“The feeling of weightlessness was somewhat unfamiliar compared with Earth conditions. Here, you feel as if you were hanging in a horizontal position in straps. You feel as if you are suspended.” – Yuri Gagarin on being the first human in space

On April 12, 1961, a Russian cosmonaut named Yuri Gagarin made space history when he became the first human being to blast off into space, aboard a bell-shaped capsule known as Voystok 1.

In 108 minutes, he circled the Earth, passing over the Pacific Ocean, the Straits of Magellan, the Atlantic and Africa before Voystok 1 reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and landed near Engels, Russia.

Gagarin became a national hero overnight, and his untimely death seven years later while piloting a MiG-15 fighter jet during a routine training flight was a national tragedy in the Soviet Union. But Gagarin’s status as a hero now transcends Mother Russia: “Yuri’s Night” is a global Webcast celebration, held each year on April 12 in his honor.

BIG PIC GALLERY: Yuri’s Night 2010

And this year, there is an extra-special twist in honor of the 50th anniversary of that historic flight. “Yuri’s Night” 2011 will feature the world premiere — on YouTube, no less — of an experimental documentary film called First Orbit, by Chris Riley, co-director of In the Shadow of the Moon. Done in collaboration with the European Space Agency, First Orbit was shot aboard the International Space Station by ISS Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli, who is an accomplished space photographer as well as an astronaut.

See, while we have audio of Gagarin’s reaction as he viewed Earth from orbit, the cosmonaut didn’t take any video footage. Riley and Nespoli sought to rectify that: Nespoli carefully recreated the same view that Gagarin would have had, at the same time of day — as much as possible, anyway.

Even better: Riley made the film for free, which means he doesn’t have to recoup any costs. So we can all tune in for the world premiere, since he’s giving away his film “for all mankind.” Tune into YouTube when the clock strikes midnight at the International Date Line — or you can catch one of the many rebroadcasts as “Yuri’s Night” is celebrated at events around the world.

“First Orbit” is now live:

Image credit: NASA