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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.
Gagarin’s mission on April 12, 1961, marked a historic achievement for the Soviet Union, which beat the United States in a tight race to launch the first human into space.
The flight was limited to a single orbit because of questions about weightlessness, Gagarin was supposed to parachute out of the capsule on return because a soft-landing system was not ready yet.
In a letter to his wife, Valentina, Gagarin asked her to raise their daughters “not as little princesses, but as real people”, and to feel free to remarry if his mission proved fatal.
“Poyekhali!” (Off we go!), the cosmonaut shouted as he took off at 9:07am Moscow time on April 12, 1961.
The 27-year-old cosmonaut’s mission was fraught with drama: a break in data transmission, glitches involving antennae, a retrograde rocket, and the separation of modules.
But the flight went off safely, and Gagarin became a poster boy for the communist world and is still a national idol 53 years after his death in a jet training accident.
Gagarin bailed out as planned and parachuted onto a field near the Volga River about 720km (450 miles) southeast of Moscow.
He died on March 27, 1968, after the MiG-15 jet fighter he was flying crashed near the town of Novosyolovo.
There are statues of the cosmonaut across Russia, including in a field near the Volga River where Gagarin landed after his historic flight, and the site also bears a commemorative obelisk.
A theme park was set up there to mark the 60th anniversary of his flight.
Marianna Poberzhskaya, associate professor at Nottingham Trent University, said: “There is still a lasting memory of Gagarin in Russia, his legacy is very much still alive. It is one of the few positives from the Soviet era and it has many benefits to the nationalist identity. Over the years his memory has been commercialised in Russia, through souvenirs, TV shows and statues.”
A three-person crew embarked for the International Space Station on Friday (April 9), launching just three days shy of the 60th anniversary of the first human spaceflight.
Cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov of Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei lifted off aboard Russia’s Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft for a three-hour, two-orbit rendezvous with the space station. The Soyuz took flight at 3:42 a.m. EDT (0742 GMT or 12:42 p.m. local time) from Site 31/6 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, near where cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made history by becoming the first person to fly into space on April 12, 1961.
To honor the anniversary, the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft was christened the “Yu.A. Gagarin” and bore the name on its exterior insulation.
“It is a big honor for us to fly and celebrate the anniversary of the first flight into space,” said Novitskiy on Thursday (April 8), addressing the Russian state commission that approved the crew’s launch.
“For me,” added Dubrov, “it is a special honor to have my first flight on such an important date when we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the first flight into space.”
That the crew included an American underscored one of the key advancements made since Gagarin’s one-orbit Vostok mission, said Vande Hei.