Russia celebrates Gagarin's conquest of space
Russia on Tuesday marked a half century since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, the greatest victory of Soviet science which expanded human horizons and still remembered by Russians as their finest hour.
President Dmitry Medvedev hosted a glittering Kremlin reception that brought together legendary cosmonauts and astronauts with the rarely seen widow of Gagarin, and pledged that space exploration would remain a priority for modern Russia.
"Fifty years ago, Yuri Gagarin opened a new era in human history," Medvedev said as Gagarin's widow Valentina Gagarina looked on along with their two daughters.
"At the time, this was the greatest triumph of our country. And this is still felt today by a huge number of people here and around the world," the Russian president added.
At 9:07 am Moscow time on April 12, 1961 Gagarin uttered the famous words "Let's go" as the Vostok rocket, with him squeezed into a tiny capsule at the top, blasted off from the south of the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.
After a voyage lasting just 108 minutes that granted the 27-year-old carpenter's son historical immortality, Gagarin ejected from his capsule and parachuted down into a field in the Saratov region of central Russia.
From that moment on, his life, and the course of modern space exploration, would never be the same again.
With Gagarin's flight, the Soviet Union scored its greatest propaganda victory over the United States, spurring its Cold War foe to eventually retake the lead in the space race by putting men on the moon in 1969.
But in contrast to the tense battle of the 1960s, space is increasingly a matter of international cooperation with the orbiting International Space Station a joint effort between Russia, the United States and other partners.
Medvedev, in a live link-up with the ISS crew at mission control outside Moscow, earlier emphasised that space exploration remained a top priority for Russia even after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"We were the first in space, we obtained a lot of success and we do not want to lose our advances," Medvedev said.
"Humanity will continue to invest in space. I want to say, in the name of Russia, that we will of course do this as space is a priority for us," he added.
Across Russia, people laid flowers at memorials to Gagarin, including the famous 40-metre-high (130-feet) titanium monument in Moscow and the memorial in the Saratov region that marks the spot where he landed.
State television firmly pressed the 1960s nostalgia button, showing grainy footage of Gagarin in his capsule minutes before the flight and his ensuing tour around the world where he met luminaries including the British Queen.
But although Russia will this year take full responsibility for ferrying astronauts to the ISS when the US shuttles are retired, its space programme has seen its share of problems in the run-up to the anniversary.
Three navigation satellites crashed into the ocean after launch, the latest launch for the ISS was delayed by a week due to a technical problem, and the government has already said that space agency chief Anatoly Perminov is on the way out.
But Medvedev told his Kremlin audience -- who included the first man to walk in space Alexei Leonov and the first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova -- that there was no doubt of Russia's commitment to space flight.
"Today we have no doubt that without space we have no future," he said. "And even if our ideas have become more pragmatic, we did not change ideology.
As well as the heroism of Gagarin, Russia is also remembering the genius of the man who created the rocket that put him into space and masterminded the flight -- chief Soviet rocket engineer Sergei Korolev.
One of the most remarkable figures in the history of space travel, Korolev survived being sent to the Gulag under Stalin to become a figure of such importance his role was only disclosed after his death in 1966.
The anniversary has also prompted a release of information from Russia about the most mysterious aspects of Gagarin's life, most notably his still unsolved death in a plane crash in 1968.
Declassified documents released last week said his jet likely manoeuvred sharply to avoid a weather balloon, prompting it to crash in a region outside Moscow and killing Gagarin and instructor Vladimir Seryogin.
Former Soviet space workers have also recalled how all those involved in the flight were forced by the Soviet Union to lie for years that he had landed in his capsule and not by parachute as was really the case.
This was because they feared the orbit would not be counted as valid by the international organisation monitoring spaceflight.
© 2011 AFP