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Fifty years of manned space flight

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Tuesday 12 April 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight. On 12 April 1961, at 9.07am Moscow time, Yuri Alexayevich Gagarin blasted off in the Vostok-1 spacecraft from the launch site at Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

By 10.12am the Soviet news agency TASS was announcing to the world the news of the first man in space. At 11.05am the Vostok-1 capsule landed near Saratov, and 10 minutes later Gagarin landed by parachute.

Gagarin was fêted at home as a hero of the Cold War. But he also achieved celebrity status in the west. Just three months after his historic mission he visited Manchester at the invitation of the Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers.

The visit developed into a tour, and Gagarin was introduced to Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, as well as being invited to lunch with the Queen and Prince Philip.

Now, 50 years on, the unlikely UK visit is to be commemorated by the erection of a permanent statue on London’s Mall. It will be the capital’s first statue of a Soviet era Russian, and is part of the year-long celebration known as “YuriGagarin50”.

Despite Gagarin’s hero status, the Soviet authorities regarded him as a danger to himself and the state. When he died in a plane crash near Moscow on 27 March 1968, details of his death were shrouded in mystery because of the Soviet propaganda machine. His family was left believing that his death was an assassination, but recently uncovered evidence suggests it was due to simple air traffic control error.

Russian space scientists are hoping that interest caused by this year of Gagarin celebrations may result in an increase in funding in the Russian space programme, which was largely overlooked in President Medvedev’s recent modernisation announcements.

They point out that past research into space travel has led to advances in many scientific fields, particularly involving medicine and psychological studies, and that these discoveries have found important applications not only in space but on earth too.

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