better future. A place for humanity in the stars.
When you think of a hero, think of Gagarin, strapped into that capsule, the rumble of the jets below him, the mutter of the control tower in his headset, the heavy hand of acceleration hard upon his chest, pushing with increasing, bone-crushing force, the roar of the engines blotting out all sound. Think of him going straight to his death with a smile on his face, and think of him breaking through the atmosphere, the sudden weightlessness, the realization that he had survived. That he was the first human being to go to space.