Russians celebrate 60 years since historic Gagarin spaceflight

Anna SMOLCHENKO
·3-min read

Russia on Monday celebrated the 60th anniversary of the legendary flight that made Yuri Gagarin the first man in space, a major source of national pride for millions of his countrymen.

Russia's space industry has struggled in recent years and been hit by a series of mishaps, but the sending of the first human into space on April 12, 1961 remains a crowning achievement of the Soviet space programme.

President Vladimir Putin was to travel Monday to the southern city of Engels on the banks of the Volga River, to the site of the cosmonaut's landing where a memorial stands to honour the historic flight.

The day of Gagarin's flight is celebrated every year in Russia as Cosmonautics Day, and this year authorities are pulling out all the stops to mark the 60th anniversary, with museum exhibitions, round-the-clock television coverage and events across the country.

For Moscow commuters, Monday morning started with a broadcast on the Metro of the original report by state news agency TASS about the launch, followed by Gagarin's legendary words -- "Poekhali!" (Let's go) -- as his Vostok spacecraft lifted off.

In a message from the International Space Station, the four Russian cosmonauts on board saluted "all earthlings" and hailed their compatriot's accomplishment.

"Gagarin's legendary 108-minute flight became an example of heroism for his successors, including us," said cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky.

Vostok took off carrying the 27-year-old Gagarin from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, then part of the Soviet Union.

The flight lasted just 108 minutes, the time it took to complete one loop around the Earth, before returning to home soil.

The now-rusty Vostok capsule is on display at Moscow's Museum of Cosmonautics where a new exhibition dedicated to Gagarin is set to open on Tuesday.

- 'Name that everyone knows' -

Visitors will be shown documents, photos and personal belongings, some dating back to Gagarin's childhood and school years.

"This is probably the only surname that everyone knows, from four-year-old children to people over 80," Vyacheslav Klimentov, a historian and the museum's deputy director of research, told AFP.

"Gagarin's feat... bonds all Russians together."

On Friday, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft honouring the anniversary of Gagarin's flight blasted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome to deliver two Russians and a US astronaut to the ISS.

Gagarin's flight remains a symbol of the country's dominance in space during the Soviet era. Four years before Gagarin, the USSR had become the first country to send a satellite into orbit, called Sputnik.

But the anniversary also comes at a difficult time for Russia's space industry, which has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years, from corruption scandals to lost spacecraft to an aborted take-off during a manned mission in 2018.

Russia's ageing Soyuz rockets are reliable and allow Moscow to remain relevant in the modern space industry, but the country is struggling to innovate and keep up with other key players.

In a major blow, Russia last year lost its monopoly for manned ISS launches after reusable rockets from Elon Musk's Space X, carrying NASA astronauts, successfully docked at the space station.

In a video message released on Monday, the head of Russia's Roscosmos space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, stressed that the USSR sent a man into space despite having lost "colossal resources" during World War II.

Rogozin has set a series of ambitious goals for Roscosmos in recent years, despite funding cuts to the space programme.

He said Monday that Russia was "on the cusp of very important changes" that will see next-generation spacecraft and lunar missions.

"We believe in our space, in Russian space," he said.

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