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The BBC's Robert Parsons
"A Soviet icon in a land of icons"
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Thursday, 12 April, 2001, 09:26 GMT 10:26 UK
Russia remembers space hero

Yuri Gagarin about to become the world's first spaceman
Forty years ago on Thursday, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. As celebrations begin in Russia, BBC News Online's science editor Dr David Whitehouse looks back at the historic mission.

At sunrise on 12 April 1961 an elderly woman walked to the small wooden hut that was her home.

It had been taken over the previous night by military officials and doctors. Inside two young men were being woken. One was 27-year-old Yuri Gagarin.

She brought some yellow tulips for him. He reminded her of her son, also a pilot, who had been killed in the war.

Gagarin had been in training as a cosmonaut for just a year and 29 days, but for only the last two of them had he known he would be the first man in space.

The most famous man in the world
For the hard-pressed Soviet people he would be a symbol of what the system could achieve, for if he could become the most famous man in the world, then surely communism worked.

'Off we go'

Gagarin was born to humble folk and his boyhood had been cut short by the war. He used to break open flares for the ink, sell shells as scrap for sweet money and walk barefoot to school.

The film of the lift-off was first seen in the West seven years later, and shows the rocket's shadow moving across the flat steppe of Kazakhstan. "Off we go," shouted Gagarin.

At 5:30am Radio Moscow announced the news, and from then on the name of Gagarin was on everyone's lips.

A celebrity...
In the United States, President Kennedy organised a press conference.

The US would not try to match the Soviets' achievements in space, he said, choosing "other areas where we can be first and which will bring more long-range benefits to mankind".

It was a policy he would soon abandon.

For what Gagarin had done exposed a deep fear in US society about the brooding potential behind the Iron Curtain.


The day after his flight, the Washington Post called for a wartime mobilisation to beat the Soviets.

Already, some developing countries were saying the Soviet success in space pointed to the superiority of the communist system.

Gagarin had become the USSR's premier ambassador and was sent on a world tour.

He had, indeed, become the most famous man in the world and was far too valuable to the USSR to fly in space again.

..and hero of the USSR.
But in time he would become frustrated by the confines of his celebrity and later indulged in the "western decadence" it offered, frequently drinking himself to oblivion.

Yet Gagarin was someone of whom the Soviet Union, and the world, could be genuinely proud.

Likeable and modest, he charmed the world. He and other space successes allowed the USSR to take its place in the league of modern nations - for a while at least.

If the USSR felt that its space achievements in the 1960s were a vindication of its system, it was to be disillusioned in the 1970s after it lost the race to the moon to the Americans.

The USSR also had plans to go to the moon and at one time Gagarin, desperate to make a second spaceflight, was suggested as the back-up for the mission to land a cosmonaut on the moon.

Had the mission gone ahead, the temptation to put him there would have been almost irresistible.

But while he was training to go into space again in 1968, he was killed in a plane crash that was never fully explained. He was 34.

Looking back

On the 40th anniversary of his flight, Russians can look back with pride - but also reflect how times have changed.

Gagarin's shy smile, which once adorned the walls of the Mir space station, comes from the era of a command economy in which space was to serve the military and boost national prestige.

Cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyov recently said: "Entire mankind stood to gain from Gagarin's breakthrough in space, as it brought all the people of the planet closer together."

Now Russia has a struggling market economy in which space must argue its case, line-up with other priorities and accept its defeats.

What do you think the next 40 years will hold for space exploration? BBC News Online's science editor David Whitehouse has answered you questions. Click here for the transcript.

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23 Mar 01 | Sci/Tech
Mir falls to Earth
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