Russia is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Yury Gagarin’s historic spaceflight.
With his 108-minute orbit of the Earth, Gagarin became the first man in space and an instant hero in the Soviet Union.
The event also kick-started the “space race” between the Soviet Union and the United States that shaped the Cold War era.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who is leading today’s celebrations, spoke in a television interview of the significance of Gagarin’s achievement.
“I believe it was a truly revolutionary event, a highly symbolic one,” he said. “It was a tremendous achievement of Soviet cosmonautics, which divided the world into ‘before’ and ‘after the flight’, what has been termed the ‘space era.'”
Medvedev also noted Gagarin’s flight “will be remembered as a fundamental landmark in the evolution of human genius” and that he was “proud of the fact that Russia took this first step.”
The president hosted a reception at Kremlin during which he gave medals to cosmonauts and astronauts from Europe, Japan, and the United States. Gagarin’s widow, Valentina Gagarina, was also present at the event together with her two daughters Galina and Yelena.
Thomas Stafford, the American astronaut who commanded the Apollo 10 lunar reconnaissance mission in 1969, paid tribute to Gagarin at the banquet and paid tribute by noting that without the Russian’s pioneering flight, the United States would not have reached the moon.
“This is a good day because today Yury Gagarin opened the way to space. Mr. President, I am sure that I would not have flown to the moon without Yury Alekseyevich’s flight,” Stafford said. “Yury Alekseyevich was a hero of the Soviet Union and of the whole world.”
Earlier in the day, Medvedev spoke of Russia’s future as a major power in space during a live link-up with astronauts on the International Space Station.
“I am convinced that manned space exploration has a giant future,” Medvedev said. “Mankind has invested and will invest its resources in the development of manned space exploration. On behalf of the Russian Federation, I would like to say that we will be definitely doing that as well, since space exploration is a priority.”
Later today, Medvedev will also give a keynote speech in the Kremlin in which he is expected to outline the future of the Russian space program. The president said that Russia still dreams of reaching other worlds in the future.
“We still cherish a hope that sometime in the future we will be able to conquer other planets, other stellar systems,” he said. “I don’t know how soon we will be able to achieve that, but I think that mankind will always try to follow these two approaches simultaneously — on the one hand, the dream of exploring outer space, and, on the other hand, a truly pragmatic approach to outer space, which may bring both scientific and practical benefits.”
Russia has in recent years been struggling to keep up with its proud tradition in space with the delay of its navigation system Glonass proving to be a particular embarrassment. Moscow will also need to replace its shuttle fleet, since the Soyuz capsules entered service in 1967.
Sergei Krikalev, head of Russia’s cosmonaut training center, has been critical of the lack of clear priorities and missions for the space agency and is calling for an ambitions lunar program to match both China and the United States.
“In five to 10 years, Russia could manage a manned moon mission,” Krikalev said.
Ahead of the jubilee, Russia honored Gagarin by naming a “Soyuz” spacecraft after him.
The occasion was also remembered in other parts of the world. The most famous statue in Brussels, the Manneken Pis, was today dressed up as a cosmonaut and the British Council announced that it would raise a 3.6-meter statue of Gagarin on the Mall in central London.
Moscow has also released secret archives about the mysterious death of the celebrated cosmonaut.
Persistent rumors have suggested that Gagarin was murdered on the orders of jealous or paranoid Soviet rulers, but the declassified documents said his jet likely maneuvered sharply to avoid a weather balloon, prompting it to crash in a region outside Moscow in 1968.
compiled from agency reports