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Celebrating a star: 50 years since Gagarin’s spaceflight

Published time: April 12, 2011 04:27
Edited time: April 12, 2011 15:37

A monumental feat is being celebrated across the globe. Fifty years ago, on April 12, 1961, Yury Gagarin blasted off, orbited Earth and made history, becoming the first man in space.

­Before that day mankind could hardly imagine we would one day be able to stare down at our planet from above.

Baikonur cosmodrome witnessed the first-ever successful manned space flight. It was there that 50 years ago cosmonaut Yury Gagarin boarded his Vostok-1 capsule and was launched into space.

“I had the honor of taking the Vostok, a great spacecraft, to space first. I was very happy to have that honor. It was only the beginning”, said Gagarin a short while after the memorable flight.

But there was another man for whom April 12th was also the day his name shot to fame – another Yury Gagarin.

“My parents didn't know where I was serving. They only knew I had graduated from a pilots' academy and that the facility I was working at was top secret. When they heard that Yury Gagarin had been sent into space, they assumed it was me! Journalists came to our house to interview my parents but they knew nothing. I think they could have had a heart attack”, recollects Yury.

The two Yurys met in 1963. The lucky namesake ended up face to face with the cosmonaut and introduced himself. “Gagarin asked me what month I was born. I said, "March," and it seemed to me like he was going to collapse. I even stretched out my hands to hold him up. It turned out he was born in March as well!”

Among those who knew the cosmonaut in person and can tell his story from memory is Ada Kotovskaya, the doctor who prepared Gagarin for his first flight. She recalls that very day 50 years ago: “Gagarin looked more pale than usual. He was unsociable and quiet, which was not like him at all. He would answer by nodding or a short 'yes' to all questions. Sometimes he would start humming some tunes. This was a different Gagarin. We geared him up, and hugged. And I said, "Yury, everything will be fine." And he nodded back”.

As soon as Gagarin returned to Earth, he was a superstar, a 'hero' for his compatriots. Those who knew him admit they were not quite sure how to act around him. “We were playing volleyball when Gagarin and another guy approached us. We all moved away, embarrassed. He was very surprised. He said, ‘What's up? Let's play together?’ Those who played against him were giving way. Gagarin noticed this and was offended. He said, ‘Let's play fair, ok?’”, recollects Vitaly Bondarenko, the cosmonaut’s friend.

You would be hard-pressed to find someone who knew Gagarin and had a bad word to say…. after all, he was chosen not just for his abilities as a cosmonaut, but also for his demeanor and signature smile.

­Medvedev awards space stars

­The Russian president has visited Star City to congratulate the crew of the International Space Station, in a teleconference, for continuing what Gagarin started half a century ago.

Dmitry Medvedev saw for himself the specialist work that goes on at Star City mission control center, not far from Moscow.

The president also awarded a number of Russian and foreign cosmonauts and astronauts medals for remarkable achievements in the industry. Three of the cosmonauts, Russians Mikhail Kornienko, Aleksandr Skvortsov and Oleg Skripochka were awarded the title of the Hero of Russia – the highest military award, given for exceptional acts of courage in the country.

“I am sure a great future is reserved for cosmonautics. And I hope people all over the world will do their best to develop this sphere. On behalf of the Russian Federation I would like to assure we will certainly do our best”, concluded Medvedev.