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Yuri Gagarin: 50th anniversary of the first man in space

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June 1, 1960 shows Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin posing with his wife Valentina and daughter Yelena on the bank of the Klyazma River in central Russian Vladimir region Photo: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

In the West, memories of the Space Race are dominated by Neil Armstrong and Apollo. But in Russia, it is the cult of Gagarin that rules, says Richard Orange.

It was only once dawn broke on the icy steppe that the small, shivering crowd could clearly make out the grinning face of Yuri Gagarin. Fifty years, almost to the day, after the Soviet cosmonaut became the first human being to travel into space, an image from the day of the launch had been painted onto the hulking Soyuz rocket, which was being tugged across the plain by an ageing diesel train. As the rocket was winched into its launch position, the face swivelled upright. Alongside it was the word “Poyekali”, or “Let’s go”, Gagarin’s final statement before he was launched into history.

In the West, memories of the Space Race are dominated by Neil Armstrong and Apollo. But in Russia, it is the cult of Gagarin that rules. Last Thursday, prime minister Vladimir Putin visited Gagarin’s hometown near Moscow, and tonight he hosts a glittering party at the Kremlin. In Baikonur – the Russian space agency’s launch station, now rented from the Kazakh government – there will be a star-studded reception, for which many former cosmonauts have been flown in from Moscow, and a concert in the city’s main stadium.

According to Andrea Rose, a director of the British Council who is behind plans to erect a statue of Gagarin in London, this veneration is because Gagarin is “the one untarnished figure from the Soviet era”. And partly, it is because of the historical nature of his accomplishment. “I truly believe on that day… humanity became a different species,” says Ron Garan, a Nasa astronaut and one of the crew of last Tuesday’s Soyuz. “We were no longer confined to the boundaries of the earth.”

To commemorate the 1961 anniversary, the Russian space agency went all out for Garan’s launch, given that he and his two Russian companions would be the last humans to head into space before April 12. As well as the painting, the rocket was renamed “Gagarin”. For a launchpad, they chose “Gagarin’s Start”, where his epic journey began.

The strange thing, however, is that they need hardly have bothered. At Baikonur, it is impossible to escape the cosmonaut's legacy: for every Soyuz launch, a complex cult of Gagarin dictates almost every detail of the preparations.

Read more at:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/8443777/Yuri-Gagarin-50th-anniversary-of-the-first-man-in-space.html

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